The Treaty Trail
Washington State History Museum
You are here: Introduction / Biographies / Biography
Context for Treatymaking: Biography
Head Chief of the Yakamas
c. 1800-1878

As a young Yakama boy, questing on the snowy slopes of Mount Rainier, Kamiakin had a vision. In this vision a buffalo sang a power song to him. His elders interpreted his vision, saying he would become a great warrior, but would lead a tragic life. In spite of the tragedy they predicted, they advised him to be true to his course of action.

However, a vision alone was not enough to ensure that Kamiakin would become a leader of his people. Heritage also played an important role. His mother, Kamoshnite, was the daughter of Weowicht and the sister of Owhi and Teias, two prominent Yakama leaders. His father, Tsyiyak, was from the Palouse tribe.

Kamiakin lived in what is present-day central Washington as a child, but his family traveled to the Great Plains, where he distinguished himself as a warrior and buffalo hunter. He accrued substantial wealth, allowing him to marry five wives. He broke tribal conventions by marrying women who were not approved by his family. Nevertheless, his marriage choices created important ties among many tribes.

A Natural Leader
His natural endowments—courage, good judgment, and generosity—were, in fact, Kamiakin's best claim to leadership. Early in the 1840s he also demonstrated good business sense by traveling to Fort Vancouver, trading horses for cattle with the white immigrants, and driving the cattle back to his homeland. Kamiakin's herd was the first in the Yakama nation.

Kamiakin also kept a garden at his home in Ahtanum. He pursued this avocation to the extent of irrigating his land.

Kamiakin Seeks a Teacher
As early as 1839, Kamiakin was curious about non-Native religion. To this end, he tried to persuade the missionaries, Henry Spalding at Lapwai and Marcus Whitman at Waiilatpu to establish a mission near his tribe. Over the next couple of years, the Protestants repeatedly postponed making a decision.

In 1850 Kamiakin met a Catholic priest in Walla Walla. Kamiakin offered the priest a place on his property for a mission if the priests would live there and teach his tribe. As a result, two Catholic Fathers arrived and built St. Joseph's Mission on Ahtanum Creek.

The primary goal of these missionaries was to convince Indian people that they needed to abandon their traditional religion and accept Christianity. The missionaries, and the general American public, considered non-Christians to be "uncivilized", that is, lacking a proper society.

In addition to teaching the Catholic faith, the priests trained the Yakamas in digging irrigation ditches and growing crops. Classes would begin with a prayer at 5 a.m. each morning, followed by study of the Catechism. At 6 a.m. classes in reading and writing were held for the children.

A New Power in the Region
In 1853, when Washington Territory was established, Kamiakin was the most prominent Yakama leader, although not the head leader. There were several Yakama bands, each headed by its own chief. However, the representatives of the U. S. government did not understand the political organization of the Yakama nation and other plateau nations. Seeing that Kamaikin was a major political and military leader in the area, their reports bestowed upon Kamiakin the title of "Head Chief".

"Every inch a king," is how author Theodore Winthrop described the chief, whom he met at the Ahtanum mission. "He was a tall, large man, very dark, with a massive square face and grave, reflective look.... his manner was strikingly distinguished, quiet and dignified....He had the advantage of an imposing presence and bearing, and above all a good face, a well-lighted Pharos at the top of his colossal frame."

Following the establishment of the Territory, word went out to the plateau nations that the "Great Father", or president, in Washington, DC, desired their land for the white men, and that a great white chief was on his way west to buy it. Moreover, if the Indians refused to sell, soldiers would come and drive them off their land or kill them. This news understandably aroused the indignation of the tribes, resulting in suspicion of the newly appointed Governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens.

The Treaty Process Begins
Governor Stevens, for his part, immediately embarked upon the treaty process with the objective of "civilizing" the Indians, as well as pushing them onto reservations out of the way of the hordes of white settlers already headed west. Stevens began his treaty-making efforts with the coastal tribes, but Kamiakin and other eastern Washington leaders were aware of the challenges they were about to face.

In an early meeting with Owhi, a prominent leader of the Yakama, Stevens is purported to have told the chief that if the Indians refused to make a treaty with him, giving up their land, soldiers would be sent into their country to wipe them off the face of the earth. Stevens asked Owhi to communicate this message to the other leaders, which he did immediately.

When Kamiakin learned of Stevens's threat, he exclaimed:

At last we are face to face with those dreaded people, the coming of whom was foretold by the old medicine man, Wa-tum-nah, long ago. Pe-peu-mox-mox, who has been in California, says that the Indians there are fast dying off. I have traveled through the Willamette valley since its settlements by the whites and found only a sad remainder left of the once powerful Mult-no-mahs and Cal-a-poo-yas. So it will be with us, if we allow the whites to settle in our country. Heretofore we have allowed them to travel through unmolested, and we refused to help the Cay-uses in their war with them, for we wanted to live in peace and be left alone; but we have been both mistaken and deceived. Now, when that pale-faced stranger, Governor Stevens, from a distant land, sends to us such words as you have brought me, I am for war. If they take our lands, their trails will be marked with blood.

Kamiakin sought counsel from the priests at the mission, but he was told that although war might delay the threat for a time, the battle could not ultimately be won—the Yakamas would inevitably lose their homes to the white men.

Preparing for Isaac Stevens's Arrival
At this point, Kamiakin began building a confederation of Indian tribes to oppose the white threat. He quickly enlisted Pe-peu-mox-mox, Head Chief of the Walla Walla, and Looking Glass, War Chief of the Nez Perce to his cause. In secrecy, these three chiefs planned a council to be held in the Grande Ronde valley of Eastern Oregon, a site selected both because of its remoteness and because it was hoped the Snake tribes might be induced to join. Couriers quietly and quickly spread word of the clandestine council throughout the region.

The Grande Ronde council of 1854 was held to respond to and strategize about how to handle the arrival of Stevens. It lasted five days, with speeches given by representatives of nearly every tribe. Only three chiefs—Lawyer of the Nez Perce, Sticcas of the Cayuse, and Garry of the Spokanes—were in favor of signing a treaty. The Sho-sho-nee representative said:

We have been for many years in almost constant warfare with the whites and are in a position to begin hostilities at any time. If you decide on war and begin to fight, let the signals flash from the mountain tops and we will do our part: but will fight only in our own country.

The war-inclined chiefs of the council then decided to mark the boundaries of the tribal lands so that in the treaty council each chief could claim the area within his boundaries, and ask for that land as a reservation for his people. In this way, there would be no lands for sale, the treaty council would fail, and the concerns of the peace-minded chiefs would be allayed.

During the spring, the tribes laid in extra stores in preparation for the possibility of war. However, a subtle force was working to undermine the resolve of the Grande Ronde council chiefs. Lawyer, the Nez Perce chief, had notified A. J. Bolon, the Indian agent, of the council. The secret was out, and Governor Stevens knew what to expect going into the treaty council.

The Walla Walla Council of 1855 Kamiakin reached the council ground, accompanied by Peopeomoxmox, on May 28, 1855. When they saw the huge number of Nez Perce present, they began to realize that Lawyer had betrayed their trust. Not wishing to accept gifts from false friends, Kamiakin refused Stevens's offer of tobacco for his pipe and provisions for his party.

Isaac Stevens wrote of him:

He is a peculiar man, reminding me of the panther and the grizzly bear. He countenance has an extraordinary play, one moment in frowns, the next in smiles, flashing with light and black as Erebus the same instant. His pantomime is great, and his gesticulation much and characteristic. He talks mostly in his face, and with his hands and arms.

The Chiefs Speak
The speeches of the council went on day after day, with all the chiefs—except for Kamiakin—setting forth their wishes for their tribes. Peo-peo-mox-mox addressed the gathering with these words:

I do not know what is straight. I do not see the offer you have made the Indians. I never saw these things which are offered by the Great Father. My heart cried when you first spoke to me. I felt like I was blown away like a feather. Let your heart be to separate as we are and to meet another time. We will have no bad minds. Stop the whites from coming here until we can have another talk: let them not bring their oxen with them. The whites may travel in all directions through our country: we will have nothing to say to them, provided they do not build houses on our lands. Now I wish to speak about Lawyer. I think he has given his lands, that is what I think by his words. I request another meeting; it is not in one meeting only that we can come to a decision. If you come again with a friendly message from our Great Father, I shall see you again at this place. Tomorrow I shall see you again and tomorrow evening I shall go home. That is all I have to say.

Then Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon, said:

I want to say a few words to these people, but before I do, if Ka-mi-akin wants to speak, I would be glad to hear him.

Kamiakin replied, "I have nothing to say."

The Walla Walla treaty was signed by all the chiefs present, including the unhappy Kamiakin. William Cameron McKay, a stockman and later physician to the Cayuses, and present at the council as an interpreter, witnessed Kamiakin's signing:

[W]hen the Indians hesitated, the Governor said to tell the chief, "if they dont sign this treaty, they will walk in blood knee deep." To illustrate, Mam-ia-kin [Kamiakin] was about the last to sign by making his cross. When he returned to his seat, his lips were covered with blood, having bitten them with suppressed rage. Father Chaurause [Chirouse] the Catholic Priest was standing by me at the time, and he drew my attention to the blood, remarking "I am afraid we will all be murdered before we leave these grounds."

The council ended; the treaty was signed. The Nez Perce held a great Scalp Dance, with 150 women taking part, and then began breaking camp. Only the Nez Perce left the council happy with the bargain they had struck.

The Yakama War
Neither Kamiakin nor any other head chief condoned the killing of Agent Bolon, the event that triggered the Yakima War. However, Kamiakin, who may have known which Indian youths were involved, was unjustly held personally responsible for the murder.

For a time, Kamiakin fought against regular troops and volunteer militiamen, but because of dissention within the Yakama leadership and the successes of the U.S. Army, he finally left Yakama country for good. He founded a village near the Palouse River among the people of his father, and considered himself from that time forward a Palouse chief.

Although occasionally involved in the skirmishes of the 1858 war, he did not participate in any further conflicts.

In 1860, Kamiakin was invited by the Indian Bureau to once again assume the office of head chief of the Yakama. Because accepting the position would imply acceptance of the Walla Walla Treaty, he refused, choosing instead to live a poor, but independent life outside the reservation.

On one occasion, an Indian agent attempted to mitigate Kamiakin's poverty by giving him some blankets, which were owed to him under the provisions of the 1855 treaty. He rejected them with contempt, pointed to his ragged clothes, and said:

See, I am a poor man, but too rich to receive anything from the United States.

Kamiakin died in 1877, and was buried near the village he founded.


Josephy, Alvin M. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Nicandri, David L. Northwest Chiefs: Gustav Sohon's View of the 1855 Stevens Treaty Councils. Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1986.

Ruby, Robert H. and John A. Brown The Cayuse Indians: Imperial Tribesmen of Old Oregon. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

Splawn, A. J. Ka-Mi-Akin: Last Hero of the Yakimas. Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1944.

Error processing SSI file