The theme of the 2016 Canoe Journey is Teqwu?ma?, “Don’t forget the water.” This year’s event, hosted by the Nisqually Tribe, will be abundant in reminders of Nisqually ties to the water – and the price paid to preserve those ties.
This was ground zero in the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ’70s, near the site where the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed, in which the United States agreed to honor The People’s right to fish in the waters that had always been a source of life for them. From the struggle to uphold those rights, from this place, came forth Billy Frank Jr. and the Boldt Decision and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and inspiration for Indigenous Peoples the world over to never give up fighting for what is right.
“The Nisqually have been an essential, active Indian nation since long before the intrusions that began in the early 1800s,” said Hank Adams, Sioux-Assiniboine, who worked alongside Billy Frank Jr. during the Fish Wars.
The Nisqually Tribe hosts the 25th Canoe Journey July 30 – August 6. Here are some things you should know about the dxwsqwali?abs, the People of the River, People of the Grass.
Fishing people: According to Nisqually history, the Squalli-absch – ancestors of the modern Nisqually Tribe – came north from the Great Basin 10,000 years ago, crossed the Cascade Mountain range and established their first village in a basin now known as Skate Creek, just outside the Nisqually River watershed’s southern boundary. Later, a major village would be located near the Mashel River.
“We were a fishing people, living off of the rich bounty of the river, and sustaining life for our home and environment,” the Nisqually Tribe website states.
Life began to change with the arrival of Europeans and Americans in the early 1800s, each staking a claim to the region’s rich resources. The Hudson’s Bay Co. established Fort Nisqually in 1833, but Great Britain ceded its claims to the United States in the Treaty of Oregon in 1846. The U.S. signed a treaty with Nisqually in 1854 at Medicine Creek to make land available for non-Natives.
“Forced to compromise its interests and rights over the years, the tribe has always sought to maintain its integrity and dignity,” the Nisqually website states.
Treaty of Medicine Creek: Fifty-nine leaders of south Puget Sound indigenous nations, among them the Nisqually, Puyallup and Steilacoom, signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek on December 26, 1854. The leaders ceded lands from the south Puget Sound region to the summit of the Cascade Mountains – some 2.24 million acres – to the United States, making land available for non-Natives.
In the treaty, the leaders reserved land areas for themselves and their descendants; the right to fish, gather and hunt “at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations”; and other considerations.
Those land areas today are known as the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin reservations. But the question of land and resource rights was only beginning …
Battle for the land: The Puget Sound War of 1855-56, between the U.S. and the Native Nations, began when indigenous leaders found that the reservation boundaries excluded some of the most fertile lands. On the U.S. side of the war were the 9th U.S. Infantry, 3rd U.S. Artillery, 4th U.S. Infantry, the USS Decatur, and Washington and Oregon militias. On the Native Nations’ side were forces from Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Klickitat.
The Nisqually leader Leschi, suspected in the battle death of an American soldier, was arrested by the U.S., tried for murder and hanged. He was exonerated in 2004 by a court which ruled “as a legal combatant … Leschi should not have been held accountable under law for the death of an enemy soldier.”
Cynthia Iyall, a former Nisqually chairwoman and Leschi descendant, explained the importance of her ancestor’s exoneration in a bio by the Washington State History Museum: Leschi “was known for his intelligence, for being a good father and husband and for being a man of great leadership” who fought so that his people would retain their heritage. “It is important to have Leschi portrayed correctly so that the future, our children, have a true sense of where they come from. They should inherit and feel the strength, pride, tenacity and intelligence that Leschi left us.”
The Army moves in: The Nisqually Reservation was initially 1,280 acres. It was enlarged by executive order in 1856 to 4,717 acres on both sides of the Nisqually River. “In the winter of 1917 the U.S. Army moved onto Nisqually lands and ordered them from their homes without any warning,” according to the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs. “Later on, the army condemned 3,353 acres of their land to expand the Fort Lewis base. The Nisqually were paid $75,840 for land and improvements. Then on April 28, 1924 they were awarded $85,000.”
Today, the Nisqually Reservation is 2.7 square miles, or 1,728 acres, although the Nisqually Tribe maintains certain rights throughout its historical territory and, with the state, is a co-manager of the state’s salmon fisheries and habitat.
One of the region’s last great prairies: The prairies of south Puget Sound once covered approximately 160,000 acres. Today, an estimated 23,000 acres of native prairie remain – 20,000 of it on historically Nisqually land within Joint Base Lewis McChord. Historically, this prairie was maintained by the Nisqually people. Camas, a traditional food plant, was so abundant here that the 1806 explorer Meriwether Lewis took, at first glance, the fields of blue flowers to be “lakes of fine clear water.”
Today, the prairie supports “a rich array of native birds, flowers and butterflies, some of which are found nowhere else in the state or the world,” according to the base public works website. The prairie is open to the public.
Nisqually National Wildlife Reserve: This 4,500-acre refuge was created in 1974 to protect the diverse fish and wildlife that call the Nisqually River Delta home. Myriad bird species, harbor seals, otters, salmon, and many other animals live in these expansive tideflats.
Congress renamed the refuge the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in 2015, after the late environmental warrior and defender of human rights.
“When visitors come to the wildlife refuge, I want them to sense the spirit of Billy Frank Jr. and the work of all of the tribes to defend and preserve our beautiful land and resources,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, sponsor of the legislation to rename the refuge. “Without that context, the background and history of our area gets lost. This is a way to preserve not just the refuge, but the stories surrounding it.”
Adams said of the wildlife refuge: “It’s a high honor to have that named for him. When we look out here and see Mount Rainier, where the Nisqually River and other glacial rivers begin, it’s a connection point between his life and the marine life and the plant life. Hopefully, things will happen in time that things will be brought back – the salmon and the killer whales and the depleted flora and fauna.”
Medicine Creek Treaty Ceremony. Much was lost in the Treaty of Medicine Creek – 2.24 million acres. But much was saved by the ancestors: land on which the People had exclusive rights; preservation of the People’s right to harvest fish and shellfish and to hunt “at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations” in their historical territory; and a guarantee of education and medical care as part of the payment for the land that was ceded.
Article IV of the U.S. Constitution states that all treaties “are the supreme law of the land.” Later court ruling upholding the treaty rights to fish established the Nisqually Tribe as a co-manager of the state’s fisheries, with input on proposed actions that could affect fish habitat.
The Nisqually Tribe will host a Medicine Creek Treaty Ceremony during the Canoe Journey, according to Nisqually Tribal Council member Sheila McCloud, “not only to commemorate the treaty but to embrace and reaffirm the relationship between the Medicine Creek Treaty Tribes.”
Leading employer: The Nisqually Tribe is one of the largest employers in Thurston County, home of Olympia, the state capital. Nisqually Tribe enterprises include the Red Wind Casino, Nisqually Markets, Rez Mart, Nisqually Federal Services, Nisqually Public Safety Corrections Facility, and She-Nah-Nam Seafood.
The Nisqually Tribe also owns more than 200 acres within the Gateway Town Center development, in the Olympia suburb of Lacey. According to Nisqually Tribal Council member Hanford McCloud, the Nisqually Tribe is considering developing a convention and cultural center at the Gateway.
Today, a new generation of leaders is guiding economic development; a majority of the council is 40 or younger. Hanford McCloud said he is guided by the teachings of his late grandmother, Janet McCloud (1934-2003), a civil rights activist and treaty-rights defender prominent during the Fish Wars.
Notable Nisqually people: Cecelia Svinth Carpenter (1924-2010) authored more than 20 books on indigenous history, culture and treaty rights, including several about the Nisqually.
She served as Nisqually Tribe historian, chief consultant on Native history for a permanent exhibit of the Washington State Historical Society, and curator of the society’s “Remembering Medicine Creek” exhibit at the Washington State History Museum.
Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) was a leader in the fight to preserve treaty fishing rights. The decades-long battle against the state, which had sought to regulate Indian fisheries, led to the lawsuit U.S. vs. Washington. Federal Judge George Boldt’s decision upheld the First Peoples’ treaty right to fish. The decision also established the Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the state’s salmon and habitat.
Frank led the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission from 1977 – 2014. He posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Cynthia Iyall, chairwoman from 2006-2015, is a great-great-grandniece of Leschi. She was a key figure in the successful effort to win his exoneration.
Janet McCloud (1934-2003), treaty-rights defender and civil rights activist. Her name, yet-si-blue, means “the woman who talks.” She helped organize protests on the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers during the Fish Wars, founded and edited a newsletter providing the Native side of the fight to preserve treaty rights, co-founded Women of All Red Nations, and co-hosted the first meeting of the Indigenous Women’s Network.
Wa he lut (? – 1908). Wa he lut School on the Nisqually reservation is named in his honor. He fought in the Puget Sound War; he was fearless on the field of battle and, according to a Washington State Historical Society biography, “the Nisqually believed his power flowed from the forces of thunder and lightning.” He participated in public discussions in 1893 regarding the naming of Mount Rainier, and he signed his mark on a statement saying the mountain had always been known by his people as Tahoma.
“We know Mount Rainier as Tahoma, or Teqwu?ma?, which means ‘Don’t forget the water,’” Hanford McCloud said. “The mountain – where the Nisqually and other glacial rivers begin – is the lifeline for the whole region.”
Teachings: “Whatever the future holds, do not forget who you are. Teach your children, your children’s children, and then teach their children also. Teach them the pride of a great people … A time will come again when they will celebrate together with joy. When that happens, my spirit will be there with you.” — Chief Leschi (1808-1858).
“I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That’s what I believe in.” – Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014).
“When Billy Frank Jr. told his story, he was a fisherman trying to do what was right. But in the story of our state, he is a leader who inspired a movement for justice, and dedicated his life to collaborating with others in order to safeguard our environment for everyone.” – U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Tacoma.