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A History of Treaty-Making and Reservations

A History of Treaty-Making and
    Reservations on the Olympic Peninsula

  •  Makah Treaty -- 1855

Steven's treaty commission dropped anchor in Neah Bay on January 29, 1855-just three days after it had negotiated a treaty with the Clallam, Skokomish, and Chemakum. (See Report of Governor Isaac I. Stevens, 1854.) The commission immediately sent a messenger out to the outlying villages to invite them to the treaty negotiations and then established camp, setting up tents and stocking the camp for the Indians' arrival. On the 30th Stevens and Gibbs set out across Cape Flattery looking for the best place to locate a reservation. Returning to camp in the evening, Stevens invited the Makah leaders who had arrived onto the schooner for a pre-treaty meeting. Speaking through interpreters, he explained the proposed treaty to them.


Figure 10. Makah Houses and Canoes on Beach at Neah Bay, Washington, 1911
University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections, Portraits Collection

When he finished, several of the Indians expressed their concerns, particularly about preserving their right to catch fish and take whales. Kal chote, a Makah leader, said "he thought he ought to have the right to fish, and take whales, and get food where he liked. He was afraid that if he could not take halibut where he wanted, he would become poor." Later Kal chote added "I want always to live on my old ground, and to die on it. I only want a small piece for a house, and will live as a friend to the whites, and they should fish together." Although, like Kal chote, most of the Makah were reluctant to give up their land, they indicated a willingness to share it with the whites and Stevens steered them toward the idea of living year-round in their winter villages and then dismissed them to think it over. Before they left, the governor asked them to choose a "head chief" and, when they didn't, Stevens chose one for them, picking Tse kwan wootl, a leader from the Ozette village on the Pacific coast.

The next morning, on January 31, about 600 Makah gathered to hear Stevens explain the treaty:

The Great Father has sent me to see you, and give you his mind. The whites are crowding in upon you. The Great Father wishes to give you your homes, to buy your land, and give a fair price for it, leaving you land enough to live on and raise potatoes. He knows what whalers you are, how far you go to sea to take whales. He will send you barrels in which to put your oil, kettles to try it out, lines and implements to fish with. The Great Father wants your children to go to school, and learn trades.

Then, "the treaty was ... read and interpreted and explained, clause by clause." Observers recalled that Stevens asked the Makah leaders if they were satisfied with the treaty or if they had any objections. In reply the Indians presented white flags to Stevens, and Kal chote responded by saying "What you have said is good, and what you have written is good."

The Neah Bay Treaty created a small reservation for the Makah at the far northwestern corner of the territory and expressed many of the key concepts of the nation's policy of Indian assimilation. While it required the Makah to move to the reservation within one year of the treaty ratification (the Senate did not approve it until 1859), it allowed the President of the United States to relocate other tribes onto the Makah reserve or, at his discretion, remove the Makah to another location. The treaty also contained provisions that allowed the Makah to continue fishing, sealing and whaling "at usual and accustomed grounds or stations," permitted hunting and gathering on "open and unclaimed lands," required that they "acknowledge their dependence on the Government of the United States," banned "ardent spirits," freed all slaves, and banned trading with the British on Vancouver Island. Finally, the treaty contained a clause that gave the government the option of dividing the communal lands into individual allotments at a future, unspecified date.

In return, the Natives were promised a $30,000 annuity to be paid out over 20 years along with a $3,000 payment to prepare the reservation for farming; free access to an agricultural and industrial training school that was to be established on Puget Sound; the hiring of a blacksmith, carpenter and farmer to "instruct the Indians in their respective occupations"; and the employment of a physician to look after their health and vaccinate them against epidemic diseases.

After three cheers from the gathered Indians, the 41 newly-minted chiefs and subchiefs put their marks-Xs-alongside Stevens's signature on the treaty. (See Treaty with the Makah, 1855.) The treaty was a complex document and it is nearly certain that language barriers and cultural differences prevented the Makah from understanding the terms of the agreement, let alone comprehending the long-term effects it would have on their lives and their communities. Immediately after it was signed, the treaty commission distributed presents, packed up, and sailed away.

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