Arts & Entertainment
Getting lost in the flow of an important local story
BOOK REVIEW: The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash between White and Native America By Richard Kluger, Knopf, Hardcover, 2011, 352 pages, $28.95
A boulder in City Hall Park in downtown Seattle, just south of the King County Courthouse, has a plaque that commemorates the original Battle of Seattle, Jan. 26, 1856, when hundreds of Native warriors fired into the settlement from the wilderness slopes of what would become First Hill. They were met with cannon fire from a U.S. warship. The inconclusive battle was a turning point for the Native resistance led by Chief Leschi of the Nisqually; the attackers were unable to capture arms or the supplies they needed. However, the outcome of the war was hardly in doubt. Today the plaque is a historical curiosity, as is the fact that Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood was so named because that location was the staging area for the attack.
Richard Kluger’s “The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash between White and Native America” recounts Chief Leschi’s resistance, capture and execution, and his eventual “exoneration” by a rump historical court in 2004. Kluger meticulously documents why Leschi, who had no previous experience in combat, went to war after rejecting the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Although Leschi’s mark appears beside his name on the treaty, Kluger makes a convincing case that the mark was a forgery.
Leschi had good reasons for rejecting the treaty. It required his people and neighboring tribes to give up a huge swath of southern Puget Sound; in exchange they would be allowed to live on a small parcel of rocky land at the mouth of the Nisqually River and get annual payments in the form of goods for 20 years. Leschi had helped various white farmers establish homesteads in his area, had formed friendships with them and had traded with them; he most likely felt betrayed by the miserly terms of the treaty. Kluger documents how Isaac Stevens, the territorial governor, set out with explicit direction from the U.S. government to consolidate the numerous small tribes around Puget Sound onto the smallest number and size of reservations possible, preferably on land not desired by any whites.
Other chiefs in the area accepted this and similar treaties, but more out of hopelessness than real acceptance of the terms—one of them, Chief Patkamin of the Snoqualmie, a tribe “feared for the prowess of its warriors,” even traveled to San Francisco to “assess ... an advanced example of the white man’s civilization. ... What he confronted ... stunned him; he had seen the future unfolding, and it did not belong to his tribe.”
Leschi’s resistance had a small success—Stevens eventually offered the Nisqually a somewhat better parcel of land, one that could be farmed and that had pasture for their horses. However, Leschi was captured, tried for murder and—despite considerable evidence that he had not even been at the scene of that particular killing—was sentenced to hang. At the time many white observers, including General Wool, the U.S. Army commander on the West Coast, thought that Leschi, as a “legitimate combatant,” should not be held liable for deaths during combat. On this basis a 2004 historical court, in a decision that had no legal force, symbolically exonerated Leschi’s conviction.
The story is important and should become familiar to all of us in Washington state; unfortunately, Kluger’s history is not the best vehicle for telling it. Kluger takes an academic historian’s approach, discoursing at length on the evidence for ambiguous and poorly documented details about the war and the trial, such as whether Leschi was present at the attack on Seattle, involved in the “murder” for which he was indicted or made his mark on the treaty; these discussions would better be handled in footnotes.
At the same time, Kluger, despite “objective” weighing of the evidence, is obsessively partisan, pointing out again and again how the Native peoples were mistreated and whites acted with hypocrisy and greed—as if that weren’t clear from his narrative. In an epilogue, Kluger is similarly partisan as he digresses about recent internal Nisqually tribal conflicts.
Kluger focuses on the personalities of his subjects, devoting the bulk of two chapters to Isaac Stevens’ life before he became governor; ironically, Kluger devotes fewer words to Leschi’s background, presumably because of a lack of material. While he talks at length about the broader issues behind the conflict, he finds his main narrative in the reasons Stevens and Leschi acted as they did.
This approach fails to address the important aspects of the story. What was it about U.S. society in the 1800s that allowed white Americans to move wholesale onto another people’s land and take it for their own—and feel righteous about that confiscation? And how has our society changed its ways since then? Certainly the historical court in 2004 was evidence of regret about the episode—but then, regret is cheap if not accompanied by recompense.
Kluger is to be applauded for taking on this issue—a fundamental and shameful part of how this area became part of the United States; but a compelling telling of the story will have to be left to another author.
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