The Treaty Trail: Isaac Stevens' Treaty Councils 1854-1856
Treaties and Councils: Introduction
Chehalis Treaty Council
"Camp on the [Chehalis] Treaty Ground", from Northwest Coast by James. G. Swan. Washington State Historical Society Collection.

Governor Isaac Stevens arrived in the capitol of Washington Territory on November 25, 1853. A year later, he set out to secure Indian treaties that would open the territory for sustained white settlement of the region. From 1854 - 1856, Isaac Stevens journeyed across Washington State and into the modern states of Oregon, Idaho, and Montana meeting with tribes at ten treaty councils. Written, pictorial and oral history accounts of the treaty era and its aftermath rightly describe Indian-white relations that were confusing, difficult, and ultimately tragic. The Euro-American drive to occupy Western land lead to the creation of a reservation system and a strategy of the United States government to dispossess Native Americans of land and culture.

Careful evaluation of the Stevens Treaty history reveals phases of interaction and intention between Stevens and his delegation and the various tribal groups participating in the treaty councils. In the earliest treaty council at Medicine Creek near Olympia on December 26, 1854, delegates from the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steitcoom, Squawskin, S'Homanish, Steelchass, T'Peeksin, Squi-aitl, Sa-heh-wamish tribes met with Stevens and his negotiating team. Stevens acted as both governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory. At this first council, there was some confusion amongst the Native Americans about what was taking place complicated by language issues. In the ensuing nine councils, Native Americans utilized their own interpreters and attempted to maximize their situation.

Stevens utilized the treaty ritual itself as a kind of cultural bridge between his culture and Native American culture. Under the guise and protocol of potlatch and gift giving Stevens consolidated diverse native peoples under a treaty structure and subsequent reservation system. Confident and driven politician that he was, Stevens elevated the authority of some tribal leaders and encouraged divisive internal political factions within tribes to secure signatures on treaty documents. The subsequent reservation system and relations between Indians and non-Indians bear the mark of this nineteenth century man during a period of United States History defined by paternalism, manifest destiny, and efforts to culturally homogenize American society.

It is important to understand that not all Native Americans were included in Stevens' treaty making journey. Several tribes, including the Semiahmoo, Noosack, Samish, Lower Puyallup and Quileute did not take part in the treaty councils for various reasons. Several tribes in Western Washington today continue to try to obtain recognition from the Federal government that will allow them to enjoy privileges granted to other groups via the treaty structures.

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