Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest

home historical context history of treaty making and reservations timeline.html reading activities source materials

A History of Treaty-Making and Reservations

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

  •  Patterns of Negotiation

By December 1854, Stevens had assembled his treaty commission and was ready to get to work. His first stop, on Christmas Eve, was at the mouth of Medicine Creek on Puget Sound a few miles east of Olympia. There the commission met with the Nisqually and Puyallup Indians and established the pattern of negotiation it would use over the next three months as it worked its way around Puget Sound and then out to the Olympic Peninsula. Invitations were sent out to local Indians; then, as they arrived, advance parties for the commission set up the treaty grounds, stocking them with an abundant supply of food. The commissioners then arrived and the Indians were gathered together to listen to Stevens welcome them in paternalistic terms that portrayed them as the "children" of the "Great White Father" and then detailed the treaty offer. As Stevens did not speak any of the Indian languages in use in Washington and few Indians understood English, his speech and their responses went through a laborious chain of translation: His words were first translated into the Chinook Jargon-a blend of several Indian languages along with French and English that was developed to facilitate trade throughout the Pacific Northwest-and then it was translated into the language or languages used by the various Indian tribes at the councils. Indian comments and responses had to go through the same process in reverse. As many historians of the treaty process have observed, it is not clear how well the Indians understood Stevens's words or the provisions and meaning of the treaties. One twentieth-century writer noted, "Chinook jargon, a trade medium of limited vocabulary and simple grammar, was inadequate to express precisely the legal effects of the treaties, although the general meaning of the treaty language could be explained." George Gibbs, the ethnologist who was a member of the treaty commission, later compiled what he believed was a comprehensive Chinook Jargon dictionary. It contained fewer than 500 words. (See Chinook Dictionary.)

After Stevens' speech, the Indians were asked to comment, Stevens and other whites would respond, and the Native Americans adjourned to discuss the proposal among themselves. The two sides then reconvened, agreed to the treaty, held a solemn signing (the "chiefs" and "subchiefs" making their mark-an X-alongside the signatures of the white commissioners), and then Stevens and the others distributed gifts. While there might be some Indian objections or some bargaining-perhaps on the boundaries and size of the Indians' new reserves or the price of land-the councils with the Indians were unequal affairs where the Americans usually dictated, rather than negotiated, the terms. Of the seven treaty councils Stevens personally took part in, only one failed to end in a treaty-the Chehalis Council near Grays Harbor on February 25-30, 1855.

According to Kent Richards, Steven's biographer, the commissioners adopted and adhered to nine guiding principles in their negotiations:

  • Tribes would be concentrated together if possible and practical.
  • Agriculture and other "civilized" habits were to be encouraged.
  • Indian lands were to be purchased with annuities-payments of goods-rather than cash.
  • The government was to provide teachers, doctors, farmers, blacksmiths, and carpenters to care for and train the Indians.
  • Intertribal warfare was to be prohibited.
  • Indian slaveholding was to be abolished.
  • The liquor trade was to be eliminated.
  • Indians were to be allowed to hunt, fish, and gather other traditional foods until they had been fully "civilized."
  • The eventual division of reservation lands into individual allotments had to be provided for.
A tenth principle, overlooked by Richards, was that each treaty needed to include a provision that unilaterally allowed the President of the United States to relocate the Indians to another reservation within the territory. As Richard notes, most of these principles were both enlightened for the time, in that they provided for a process of gradual assimilation, and at the same time incredibly nave. The guidelines assumed that converting Indians to citizen-agriculturists was the best thing to do for the Indians, that the federal government, its agents, and the Indians' white neighbors would fulfill their treaty obligations, and, finally, "that the Indian could be persuaded that all of the above were in his [sic] best interests."

« Previous page     Next page »