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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 7:10 PM

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Book review

'The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek': Western Washington's Indian wars

A review of Richard Kluger's "The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America." It reexamines the 19th-century Medicine Creek treaty, which ceded millions of acres of land around Puget Sound to white settlers and resulted in a bitter, bloody conflict between the forces of Nisqually Chief Leschi and territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens.

Special to The Seattle Times

'The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America'

By Richard Kluger

Knopf, 384 pp., $28.95

A 2004 headline in The Seattle Times announced, "Historic Nisqually chief exonerated." That was nearly 150 years after Leschi, the eloquent tribal spokesman and leader in the Puget Sound Indian War, was tried and hanged for murder. A 2004 "Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice," convened by the Washington Legislature and made up of prominent jurists, found that Leschi was unjustly charged and tried.

The white-native conflict in early Washington Territory has been covered in numerous books. Most are based on the somewhat biased writings of the time, including territorial records and the journals and letters of early settlers. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Kluger ("Seizing Destiny," "Simple Justice") takes a different approach — he relies nearly as much on the oral traditions of contemporary Nisqually people as on the historical record. It should be no surprise that his story shows considerable deference to the Native American point of view. Kluger re-examines the conflict, the ill-conceived, 1854-55 treaties that triggered it, and the key participants, white and native, who were swept up in the maelstrom.

Foremost among them were Leschi, the highly regarded headman of the Nisqually people, and Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, an ambitious military engineer newly arrived from Washington D.C. Stevens was smart, skilled and driven, graduating at the top of his class from West Point. Impatient with the pace of his military advancement, he turned to politics.

Stevens' top priority as governor was to extinguish Native American land claims and open the new territory to a swelling tide of settlers. Any resistance by what he called the "murderous Indian tribes in the West" would not be tolerated.

As Kluger illustrates in this well-researched and detailed account, Stevens pursued his charge with a passion.

The notorious Medicine Creek Treaty with the Nisqually, Puyallup, Muckleshoot and other tribes claimed 2.4 million acres for the United States, an area that includes much of today's Pierce, Lewis, Thurston and Mason counties. Stevens ordered that negotiations be carried out in Chinook, a limited trade jargon unsuited for complex discussions, and that proceedings be concluded in just two days.

The results were predictable. The tribes were granted three small reservations and the promise of future goods and services. Leschi's people were consigned to a rocky, forested coastal bluff well north of their traditional homes in the Nisqually River valley.

Kluger examines the currents and events leading to the conflict that followed, and the antagonistic role Stevens played in them. The author has no love for the governor, who he describes as "a stumpy princeling with a swagger." He draws a sharp distinction between the sympathetic British treatment of native people in the territory and the land-hungry "Bostons," the Chinook name for Americans. Hudson Bay Company factor William Tolmie learned Salish dialects, traded fairly and traveled extensively with Indians. He counted Leschi among his friends.

When Leschi traveled among the tribes arguing for resistance to the treaties, Stevens became incensed. Leschi, more orator than warrior, made numerous pleas over months for a fair and peaceful settlement before taking up arms. Stevens turned a deaf ear. Instead, writes Kluger, he "chose to view the violent resistance under Leschi's banner as an act of personal betrayal against a white dignitary ... not to be forgiven lightly — or at all."

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The stage was set for multiple tragedies.

Kruger exhausts the historic record and offers critical readings of numerous books about the time. (Territorial settler Ezra Meeker's memoir and Tolmie's writings — which both drew on interviews with native people involved in the conflict — offer rare sympathetic early sources.)

He also brings the Nisqually tribe's story up to date through the fight for treaty fishing rights of the 1970s and the hardships and triumphs that followed. Particularly inspiring is the Indian-led campaign that led to Leschi's 2004 exoneration.

There are other echoes of the present in Kruger's tale. Stevens imprisoned ethnic "noncombatants," thwarted the intelligence of the U.S. Army and declared any settler who remained on his claim during the war rather than relocate to protected blockhouses "an ally of the enemy [who] must be dealt with as such."

By focusing on one tribe's historic struggle, Kluger shines a light on our nation's deplorable treatment of its native people.

Tim McNulty's most recent book, co-authored with photographer David Woodcock, is "From the Air: Olympic Peninsula."

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