One of the issues that quite often comes up when discussing Indians and the treaties they signed with the whites is whether they knew what they were signing. Obviously English written documents were a struggle for most Indians, but there is ample proof that this impediment did not extend to maps. In The Indian Boundary in the Southern Colonies 1763-1775, Louis De Vorsey, Jr. quotes Jean Baptiste Trudeau, a Frenchman, thus;
“Although the Indians have no more knowledge of geography than of the other sciences, they make delineations upon skins, as correctly as can be, of the countries with which they are acquainted. Nothing is wanting but the degrees of latitude and longitude. They mark the northern direction to the polar star, and conformably to that mark out the windings and turnings of the rivers, the lakes, marshes, mountains, woods, prairies and paths. They compute distances by day’s or half day’s journey.”1
De Vorsey goes on to add Thomas Pownall, a colonial governor, and William Bartram, a prominent diarist of the southern Indians, as confirming the extraordinary skill at maps and navigating of the Indians they encountered.
I believe this is a rich source of understanding of what was going on at treaty conferences and negotiations between land hungry whites and Indians. The Indians were not dupes who could be fooled by a few errant lines on a map. English words may have flummoxed them, but they knew the lay of the land in the midwest far better than the whites knew it. Rum and shady dealing may have weakened the Indians, but I have seen no evidence that the Indians did not understand the graphic representations of the land they were fighting for.
1 – De Vorsey, Jr., Louis (1966), THE INDIAN BOUNDARY IN THE SOUTHERN COLONIES, 1763-1775.
(The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill), pp. 46-47