by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies
This treaty takes its name from the She-nah-nam Creek (also called Medicine Creek), and it was created in what was then the “Washington Territory.” This territory was separated from the Oregon Territory in 1853, the year before this treaty was made. The first settlement of non-Natives in what became Washington Territory had been made at Tumwater in 1846, only eight years prior to this treaty. Washington did not become a state until late in 1889.
Treaties had become a quasi-legalistic tradition that grew in conjunction with expanding non-Native settler colonialism from the late 1700s onward. Treaties were supposed to be ratified by Congress, although many were never ratified (leaving Native rights and land title issues unresolved), and some were rescinded. But, from the point of view of the settlers coming from the Eastern seaboard, treaties served to confine Native communities to certain areas of the West, opening up spaces for those eager settlers to occupy. By the time of this treaty of 1854, the U.S. government had made a long string of treaties all across what would eventually become the contiguous United States, from coast to coast, leaving Native territories much reduced.
Treaties went hand-in-hand with territorial usurpation, injurious to indigenous communities, who were used to moving about with the seasons, in search of resources, and not being limited in their movements. Treaties such as this one at Medicine Creek, spelled out in a detailed way the boundaries of the newly acquired settler zone, leaving all remaining “tracts” for the Native peoples in this region and creating a “reservation” comprised of such tracts. Non-natives were theoretically prohibited from occupying these “reserved” tracts without tribal permission, but this treaty made provisions for the construction of roads through Native lands, at the U.S. government’s discretion. Indigenous communities were also expected to be “removed” from traditional lands and relocated to these tracts. The U.S. government could be expected to cover the costs of removal, but a loophole was provided that this government could decide to remove people to other places and forge new communities, combining different tribes together (without any obvious input from the tribes).
This treaty, not unlike some others, established a payment of $32,500 (in installments) to the tribes as compensation for the reduction of their territory. One clause, however, gave the U.S. President the right to decide how the money might be spent, with some notification of tribal wishes allowed in the matter, but not necessarily any promise to take those wishes into account. The tribes named in the treaty were considered “dependents” of the U.S. government, and that government claimed the right to decide what would or would not benefit the tribes. For example, readers will notice how the treaty limited (while also reserving) fishing and horse-raising rights for the indigenous communities. Tribes were also expected to embrace agriculture, carving their tracts into individual lots, plowing the land, and fencing it. All of these changes represented a complete break with traditions held dear by the indigenous communities.
Other forced social and cultural changes outlined in the treaty involved the expectation that Native children would attend a school and be taught Euro-American literacy and industrial arts (blacksmithing, carpentry, etc.). Students would be expected to submit to vaccinations and accept Euro-American medical practices, in general. Adults would be expected to give up alcoholic beverages, on penalty of losing individual annuities from the U.S. government payments. There is no mention of respect for Native remedies or the possible use of alcohol in rituals.
Treaties such as this one also demonstrate a concern on the part of the U.S. government to put a stop to inter-tribal warfare and to halt conflict between the original inhabitants and the new settlers. Basically, the document meant to force a peace, probably knowing that the indigenous communities could easily be unhappy with the new arrangements. There are indications that the communities might try to hide people who did not submit, as they were being asked to turn such people over to the U.S. authorities (which established, in an unspoken way, that U.S. representatives would serve as the highest authorities across the territory). Nisqually Chief Leschi worked among the tribes to build resistance to the treaty, and some think he never agreed to the treaty, although his name appears at the bottom, raising the question of whether his name was forged. The tribes affected by the Medicine Creek treaty did, in fact, come to regret that their ancestors “gave up 2.5 million acres of tribal land to the U.S. in exchange for three 1,280-acre reservations” (according to Mark Hirsch; see Additional Resources, below). Hirsch also acknowledges that the tribes reversed their position and decided to embrace the treaty in 1974, apparently because by that time fishing and shellfish harvesting rights were more important than ever as non-Native populations had increased and were vying for access to fishing.
The indigenous names given at the end of the treaty, accompanied by the setting of their “hands and seals,” suggests that these elders were not yet able to read and write with the alphabet. They had not yet been baptized and given Christian names, or at least they were not using those names. One familiar with the languages of this region might be able to recognize the languages and perhaps identify the meaning of the names. None of the Euro-American or the indigenous signers are female. Treaty-signing was a male activity, but we do not know if perhaps some women were consulted on the details of the agreement. In the history of other treaties or concerns relating to the changes being instituted, we sometimes do see Euro-American women signing documents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (see, for instance, the story of California’s secret treaties, mentioned in the Additional Resources section below).
Sample “entry” questions:
- What is a “treaty”?
- Where was this treaty made, when, and by whom?
- What was its main purpose?
Sample “essential” questions:
- Could this treaty be described as an agreement made between sovereign nations? (Explain.)
- How might treaties (such as this one) both establish rights and take rights away from indigenous communities? (Give examples.)
- What were the pros and cons of combining various indigenous groups into “one nation” for the purpose of this treaty (see the introductory clause to the treaty)?
- Can you find examples in the articles of this treaty whereby the President or the Government of the United States might find ways to alter the terms of the treaty without further negotiation with the indigenous nation(s)?
Sample “big idea”:
Treaties could be entered into in good faith on all sides, and yet they still reveal an inherent inequality of power between the parties of the agreement, and they left loopholes where future U.S. government leaders could unfairly change the terms of the agreement.
Sample “enduring understandings”:
In hindsight, we can now see that treaties had the appearance of legality without always being fair to indigenous peoples over the long term.
Research into the location and quality of land in the “tracts” chosen for the reservations may well show that these were less desirable than the regions established for Euro-American settlers. Certainly, the reduction of land available for indigenous community sustainability was considerable.
This treaty affected the southern Puget Sound tribes, such as the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island, among others. Given the location of these territories around the Puget Sound, it is not surprising that we see references to fishing. Salmon was a staple of the local diet. Shellfish were also central to the local diet. Does the raising of horses surprise us, given the location? (Horses had actually reached the West ahead of large numbers of Euro-American settlers, having been introduced by Spanish colonists of Mexico, which reached up into what is now California.) How about the harvesting of roots and berries, or hunting and curing (of meat or hides)?
This document provides a number of Native place names, some of which have since been lost or erased. How might these place names be restored?
A journey of healing:
Can the history of treaties be taught in such a way to allow some room for instilling pride in Native youth? What does the Medicine Creek Treaty tell us about early Native/non-Native relations and the willingness to enter into agreements? What sources of pride are embedded in the details? Vine Deloria, Jr., reminds us of the peace-making traditions among tribes prior to contact that sometimes involved what could be considered treaties, repairing damages prior to embarking on new agreements, to ensure that no bad feelings would persist. Confederacies and “the making of relatives” could be formed in this way.
Additionally, think about what we can learn about people’s names and place names, about how people fed their families, and even perhaps how they accommodated change peacefully or resisted change, seeking to preserve ancestral ways. Chief Leschi provides an example of a leader who was trying to defend his people. Where treaty participants had accommodated change in negotiations with non-Natives, was it sometimes (or even mainly) for the benefit of Native communities, such as we see in the example of defending fishing rights or the raising of horses?
Alicia Ault, Medicine Creek, The Treaty that Set the Stage for Standing Rock” (2017),
Vine Deloria, Jr., “Promises Made, Promises Broken.” In Native Universe: Voices of Indian America, eds. Gerald McMaster (Plain Cree and Siksika Nation) and Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot), Washington D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic, 2004, 144.
Mark Hirsch, “The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854” (2017),
Larissa K. Miller, “The Secret Treaties with California’s Indians” (2013),
Archaeology can establish coastal settlements based on the significant deposits of shells left as a result of thousands of years of shellfish harvesting. See for example:
Iain McKechnie’s map of “Recorded Coastal Settlements” (2015),
The introduction of horses into the southern Puget Sound region prior to the arrival of settlers in the mid-nineteenth century is discussed in this resource:
Daniel L. Boxberger, “The Introduction of Horses to the Southern Puget Sound Salish” (2009), http://www.yelmhistoryproject.com/?p=677