Isaac Ingalls Stevens v. Chief Leschi

A conflict between white and native America gets personal—and leads to a Nisqually chief’s murder conviction.

Isaac  Ingalls  Stevens
Isaac Ingalls Stevens.

Isaac Ingalls Stevens had one goal in mind when he was appointed first governor of Washington Territory: to disarm the Indians of the Puget Sound region and separate them from their lands. But when the chief of the Nisqually tribe sparked a resistance movement among the tribes, the conflict turned violent. Ultimately, Chief Leschi was convicted of killing a militiaman, only to be exonerated nearly a century-and-a-half later by a special tribunal of judges, which, in effect, reversed the territorial court’s decision. In “The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A tragic clash between white and native America” (Knopf), Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Kluger recounts this little-known American tragedy, which illustrates, through the experience of one small tribe, the history of Native American injustice.

In the following Q&A, Kluger explains why he wrote the book, sheds light on the personalities of both Stevens and Leschi, and brings us up-to-date on how the Nisquallies are faring today.

Tell me about the Nisqually tribe.
There were probably never more than a thousand or so members of the Nisqually tribe, who lived peaceably—and well—for many millennia along the banks of a pristine river that flowed down from the glaciers on Mount Rainier. The remote location served the tribe perfectly—the place was a virtual paradise, with temperate weather, lush grasslands, towering forests, and a crisscross of waterways, all teeming with fish and game, long protected from white settlers by the Cascade Range. The great red cedars provided the Nisquallies with all their housing, transportation [dugout canoes], and clothing needs, and salmon, shellfish, deer, and wild berries were everywhere. Thus blessed, the Nisquallies and other tribes in the region—among the last Indians white settlers discovered—were unprepared for the sudden charge of a technologically advanced civilization, one which was not interested in sharing the land with the unsuspecting natives, who had initially greeted them with kindness.

Much has been written about the war waged on Native Americans. What made you feel there was something new to be said?
While many Americans know something about this sad chapter in our history, most know little about the particulars. Native Americans have been permitted to choose between slow extinction on bleak reservations or self-exile from Indian Country to uncongenial urban surroundings, which often proves traumatic. Those remaining as members of the roughly five hundred federally recognized tribes, communities and bands have for several generations been more pitied than scorned. And most Americans still believe—if pressed on the subject—that the marginalization of Indians and the methodical removal of their once vast holdings were the regrettable price that had to be paid for progress on this continent. At least today we rarely vilify tribal people or make movies depicting them as good for little more than target practice.

So we’re making progress?
A little. We now have the National Museum of the American Indian on the Capitol Mall. But far from viewing Indians as a genuine national treasure with a culture worth preserving, Americans too commonly think of them as an exotic memento mori, anomalous curios, drugged up and shiftless, broken and unfixable. Only a recent and controversial exercise of massive affirmative action by the U.S. government—in the form of laws licensing gaming casinos in Indian Country—has begun to bring about promising change to parts of Native America.

What’s behind this generally dismissive attitude?
The failure by nontribal people to appreciate the nature of Indian grievances and how to address them. Native Americans do not clamor for the nation’s ear, demanding economic parity and the profits of free enterprise, because they are not, for the most part, animated by the American Dream of maximum personal self-aggrandizement. They are not worshippers at the shrine of rugged individualism. They are, through cultural conditioning that has endured for millennia, a communal and interdependent people. They are, I would venture, more spiritual than most who dwell in America, however godly the rest of us may profess ourselves. And they are, for the most part, less materialistic and mercenary. Liberty and prosperity for all, in their case, mean freedom from harassment by outsiders and a shared commonwealth of well-being, not greater opportunity for the most aggressive among them to thrive while the rest are left to founder. The tribes are collectives, whose pursuit of happiness is a shared venture.

In recent years, under the spell of an insistent, presumably soothing political correctness, we have shied from using the word “Indian”—a misnomer from the beginning—and taken to calling tribal people Native Americans. But “American” is, of course, a European-derived word and concept; the natives here were not Americans but pre-Americans. Their ancestors preceded the white settlers by thousands of years, and they do not ask for or need to be granted social certification by races who muscled them out of the way.

Did you write the book because you wanted to cast light on a largely unknown chapter in our history or because you hope to change current attitudes?
“The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek” is not meant to be a compendium but an illustration. In focusing on the experience of a single small tribe, the book aspires to make more accessible and comprehensible a monumental tragedy; the narrower the scope of the narrative, the keener our perception may become of the unfolding human drama, personified by the clash between the two leading figures in the story.

Tell me about Isaac Stevens and Chief Leschi. What made them special?
Each man substantially exemplified his people’s basic traits and values. We know far more, of course, about Stevens. His Puritan ancestors settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and from the first he demonstrated abundant energy, intelligence, and yearning for advancement and power. At the top of his graduating class at West Point, he soon demonstrated administrative skills and valor in combat. But frustrated by slow promotion in the peacetime army, he opted for a political career and won the challenging assignment of bringing the tribes of the Far Northwest to heel under harsh treaties—a task he undertook with speed and courage but little understanding of the natives’ culture. He set out to conquer the natives, addressing them as children unworthy of respect and reacting intemperately when his wishes were thwarted.

Stevens’ principal adversary, Chief Leschi, was anything but a wild-eyed savage. The Nisqually leader was honored by his people as a great hunter, horseman and wise conciliator, who generously shared the wealth he acquired. He also worked with the white settlers who came to his region, naively trusting that there was room enough for both races to live side by side in harmony. After he balked at the one-sided treaty Stevens presented, he repeatedly sought more generous terms, then led an armed resistance movement. Stevens was enraged by Leschi’s defiance, and even after the inevitable outcome of the combat, the governor refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Leschi’s cause as defender of his people’s homeland. He proceeded to bring trumped up murder charges against Leschi for allegedly killing a militiaman after the war was undeniably underway. Leschi, whom nobody testified to having seen slay the U.S. soldier, had to pay with his life because Indians, by Stevens’ lights, did not qualify as legitimate combatants entitled to the rights of soldiers charged with the job of killing the enemy.

What was the outcome?
The climax of the story is the 1856-57 murder trial and the appeal of its outcome in Washington Territory v. Leschi, an all-but-forgotten case, one that was revisited in 2004 by Washington state judges and lawmakers. The very obscurity of these circumstances, I feel, invites cool reflection on the issues, instead of indifference to a familiar and depressing eyesore on our cultural landscape. Call it a fresh reckoning.

When I first read the appeal court’s 1857 ruling, I noted that its opening sentences betrayed a transparently racist tone suggesting that something less than a disinterested quality of justice was about to be rendered. Events over the three years preceding the court’s decision, my subsequent investigation disclosed, were shaped by a similarly phobic disposition among Washington Territory’s citizenry at large. Why this should have been so is a question, I believe, worthy of consideration even at this seemingly late date. We are still a young nation, and for all our prodigious feats to date, our future prospects are likely to turn on our ability to learn from how we have erred as well as succeeded.

My ultimate purpose, then, is to encourage the reader to rethink the place we have assigned the natives in our minds as well as on the land we took from them. 

What became of the Nisqually tribe? Has it survived into modern times?
Very much so, but it hasn’t been easy. In 1917, the U.S. Department of War forcibly bought up two-thirds of the tribe’s already small reservation to form part of Fort Lewis, a new military base, reducing the natives’ homeland to a postage-stamp of two square miles. Many tribal members drifted away, and only a few dozen families remained. In 1960 there was still no running water or electricity on the reservation, and almost no government or educational services available.

But starting in the 1970s, federal funds began to flow to the reservation and a tribal headquarters building was constructed. Things really started to change, though, in the late 1980s when Congress allowed gambling casinos to be built on tribal lands under federal monitoring—a form of affirmative action. The Nisquallies started with a bingo hall in the 1990s and then converted it into a casino with slot machines. It did well enough to build a Vegas-style facility in 2004 that they named Red Wind Casino. It has more than a thousand slot machines and most of the other games of chance that lure customers through the doors even in a relatively rural setting. In 2009, Red Wind grossed nearly $100 million, of which $35 million was profit for the 675 or so Nisquallies who make up the tribe’s present population. That’s more than $50,000 per capita, and the money goes not only to subsidize individual tribe members’ living costs but for increased social and health services, recreation facilities, new housing, and other tribally owned enterprises. A new generation, overcoming the plagues of alcohol, drug addiction, idleness and despair, has come to the fore and is educating itself as no earlier generation has done since the coming of the white man. Now there’s hope that the tribe can endure and even prosper as a sustainable subculture within the American mainstream.