Some years ago I made a rule for myself that I would not read or buy books about Indians unless they were about Blackfeet. This was to keep me from spreading out on a shallow sheet of generalizations or irrelevancies about Indians, which happens to too many people. But this book meant that I had to demote my “rule” to “advice.” “The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash between White and Native America” by Richard Kluger is about country I know as well as Montana because I grew up in Oregon. In fact, Montana was once part of the political category, though never really part of the ecological unit -- at least not the east side.
Medicine Creek is a place at the bottom of Puget Sound once inhabited by the Nisqually tribe. They were displaced by Isaac Stevens, a statue of whom stands on “Marias Pass” at the continental divide because he’s the one who identified the way through the Rockies that made the Great Northern high-line possible. This has been confused and disguised by the creation of Glacier National Park which is bordered on the south by the pass. So there is a Blackfeet connection after all.
Stevens was not a very nice guy and he did not like Indians, so it was a bitter day altogether when the United States negotiated the far more benign and intelligent governance of Hudson’s Bay out of what is now the Pacific Northwest. The British manager of Fort Nisqually, William F. Tolmie, had been like the “White-Headed Eagle”, Dr. John McLoughlin whom I was taught to venerate (though no one lingered on the fact of his Indian wife, whom he loved and had formally married). In fact, Tolmie remained in the area and resisted Stevens as much as he could.
The historical events in this book (mid-19th century) begin when Stevens -- directed by the US government to gather the Indians into the smallest and fewest reservations that he could -- assigned the Nisqually tribe to a couple of small stony islands in Puget Sound where there was no pasturage for their many horses or fertile ground for gardens. When the tribal leaders gathered, they were stunned. Leschi, Chief, refused to sign. “Signing” in those days consisted of making an x where the literate whites said your name was written. Since Leschi refused, Stevens or someone acting on his behalf, simply but secretly simply added the x.
Over the next two years the outraged Leschi and his small band of followers were on the run and on the campaign trail, trying to gather support to force a change. They went to the east side (similar to the dry side of Montana) where the tribes were wilder, more war-like, and less harassed by whites wanting their land. Their success was mixed. Sometimes those tribes were used to guard whites against them, esp. when Stevens went on his own campaign through the eastern part of the state. The situation amounted to war because the Nisqually nation WAS defined as a nation or a treaty would not be necessary.
Forces drawn into the situation included the Hudson’s Bay men, whose sympathies and sometimes protection were extended to Leschi’s side, partly because their wives were Indian; the US Army who found Stevens arrogant and overbearing, unwilling to negotiate; militia raised by Stevens when he imposed martial law; the judicial establishment whom Stevens attacked and evaded; vigilantes; and Ezra Meeker, frontiersman and historian -- plus other peace lovers and war lovers.
Long story short, Leschi was accused of murder, demonized, exonerated in one trial (“hung jury” -- irony in the term) and subjected to retrial in country friendlier to Stevens, and then hung. He was never proven to have fired the fatal shot, which was part of a war skirmish anyway. Evidence that tended to exonerate him was suppressed. The British Tolmie was Leschi’s interpreter in both trials. Meeker was one of the holdouts on the first jury that refused to convict.
Richard Kluger examines all the facts he could find, renders opinions and interpretations as fairly as he can, and then brings us up to date on the fate of the Nisqually who after many years of poverty appear to have made a recovery through the efforts of both Indians and whites, both men and a couple of remarkable tribal women. The tribe does have a “smoke shop,” and does have a casino (“Red Winds”) plus an ingenious business that does underwater scuba work, including the removal from the sound of destructive old lost fishing nets that entangle sea life. It was founded by a female diver, Cynthia Iyall, who had learned to hunt geoducks (giant clams) that way. The Nisqually were finally given more appropriate land and have reclaimed some of it to salt marsh for salmon spawning.
Kruger never mentions one of the hottest issues: since the tribe’s treaty was counterfeit, does it have a remaining legal claim to the ground under Sea-Tac airport? If he had brought this into the book, his book would never have seen print.
Native American treatment across this continent was rough, often unjust, full of dubious characters on both sides trying to throw events their way. What’s at stake is the reputation of the nation. If you think the events at Medicine Creek with its mix of contentious tribes and blundering authorities, its side tales about plural wives and loyal brothers, sounds very much like recent events in Afghanistan et al, you’d be absolutely right.
In the end (Kluger doesn’t tell us how much he was a part of this.) it was decided that it was impossible to exonerate Leschi in retrospect through the official courts, so an unofficial tribunal was convened to publicly reflect on the evidence and reach a morally binding conclusion. Kluger is a little disappointed that the verdict was brief, a simple statement of the opinion that Leschi was not guilty and should not have been convicted.
Isaac Stevens -- oh, how modern this sounds -- had made a lot of enemies but also created lots of “clients” in his years as governor, so he was finally gotten rid of by electing him to be senator. His wife was much relieved to move to Washington, D.C., which she considered to be civilization.
The rhetoric of this book is high-falutin’ and the information is sometimes detailed to the point of fatigue, but the clarity of the argument and the even-handed description of injustice and character failure make it a book worth reading and a benchmark to be met by subsequent analyses and attempts to get the general public to think and think again about the events that made this country possible.