Native American Indians in the Pacific Northwest are engaged in a struggle for their human, economic and civil rights that takes many forms. Every four years, for example, there are “paddles” in which tribes travel long distances in their dugouts for big, festive gatherings with much singing, dancing, story telling and feasting reminiscent of “potlatches” of centuries past.
Two summers ago, the Lower Elwha band of S’Klallams staged “Paddle to Elwha” in part to protest the desecration of their tribal burial site at the base of the Ediz Hook spit in Washington. This past summer, the tribe won a major victory when Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed an agreement with tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles on the disposition of the burial ground, which was badly damaged during excavation to build a giant facility for construction of bridge pontoons.
The heightened political activism dates back to the role of the tribes in defeating Washington state’s reactionary and virulently racist Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in 2002. Indians throughout Washington delivered a powerful vote for Democrat Maria Cantwell in that election, providing her razor-thin margin of victory over Gorton.
This report by Elizabeth Yates from Seattle offers valuable background on the history of similar struggles by the Nisqually, Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes in the Puget Sound region.
The story of how three Northwest states acquired much of their land includes a war, an execution and eviction. 2006 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of that war, with repercussions still felt today.
Before the Europeans arrived, the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast were among the few hunting and gathering societies in the world that produced wealth beyond that needed for subsistence, and built up a strong trading system. Salmon was the center of their livelihood and their diet, and on the land along the rivers where they had fished for generations, the focus of their cultural and spiritual life.
In 1853 Isaac Ingalls Stevens, appointed governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the new territory claimed by the U.S., was determined to get control of the land. The only language that was used to conduct treaty negotiations was Chinook jargon which contained about 300 words. Translators made mistakes, in some cases deliberately mistranslating, and provided limited information.
“In less than a year Gov. Stevens had made treaties with more than 17,000 Indians and in so doing had extinguished the Indian title to more than 200,000 square miles (64 million acres) of land now making up much of the territory of Washington, Idaho and Montana, leaving the Indian people with less than 6 million acres,” according to historians.
Chief Leschi of the Nisqually people, in present-day western Washington, strongly objected to this taking of their land, and this resistance led to the Puget Sound War of 1855-56 and ultimately to his execution on the orders of a kind of kangaroo court. And it led his people to a century of struggle under the new government. (In 2004 Leschi was exonerated through a Legislature-mandated Historical Court of Justice judicial review.)
In 1856, under new negotiations, the Nisqually and Puyallup lands became larger but still small, with some land on both sides of the Nisqually River. The U.S. and state governments originally wanted the native people to become farmers and, presumably, to “melt” into the new economic way of life. For people whose history and knowledge for centuries was bound to fishing, this radical course caused great hardship, “plus the prairie land did not cooperate,” said Cecelia Carpenter, Nisqually historian.
In 1917 came the second taking of their land by the U.S. Army, in order to build Fort Lewis. Those living on the north and west half were evicted in mid-winter, with no advance notice and no opportunity to line up other arrangements. So they scattered. Many disappeared and many died. In the 1920s the population of the tribe was reduced to about 40 people on the reservation. They continued fishing. One provision of the 1854 treaty was that they could continue to fish “in all their usual and accustomed places.”
The Washington state government over the years passed many contradictory laws regarding fishing. Controversy over interpretation of various laws and treaties, building of dams, growing competition with commercial and sports fishermen, and failure in the first place to consult with the true original experts on fish conservation led to environmental degradation.
In the late 1960s, “fish in” protests by the closely related Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Nisqually tribal members drew national attention and support. After 100 years, their struggles to retain treaty rights to fish culminated in 1974 in the Boldt decision. Federal Judge George H. Boldt’s ruling affirmed that Indian people had the right to fish off the reservation. Several tribes together soon established the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
With help from federal grants to implement the Boldt decision, and improved income, the Nisqually tribe began to establish legal services and an infrastructure. From a reservation of ten families with no electricity or running water or health care because promised treaty funds were never distributed, the situation began to change after 1977 as little by little they became able to buy back the land. The reservation, with a population of about 500, now covers more than 4,000 acres, north and west of Olympia, dedicated to reclaiming the land and experimenting with new crops.
Today the Nisquallys have a complete political and economic organization with social, legal, health and education services, enabling them to function as an independent entity and to take care of virtually all of their people’s needs, said Cynthia Iyall of the tribal planning commission.
The Nisqually salmon-recovery plan, developed in cooperation with others, is a key element and example for a broader plan under discussion to resuscitate the state salmon industry, thus helping to expand the economy of the state. In the Nisqually River watershed, between Tacoma and Olympia, there just 400 fish spawned a decade ago, about 2,600 did in 2004.
“It’s an ongoing battle to make sure your treaty rights and sovereignty are protected,” said Georgiana Kautz, natural resources manager for the tribe and tribal elder. “The state has come to recognize our ability, in cooperation with all the people of the state, to manage and protect our natural resources. The quality of life we are trying to protect benefits everybody.”