Last summer, in the midst of a roiling thunderstorm, my children and I visited the site of Custer's Last Stand in Montana. The dying ground there signifies one of the most notorious miscalculations in the United States' long and tragic history of dealings with the American Indians who first populated the North American continent.
Smaller scale demonstrations of racism and greed occurred in this region as well, and a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Kluger casts light on the harsh realities of the rampant land-theft-by-treaty that occurred throughout Western Washington 150 years ago.
“Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek” focuses on the impetus and tactics of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory, in persuading the tribes of the Puget Sound region to give over their homelands to the federal government.
Stevens was an ambitious man. In his first year as territorial governor, he worked to oust the Hudson’s Bay Co. from Puget Sound and to uproot local Indian villages wholesale, removing the inhabitants to small reservations that proved to be ill suited to sustaining their way of life.
Stevens’ attitude and actions were marked by impatience and condescension. Kluger characterizes the treaties Stevens presented, beginning with the one brought before the Nisqually people at Medicine Creek, as one-sided land grabs. With the help of sycophantic white settlers who stood to profit from the deal, Stevens extracted treaty signatures through deceit, coercion and possibly even forgery.
But one Nisqually man, Leschi, balked at the treaty terms.
The governor was incensed, and when he refused to consider Leschi’s objections, the Nisqually leader organized armed resistance.
The understaffed U.S. military counseled Stevens to take a cool-headed approach, but instead the wrathful governor put together a citizens’ militia to rout out the insubordinate natives. When one of the militia was killed in a skirmish with Leschi’s men, Stevens brought trumped-up murder charges against Leschi, never mind that retributive attacks by white militia members resulted in many times the number of deaths of innocent civilians than the resistance fighters had caused.
Ultimately, Leschi was apprehended, tried in a kangaroo court (the chief witness against him, a crony of Stevens , was also the foreman of the jury) and sentenced to death.
The injustice of the story stings 150 years later. Kluger’s aim in providing the particulars of this tragedy was to help readers conceive of the depth of the pain visited upon American Indians by white conquest. (For this reader, it provided poignant resonance for the recent shooting by a Seattle policeman of Indian woodcarver John T. Williams. The misunderstandings and mistrust continue.)
The book covers Leschi’s hanging, but it doesn’t end there. Instead, it goes on to tell the story of a top-level, quasi-judicial action in 2004 that exonerated Leschi at long last.
Then it discusses, at unnecessary length, the politics of the Nisqually Indian Tribe of today.
This account’s chief value is in its vivid illumination of an important but overlooked chapter in our region’s history.
You can contact Barbara Lloyd McMichael at email@example.com