Tribal Nations of the Ohio River

Tribal Nations of the Ohio River

The word “Ohio” comes from the Seneca name for the Ohio River, Ohiyo, which means “it is beautiful.”

Native inhabitants of the Ohio River (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio,

Illinois and Indiana) included the Lenape, Erie, Shawnee, Munsee, Susquehannock,

Cherokee, Chickasaw, Yuchi, Tutelo/Saponi, Illini, Miami, Kickapoo, Wyndot, Wea, Eel

River, and the Seneca of the Haudenosaune (Iroquois) Confederacy.

The story of Native peoples along the Ohio River and within its bordering states is filled

with sadness, loss and devastation. Smallpox and other European diseases decimated

many of the Native peoples of the Ohio River – some nations experienced massive

illness before Europeans had even met them. During the Indian Removals of the 1800s,

many nations were forcibly uprooted and compelled to leave their homeland. They were

marched to Oklahoma and other “Indian” territories. Many of the original tribes of the

Ohio River live in Oklahoma today. A few tribes, like the Lenape, while not federally

recognized, remain in their original homelands and are working to renew their way of

life. Today, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians the only federally recognized tribe

in the 6 state region of the Ohio River.

While treaties made with the original inhabitants of the Ohio River were abrogated

unilaterally, and most Native peoples were murdered or moved out of the region, it is

important to remember that Indigenous peoples entered into treaties to ensure the survival

of future generations and protect the earth. Today, the treaties can still accomplish those


Treaty Rights

“Our right to water is an inherent right arising from our existence as Peoples and

includes a right of self-determination with the power to make decisions, based upon

our laws, customs, and traditional knowledge to sustain our waters for all life and

future generations.” – Ardith Macklem and Nicole Schabus, Indigenous Water Rights

One of the most important truths to remember is that Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island

(North America) were here occupying the lands, implementing their laws, and governing

themselves prior to contact with the settlers, and were never conquered by the settlers or

their imported governments. The treaties and the treaty making process (negotiated by

the Crown in Canada and the federal government in the U.S.) codify the sovereignty of

independent Indigenous Nations. Recent international resolutions affirm the distinct and

inherent cultural, spiritual, political and legal rights of Indigenous peoples and the right to


First Nations and Tribal Treaty Rights

Treaties are more than agreements; they are laws between two Sovereigns that specify

certain rights Indigenous peoples retained in exchange for ceding or consenting to share

land. In the United States, treaty rights safeguard cultural and sustenance practices not

only within the reservation boundaries, but also within the ceded territory. In Canada,

Indigenous peoples never ceded land. Instead, the treaties articulate how the land is to be

harmoniously shared between the newcomers and the original peoples; some land was not

to be shared and was ‘reserved’ specifically for Indigenous use.

The United States constitution explicitly states that treaties are the supreme law of the

land. And yet, each and every one of the 566 treaties made with Native Nations has been

unilaterally abrogated. In Canada, there is currently a deliberate effort to weaken treaty

rights and further violate the sovereignty of First Nations. Neither the United States nor

Canada can claim to be a Nation of Laws if they do not honor the treaties made with

Indigenous Nations.

Upholding treaty law is not only a means to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Treaties are also a way to protect the environment for all of us. Case precedent

demonstrates how Tribes have defeated mines and other polluting development

projects by asserting how these projects infringe on treaty rights and by establishing

environmental codes that prohibit excessive damage to air, water, and land. In Canada,

treaties are also the first line of defense against unsound development. The current

assimilation agenda of the government in Canada is a means to break down this defense

to gain further access to land, resources and the waters.

A key treaty rights victory in the US was the defeat of multi-national corporations

seeking to build a copper-zinc mine in northern Wisconsin. The battle to defeat the mine

waged for decades, but in the end, two tribes ended up purchasing the mine site and the

land and waters of this region are now protected. A new mining battle has erupted over a

proposed mine for the Penokee Hills, near the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin and

again, treaty rights are playing a pivotal legal role in resistance to this mine. The same is

true for sulphide mining proposals in northern Minnesota. Learn more about the Crandon

Mine victory at:

In Canada, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is asserting treaty rights as a legal strategy to

stop Tar Sands development in their territory. This is a precedent setting case. To learn

more, see:

Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign: Honor the Treaties, Protect the Earth

The Two Row Wampum is the historical record of the very first agreement made

between Europeans and Native Nations on Turtle Island. This treaty was made

with the Dutch is 1613 – four hundred years ago. To this day, the Haudenosaune

retain the Two Row Wampum belt on which the treaty was originally recorded.

The belt illustrates the covenant made by both parties to friendship, peace and

living in parallel in perpetuity. This treaty forms the basis for all subsequent treaty

relationships made by the Haudenosaune and other Native Nations with settler

governments on the continent.

The Onondaga Nation and Neighbors of the Onondaga (NOON) launched a campaign

to commemorate the 400th anniversary of this first treaty in 2013. This campaign

calls on all concerned human beings in North America to work for treaty justice with

Native peoples and environmental responsibility with our shared Earth.

Throughout the centuries, the Haudenosaunee have sought to honor the mutual

vision of the Two Row Wampum and have increasingly emphasized that ecological

stewardship is a fundamental prerequisite for this continuing friendship. It is now

time for the newcomers and those of settler descent to renew the commitments

made in this treaty and live by them.

For more information: