Courtesy Michael Schramm/USFWS
The Nisqually Canoe Family offers a traditional song at the 2014 dedication of the Norm Dicks Visitor Center at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. From left, USFWS Director Dan Ashe, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, retired U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, and Sen. Maria Cantwell.

‘Never Give Up Fighting’: 10 Things to Know About Nisqually Tribe

Richard Walker

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.

Canoes depart Nisqually's shores for Squaxin Island during the 2012 Canoe Journey. Nisqually hosts the 2016 Canoe Journey. ( Richard Walker)

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 …

In the 1800s, many people believed Nisqually leader Leschi was wrongfully hanged for his role as a combatant in the Puget Sound War that ensued after the treaties were signed. The Leschi neighborhood in Seattle and its waterfront park were named after Leschi in the late 1880s. Also bearing his name are schools in Seattle and Puyallup, streets in several cities, and a Seattle Fire Department fireboat. (Courtesy Frank La Roche 1891/Public Domain)

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.”


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