Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Book of the Month: The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek

The book of the month for February is The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, by Richard Kluger

Here, in microcosm, is a sobering illustration of nearly everything that went wrong with the US treatment of America's First Nations people (aka "Indians") in the 19th Century. The Nisqually tribe of Washington State was systematically decimated by the policies of the US government for over 100 years, starting with the shameful and one-sided Treaty of Medicine Creek in December of 1854, and continuing with the death of Chief Leschi, the victim of what can only be described as a judicial lynching the next year.

The chief villain in this story was Washington's first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, who sadly comes off as a real asshole in the saga. Admittedly -- but this does not excuse his actions -- he was more or less a product of his time, an era when Manifest Destiny meant, at its core, carving a new life for white people out of the flesh of the Native Americans, but Stevens seems to have gone above and beyond the call of "duty" in his treatment of the "savages" of Western Washington who were, naturally and inconveniently, getting in the way of American expansion.

When Leschi complained that the Nisqually were being driven off their land and cruelly forced to live on a non-arable high bluff, from which they could see but could not approach their traditional salmon fishing waters, Stevens declared him an "enemy combatant" and did everything he could to crush Leschi and his followers. A year of skirmishing war ensued, with the ultimate and inevitable outcome that Leschi was tried twice and finally convicted -- on the flimsiest of evidence -- of murder and eventually hanged for his "sins".

Ironically, it was Stevens himself who elevated Leschi to the rank of "chief" -- the Nisqually, like so many other tribes, did not have hereditary leaders, nor did they have anyone who could have been remotely called "chief" in the white-man way of thinking. But Stevens identified Leschi as someone who had the innate abilities of a leader and, more importantly, someone he could manipulate.

Right on one count, wrong on the other. Turned out Leschi was a natural leader, but not the compliant one Stevens was looking for. A year of sometimes bitter skirmish war followed Medicine Creek, until the Washington Territory's official judiciary arm, after two trials, hanged Leschi.

This book is an immensely readable work on the legacy of Medicine Creek, as well as a capsule biography of Leschi, Stevens and a history of shameful treatment of the American Indian in general and the Nisqually tribe in particular.

[Full disclosure: I live about ten miles from the original, historical site of the treaty, and the cousin of a very close friend of mine is the tribal chairperson of the newly-rejuvenated Nisqually Tribe.]


charliebickle69 said...

Interesting!! I was raised in South Bay from prestate pioneer stock. In the 1950's my father would buy bull calves to raise for veal from the large dairy located in Nisqually. On every trip to Nisqually, as a young boy, I would beg my father to drive by and read the treaty monument. He always gave in time after time. It has been years since I have been there.

Unfortunity, this was the not the only raw deal, or unjustified killing experience by the native peoples of the NW.

FYI My grandmother traveled to Thurston county in a covered wagon using the Oregon Trail. My grandfather arrived via the "stern wheeler" Fleetwood after a train ride from NY to Vancover BC. I recall when Olympia phone numbers were prefaced "Fleetwood" rather than 352.

I regress.....sorry!

Farnsworth68 said...

Thanks cb. If you can remember "Fleetwood" then your roots go pretty deep in South Sound. You also must recall the pop trio The Fleetwoods who came out of Olympia in the late 50s, which, even before Sleater-Kinney established Olympia's claim to fame in the music world.
--The F Man

charliebickle69 said...

I rode the school bus with some of the Fleetwoods, before they were Fleetwoods, on the Slater-Kinney Road. lol
Dum Dum Dum De Dum Dum or something like that.

I enjoy reading your blog.