Nisqually (pronounced Nis-KWALL-ee) comes from the word squalli, meaning “prairie grass.” The Nisqually call themselves s’qwali? abš or Squalli-Absch, which means “people of the grass country” in the Salish language.
The Nisqually’s traditional lands were the entire Nisqually River basin in western Washington state. They inhabited the coastal regions and woodlands from Puget Sound (Whulge) to Mount Rainer (Tacobet). Today they live on the Nisqually Reservation located by the Nisqually River in Thurston County. It lies on a 1-mile-wide (1.6-kilometer-wide) strip surrounded on both sides by America’s second-largest military base, Fort Lewis. Over the past 25 years, the tribe has acquired more than 1,000 additional acres on or near the reservation.
In 1780 there were about 3,600 Nisqually. At the beginning of the twentieth century the population had fallen to 110. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 436 people identified themselves as Nisqually. The 2000 census indicated there were 460 Nisqually, and 697 people said they had some Nisqually heritage.
Origins and group affiliations
For thousands of years Nisqually groups lived in their homelands in what is now the state of Washington. They shared good relations with the nearby Puyallup and with the Kittitas and Yakama people who lived within the same water drainage system.
The Nisqually thrived for thousands of years on the natural resources their vast tribal lands provided, sharing berry and hunting grounds with nearby tribes. They roamed the woodlands and coastal waters from Mt. Rainier to the Puget Sound. Their lives were ordered by finding food, feasting, and special rituals. Before the 1970s lack of electricity and other modern resources on the reservation caused most Nisqually to move from their tribal lands. Since then electricity has been introduced, and new buildings have gone up. Hundreds of Nisqually have come back to rebuild their culture and community.
Nisqually oral history indicates that the Squalli-absch, the ancestors of the modern Nisqually Indian Tribe, traveled north from the Great Basin. After they traversed the Cascade Mountain Range, they constructed their first village in the basin area present-day Skate Creek. This settlement was just below the southern end of the Nisqually River watershed, the later home of the tribe. They also built a large village near the Mashel River.
1792: George Vancouver explores Puget Sound.
1833: Fort Nisqually is established.
1854: The Treaty of Medicine Creek is signed and the Nisqually give up much of their land.
1855–56: The Nisqually engage in the Puget Sound War.
1858: Chief George Leschi is convicted and executed.
1884: Nisqually land is divided into thirty family allotments.
1917–18: Tribal land is taken by the U.S. Government for building Fort Lewis.
1946: The Nisqually adopt a tribal constitution.
1974: The Boldt Decision affirms Nisqually off-reservation fishing rights.
1978: The Nisqually Tribal Headquarters is built.
1994: Tribal constitution is amended.
2004: Chief Leschi is acquitted, almost 150 years after his death.
The first contact between Europeans and the Nisqually took place when British captain George Vancouver (1757–1798) explored the Puget Sound area in 1792. The Hudson’s Bay Company, a trading business, first wrote about the tribe in 1820 when they entered the region.
Treaty of Medicine Creek
Before 1846 the United States and Great Britain jointly occupied the Nisqually lands. In 1846 the two countries agreed that the U.S. government would decide the Native Americans’ fate. In 1848 U.S. officials promised the Native Americans that their lands would not be taken from them without their consent, but they later broke that promise.
In 1854 Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862) was appointed governor of Washington Territory and was placed in charge of relations with the Native Americans. By then white settlers wanted more acreage. Stevens decided the best way to get land was to take it away from the Native Americans and place the tribes on reservations. In December 1854 he offered a treaty to a group of tribes including the Nisqually. Under the Treaty of Medicine Creek, the Nisqually had to give up their tribal lands and move to a reservation within one year. It was plain to Nisqually Chief George Leschi (1808–1858) that the treaty took away the rivers where his people had always fished and the pastures where they kept their horses. They also had to face the threat of being moved farther north. Although he refused to sign the treaty, someone placed an “X” before his name on the treaty, falsely indicating his approval.
Chief Leschi leads uprising
In time the Nisqually were forced by the U.S. government to relocate to a reservation, and their life changed greatly. The people were upset to leave the grasslands they loved and move to a rocky and barren land away from their accustomed fishing sites. They became afraid when diseases brought by the whites broke out among the people. They were dismayed with U.S. government delays in putting certain plans for the tribe into action.
Finally, the Nisqually enlisted the help of men from other tribes and, under the command of Chief Leschi, engaged in an uprising. However, Leschi was unsuccessful in drawing all the tribes of Western Washington into a wider war against the whites. The Puget Sound Indian War (1855–56) was short, and the Natives lost. Leschi was captured and executed.
Life on the reservation
The Nisqually settled down to a quiet, but impoverished life on the reservation. The war had one benefit, however. The government removed Governor Stevens from his position and increased the size of their reservation. Although the original treaty had given them 1,280 acres, an executive order in 1856 enlarged it to 4,717. Still the land proved too poor for successful farming.
By the beginning of the twentieth century some tribe members were forced to leave the reservation to seek jobs in the lumber and agriculture industries. In time, the population of the reservation declined even further, due to disease, poor diet, and alcoholism. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Nisqually population had fallen to 110.
Loss of rights
During the winter of 1917 without any advance warning, the U. S. Army ordered the Nisqually to leave their homes. Later the U.S. War Department seized nearly two-thirds of the Nisqually Reservation land to create Fort Lewis, a military training camp for soldiers going to fight in World War I (1914–18;; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). As the years passed the War Department took over more parcels of Nisqually land.
Around this time the government also attempted to assimilate Native Americans, or make them more like whites. Rather than letting the Nisqually teach their own children, they sent the children to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice tribal customs. This practice continued until the 1940s.
Protests held on fishing issues
During the 1950s a growing number of white fishermen wanted more fishing areas for themselves. They succeeded in pressuring Washington state officials to permit the Nisqually to fish only on their reservation, instead of in the much wider area they had been used to. The Nisqually defied the order and continued to fish beyond reservation lands.
In 1963,the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the state’s right to impose fishing restrictions on the Native Americans. As a result, conflicts took place between the Nisqually and state police officials on the banks of the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers. In 1966, a well-known African-American comedian named Dick Gregory (1932–) was arrested for supporting the tribe during a “fish-in.” The fish-in was held to protest state laws that now required hook and line fishing instead of the tribe’s traditional methods—nets anchored with rocks that made for a larger catch. A celebrated fishing rights case resulted. The tribe claimed that, according to treaties with the federal government, it had the right to use the net-fishing procedures. A complicated series of court battles took place between the Native Americans and the state government.
The Boldt Decision of 1974 settled the matter. It affirmed that the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek permitted the tribes of western Washington to fish in their “usual and accustomed” fishing areas away from the reservation. Since this celebrated case the input of Native peoples has been sought on fishing questions. Since the late 1990s the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission has directed off-reservation fishing for the tribes, including the Nisqually.
Meanwhile, by 1973 the Nisqually Reservation had been reduced to a fraction of its former size, and only a small group of Nisqually resided there. In 1974 the Nisqually people, with planning and funding from the federal office of Housing and Urban Development, began preparations to build a tribal headquarters on the reservation. In 1976 they purchased 53 acres of nearby land and completed the headquarters in 1978. Nearby are new facilities for educational services, medical and dental care, programs for seniors and children, a police force, a library, recreational programs, and a natural resources center. In the 1990s, more than one hundred homes were built on the reservation.
Beautiful Fire Keeper
Many native tribes tell stories to explain features of the landscape. This Nisqually legend describes the formation of three mountains in their area, including the famous volcano, Mt. Saint Helens. The tale begins long ago, soon after the world began. In order to teach two brothers and their tribes not to fight, the Creator sent Loo-Wit to share fire with both. In exchange, Loo-Wit received her wish to be beautiful.
When she arrived, she set up her fire, then called to the People to come and help themselves. The People heard her calling and came out of their lodges. They saw the beautiful day and the beautiful woman calling to them to come and get the badly needed, warming fire. Soon, the People came and took the fire, and Loo-Wit told them Creator’s Message of Peace.
When the younger brother saw the beautiful Loo-Wit he immediately fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. At around the same time, the older brother arrived to partake in the fire give-away. He, too, fell in love with Loo-Wit. Like his brother, he asked for her hand in marriage.
Loo-Wit considered the brothers’ marriage offers. The fact was, she didn’t like either of them very well. “Sure they are handsome,” she thought. “But they are also ruthless and greedy.”
The brothers were growing tired of waiting to see who Loo-Wit would choose and sent emissaries to ask her to hurry up and decide. She sent the messengers back, telling them that she did not wish to marry either of them. When the brothers got her message, each took it to mean Loo-Wit was about to marry the other. Each became angry and sent war parties to attack the other’s camp.
Creator was watching all of this. Finally, He had had enough. In His fury, He turned both brothers into mountains. The younger brother He made into the mountain the White Man calls Mount Adams; the eldest into Mount Hood. He destroyed the crossing over the river and made the river very narrow where the stone bridge had been.
Loo-Wit was very unhappy, blaming herself for the friction between the brothers. Thinking her beauty had caused most of the trouble, she prayed to Creator to change her back to an old woman. Creator heard her Prayers and knew that the friction between the brothers was not her fault. Instead of turning her back into an old woman, He turned her into a beautiful mountain, much more stunning than the mountains He had created from the ever-feuding brothers.
He made her into a Fire-Keeper for all time. She became what the White Man calls Mount St. Helen. She still sits between the quarrelsome brothers and she sleeps soundly most of the time. But if Creators becomes unhappy or angry over the lack of concern that People—White or Red—have in their dealings with Mother Earth, Loo-Wit will awaken and spread her fire of destruction which is Creator’s wrath.
Adams, Deborah. “Beautiful Fire Keeper—Nisqually Legend.” BellaOnline: The Voice of Women. (accessed on September 6, 2007).
Religion played a major role in every aspect of Nisqually life. Spirits gave people certain abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and preferences. Failure to cooperate with the spirits resulted in illness and death. The spirits bestowed powers that might include physical strength, artistic talent, hunting skills, long life, and wealth, among others. The powers usually were given to a person during adolescence, but they could come to anyone of any age who was physically clean and pure.
The Nisqually believed that their land was a living thing that had been created by the Great Spirit and could not be divided. Mother Earth was sacred and had to be treated with great care. The people did not accept the white concept of private property and refused to break up their land.
In 1839 and 1840 two priests, Francis Norbet Blanchet (1795–1883) and Modeste Demers (1809–1871), traveled around the area to introduce the tribes to Catholicism. Using the Chinook Jargon they communicated with the various peoples in the Puget Sound area. (For more information on Chinook Jargon, see Chinook entry.) Several Native Americans converted and began holding worship services for their tribes. Later a Methodist missionary settled at Fort Nisqually, but was not successful in gaining converts.
The early 1880s saw the rise of interest in the Indian Shaker Church. The founder, John Slocum, reportedly died and was resurrected as a result of his wife’s shaking. This religion, with its combination of Christian and Native American beliefs, appealed to many of the tribes along the coast, including the Nisqually.
Today most Nisqually people are members of the Catholic Church, the Indian Shaker Church, or a Nisqually division of the Assembly of God religion.
The Nisqually people spoke Southern Lushootseed, a variety of the Salish language spoken near the Puget Sound area. In modern times most Nisqually speak English during their everyday activities. Only a few dozen elders are still fluent in the language, but the tribe is working to keep its heritage alive by offering classes to the young.
The Nisqually, along with several other Northwest Coast tribes, speak a form of the Lushootseed Salish language. (For more Salish words, see Duwamish and Puyallup entries.) The words listed here are all foods that the Nisqually enjoyed eating.
- Sčuhdádxw … “salmon”
- sbít’ … “soup”
- quhlítxw … “salmonberry”
- kwuhlhú’l … “camas”
- s’áxwu’ … “clams”
- plíla’ac … “cherry”
- xwsuhbuhd … “honey”
- qá’xwac … “crab apple”
- xúhdxuhd … “goose”
- Sqígwuhc … “deer”
- Sxwítl’uhy’ … “mountain goat”
- sčúhtxwuhd … “black bear”
There were no Nisqually chiefs in traditional times, but the advice of the head of the richest household was often sought. His main job was to sponsor feasts and potlatches (gift-giving ceremonies). When he died, a younger son or brother usually took over these duties.
Today an elected tribal council governs the Nisqually Reservation. The council rules according to a tribal constitution that was adopted in 1946 and amended in 1994. The Nisqually Tribal Council has seven members—the tribal chair, vice chair, secretary, treasurer, and three others called fifth, sixth, and seventh council members. Each member serves two years.
In addition to the tribal council, the reservation also has a general council, consisting of all members ages eighteen and older. Tribal government committees are responsible for health, social services, natural resources, accounting, and planning. A five-member tribal fish commission is elected to two-year terms. The tribe also has a court system.
Before the move to the reservation, the Nisqually economy was based on fishing, hunting, gathering, and trade. Shells obtained in trade from the Nootkah of Vancouver Island were polished, strung like beads, and used as money. People’s wealth was also measured by the number of blankets, fur robes, pelts, bone war clubs, canoes, and slaves they owned.
In the early twenty-first century unemployment on the reservation is high; many people who want to work cannot find jobs. The tribe, however, receives some income from the proceeds of their casino, bingo hall and gift shop, shellfish business, and various grants. They earn additional funds from their two-acre community garden and solar greenhouse, timberlands, and two fish hatcheries. The Nisqually Five-Year Overall Economic Development Program was implemented to encourage economic growth on the reservation, to provide training and employment for tribe members, and to develop tribal resources.
In traditional times, four to eight Nisqually families shared a large house. The families usually consisted of a man, one or more of his wives, and all of his children, sometimes unmarried relatives, and (in wealthy families only) one or more slaves.
The Nisqually built solid houses out of cedar posts and planks; cedar is a strong wood that can be cut with simple tools. Houses were rectangular and longer than they were wide; they usually sat in rows parallel to a body of water. The insides of the houses were lined with platforms that served as beds; the platforms were about 3 feet (1 meter) wide and had storage spaces built above them. In summer these houses often sat empty, as most activities took place either outdoors or in square or cone-shaped summerhouses, covered with mats.
Clothing and adornment
During warm weather Nisqually men often went naked or wore only hide or cedar bark breechcloths (garments with front and back flaps that hung from the waist). In rainy weather they wore capes made of cedar bark strips. Women wore narrow skirts of cedar bark or full-length dresses. In winter both men and women wore animal hides, rubbed with deer brains to soften them. They also wore hide moccasins and blankets woven of mountain goat hair or dog hair.
Nisqually women parted their hair down the middle and wore two braids, sometimes painting the part red. Men let their hair grow to neck-length, parted it down the middle and combed it behind their ears or braided it. They often wore headbands made of skin and tied hawk or eagle feathers into their braids. Younger men plucked out their beards, but older men sometimes let theirs grow. Men often wore rectangular fur hats, and older women wore soft hats made of mountain grass. Young girls rarely wore hats.
The Nisqually did not wear body paint, but both men and women used red face paint combined with deer tallow to keep their faces from becoming weather-beaten. At ceremonial events they painted designs on their faces, such as lines on the cheeks and on the chin. Both men and young girls wore headbands with tassels. They wore necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and nose rings made of shells polished to look like beads.
The Nisqually mainly fished, but also hunted and gathered. In spring and fall men caught salmon; everyone in the tribe helped smoke and dry them. They also caught blue fish, flounder, halibut, skate, sole, and devilfish. Fish eggs and shellfish added variety to their diet. Hunters took seals by surprise and clubbed them or drove them into sharpened stakes or nets.
The meat of deer, elk, black bear, beaver, coyote, mountain goat, and rabbit was dried and smoked over fires. Small animals like squirrel, pheasant, and grouse were caught in nets strung between trees, then roasted. Different kinds of berries, such as blackberries, were crushed, formed into blocks, and dried in the sun or over a fire or were boiled and made into a thick paste for later consumption. The Nisqually also ate licorice roots, wild carrots, ferns, dandelions, sunflowers, camas, tiger lilies, and various other bulbs, leaves, and seeds.
Women used sharpened ironwood sticks to dig cooking pits. Camas bulbs steamed in a pit for two to three days. Then they were dried and stored in baskets for winter use. The Nisqually ate some plants raw, but boiled others in baskets filled with water into which they dropped hot stones. Salmonberries and thimbleberries might be eaten fresh, crushed and mixed with water to make juice, or dried on racks over a low fire. They spread hazelnuts in the sun to dry and roasted acorns to get rid of the acid taste. Acorns could be ground into flour or buried in mud near a stream to use later.
Food was prepared only once a day, in the late afternoon, and eating took place throughout the day. A typical evening meal might be a boiled liquid followed by steamed meat or fish. The tribe ate dried or freshly picked foods at other meals. All winter homes had rows of dried salmon hanging from the ceiling. Women would cut one down for their family’s meals.
Although little is known about how the Nisqually were taught, children probably learned many of the skills needed for survival by observing their elders. In the late 1800s and early 1900s government schools were established on the reservation. Children from ages six to sixteen received a basic education in reading, writing, and arithmetic for half a day, then worked during the afternoon on farms run by the schools. Boys did repairs, and girls learned to sew clothes and keep house according to the white ways.
By the mid-1900s more emphasis was placed on teaching children their own culture. In 1974 activist Maiselle Bridges started the Wa He Lut Indian School to integrate Native American culture into all subject areas. The school was destroyed by a flood in 1996, but with the help of government funding, it reopened in 1998. In the mid-2000s the school was continuing to pass on Nisqually tribal history, language, and beliefs.
Other children at the Nisqually Reservation attend a public school located five miles from the reservation. Northwest Indian College established a branch campus on the reservation in 1994 that serves as a training site for tribal employees.
When someone became ill, medicine men, called shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun), were consulted, but they could only cure certain diseases. After they determined what was making the person sick (often an object within his or her body), they seized the object by using sweeping gestures and passing their hands over the body of the patient, occasionally dipping their hands in water. Singing, dancing, and drumming accompanied the healing act. When they found the spot in the body where the object was situated, shaman removed it. They clasped it in their palms or bit into the patient and sucked the object out and then transferred it to their hands. The patient’s relatives decided whether to send the object back to its source or let the shaman destroy it. This final part of the process often took many hours and sometimes required the aid of a second shaman.
Many Nisqually people had a knowledge of herbs. They collected or bought them and cured themselves. Today, the staff at a small medical clinic on the reservation meets many of the people’s health care needs.
Folklore of the Tsiatko
The Nisqually tell stories about a group of tall Native Americans, called “stick” Indians, who were said to wander through the forests. In the Native language they were called tsiatko.
The tsiatko lived like animals in hollowed-out sleeping places in the woods. They wandered on land only, never on the rivers, and usually by night. They communicated by whistling and their sounds could be heard throughout the darkness.
They played pranks on the villagers, such as stealing fish from their nets. Sometimes they played pranks on individual men, whistling to put the men into a trance and then removing their clothing and tying their legs apart.
People who interfered with them were hunted down and killed by bow and arrow. Sometimes they stole children and forced them to become wives or slaves. Women were afraid of them, and used threats of the tsiatko to keep their children in line.
One man told a story about his relatives capturing a tsiatko boy in 1850 and raising him. The boy slept all day and wandered about at night. In the morning his captors could see where he had piled up wood or caught some fish. Finally they permitted him to go home to his people. He later returned with some of his people for a visit, then went away for good.
Nisqually society was divided into the upper class, the lower class, and slaves, who were usually war captives and their descendants. Villages were linked by the marriages of leading families and by participation in shared ceremonies.
Birth and babies
When a Nisqually woman was about to deliver, she went to a shelter where a specially trained woman assisted her with the birth. The afterbirth (the substance expelled from a woman’s womb after childbirth) was wrapped and then carried by a small boy to the top of a tree—the higher the better for the good luck of the baby. Parents used special boards to mold their infants’ heads to form a straight line from the nose to the forehead, as this was considered an attractive feature. Babies stayed in cradleboards until they could walk.
Puberty and marriage
Adolescent boys took part in vision quests, looking for the spirit who would guide them throughout their lives. Sweat baths and fasting were elements of these five- to ten-day journeys. What happened on the journeys always remained a secret.
Girls also went on vision quests both before and after puberty. When she had her first menses, a girl went to an isolated hut. She was encouraged to do tasks to make her a good worker later in life. Families of upper class girls often held a feast after the first menstruation, which let the village know she was ready for marriage.
Parents arranged marriages for their children, and both boys and girls married at young ages. In People of the Totem, writers Norman Bancroft-Hunt and Werner Forman point out that Salish Indians like the Nisqually made use of “love charms and potions which were designed to make a girl fall in love with the young man who idolized her.… Secret formulas for ‘putting names’ on a girl’s ears, eyes, hands, and head were used … to make it impossible for her to hear, see, touch, or think without being reminded of her suitor.”
Marriages usually took place between individuals from unrelated families in different villages. The boy’s family approached the girl’s with a formal request. A ceremony followed where the bride was taken to the groom’s village. The bride’s family gave the couple a dowry, and both families exchanged gifts. The couple stayed in the husband’s village and lived with his family.
People who came from wealthy families rarely divorced. If a spouse died, the widow or widower married one of the deceased’s relatives to keep the children and money within the same family. Poorer people did not have the same restrictions.
Festivals and ceremonies
The Nisqually held First Salmon ceremonies, which took place when they caught the first fish of the season. They honored the salmon as if it were a visiting chief. The people presented it with offerings such as eagle down, then the fish was cooked and eaten with reverence. Celebrations honored other fish and creatures such as seals and elk.
Winter dances were held by people who had been cured by the shaman (see “Healing practices”). A song leader led the ceremony, and the shaman and others worked on the sponsor to draw out his songs. Then the sponsor got up and danced while he sang his song. Other singers followed as their spirits led. Afterwards, everyone feasted, and the sponsor distributed gifts.
The dancers who participated in the ceremony each had a different kind of power. One painted his face red, carried deer-hoof rattles, and danced with a knife piercing his body. Another could make a striker (the long pole the people used to keep time by striking the rafters) move by itself. A third made two boards or hoops pull young men around the room.
Soul-Recovery, or Spirit-Canoe, Ceremony
The people believed that the spirits of the dead stole souls, so men with special powers traveled to the land of the dead to bring them back. Each performer had a plank carved and painted with a guardian spirit and a post made to resemble an earth dwarf. The men set them up in a rectangle to form a canoe shape. As they sang their songs, they paddled with staffs, and acted out their journey. The dance lasted two nights with a final battle where the men outwitted the dead and returned with the souls.
Potlatch, or Give-Away
Those who received wealth power in their vision quest hosted the village giveaways. Messengers went to other villages to announce the ceremony and handed out small sticks to the leading men. Everyone who received an invitation brought other guests with him. Visitors brought food and gifts with them.
The event could be held either in the host’s home or in a potlatch house. Dancers performed on a stage made by putting planks across two canoes. For several days people played games, participated in contests, danced, and sang. Guests could give out gifts, but the host handled the main give-away. He distributed presents to each of his invited guests. To end the ceremony, the host sang his wealth power song, and then other participants could share their spirit songs.
War and hunting rituals
The Nisqually engaged in occasional raids, but little actual warfare. They had an interesting custom associated with a potlatch. As visitors approached a village where a potlatch was being held, they pretended to be a war party and engaged in a mock battle with their hosts.
The family of the deceased held a wake, and relatives brought gifts for the dead. Professional undertakers prepared the body, then removed planks from the side wall of the house so they could exit with the body. They buried the body in rocky ground, or they wrapped it in robes, placed it in a fishing canoe covered by a mat, and suspended the boat ten to 14 feet (3–4 meters) in the air between two trees. Sometimes they put bodies in a box that stood on the ground. Cedar plank sheds marked the graves.
After the burial the family held a feast and gave away the dead person’s property. Women cut their hair for the mourning period.
Current tribal issues
The trial and execution of Chief Leschi has been a sore point in Niqually history. When Chief Leschi was tried for the murder militiaman A. B. Moses, many people believed territorial governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens wanted to punish him for refusing to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty. The trial ended in a hung jury, meaning that the jurors could not agree on a verdict. At a second trial, jurors did not know that Chief Leschi had killed Moses during combat. They convicted him, and Leschi was executed in 1858.
In December 2004, almost 150 years later, the Washington Supreme Court handed down a new verdict. The court unanimously declared Leschi not guilty. They said that when Leschi shot and killed Moses on October 31, 1855, it was an act of war, so he should not have been executed for the crime.
Following the 2004 trial Billy Frank Jr. (1931–), chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, explained that his father had often talked to him about Leschi:
He always talked about the war (Indian War of 1855-1856) and the day he [Leschi] was hung. We went up to the place where he was hung. It was a big, natural bowl. He said they came for miles in wagons and watched the hanging. We teach that to all our children about how our leader was hung by this society. We teach our young people about this hanging and it’s not a very good story. We want to be able to tell the truth to our children.
Now the story in the history books will have a different ending—one the tribe has always insisted is the truth. Nisqually Tribal Council Chairman Dorian Sanchez summed it up: “[Now] all will know the name Leschi as we have: warrior, leader, hero and innocent.”
In 1974 the tribe established the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge for the protection of bird wildlife. In the early twenty-first century more than 275 bird species winter and breed in the Nisqually Refuge. The area also provides a habitat for steelhead trout, various salmon species, and many threatened and endangered species. The Nisqually Delta has been named a National Natural Landmark because it is one of the best examples of a coastal salt marsh remaining in the North Pacific.
Chief George Leschi (1808–1858) united Native warriors in the western part of Washington during a conflict with the U.S. government in 1855 and 1856. Leading about one thousand troops representing various tribes, Leschi attacked the settlement of Seattle, as part of an unsuccessful resistance against Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens. Leschi and his troops were turned back by U.S. Navy troops. Although Leschi escaped and went to live among the Yakama tribe, he was taken prisoner by the U.S. Army and executed in 1858.
Billy Frank Jr. (1931–), is a Nisqually political activist (he works to change policies that affect the lives of Native Americans). In 1991 Johns Hopkins University officials honored him for the decades he has spent fighting for the land and fishing rights of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.
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Wilkinson, Charles F. Messages from Franks Landing: A Story Of Salmon, Treaties, and the Indian Way. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.
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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California
Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University