Who Was Leschi? Part II

Last month’s article supplied some information about this neighborhood’s namesake, Chief Leschi. Leschi was a leader of the Nisqually people who resisted Washington territorial Governor Isaac Stevens’ program of removing Native people from their homelands to make room for white settlers. [You can find more information about how the Nisqually people were affected by white settlement in the November issue of the Leschi News; website: Leschi News.]

In a series of battles known as the Puget Sound Indian Wars, Leschi and his fellow resisters, who were far outnumbered by settler militias and US soldiers, fought bravely for almost a year (Oct 1855–Aug 1856). Eventually, the resisters ran out of food and ammunition and were unable to continue fighting. Though they did not defeat the settlers who sought to displace them, they won a victory for Native people.

After the fighting ended, Governor Stevens offered better reservations to several tribes, including the Nisqually. The original reservation offered to the Nisqually was two square miles of uninhabitable land on a bluff above Puget Sound. The new Nisqually reservation was larger than the one that the governor had originally proposed and, importantly, was next to the Nisqually River.

Leschi Executed

After the war, Governor Stevens arrested Leschi for the murder of Benton Moses, a white settler who fought against the Native resisters. Even though the death happened during a war, and even though there was no evidence that Leschi killed Moses, Leschi was tried for Moses’ murder.

Leschi’s first trial ended in a hung jury. In the second trial, he was convicted. Leschi’s supporters appealed the case to the Territorial Supreme Court, but the conviction was upheld.

On February 15, 1858, Leschi was hanged as punishment for the murder.

It is said that these were his last words to his people: “Whatever the future holds, do not forget who you are. Teach your children, teach your children’s children, and then teach their children also. Teach them the pride of a great people.”

Nisqually Displaced Again

In 1887, US Congress passed the Dawes Act, which changed US policy toward reservation land. Many tribal lands, including the Nisqually reservation, were converted to pieces of private property (called allotments) and divided up among individual Native people.

In 1917, only 50 years after the Nisqually reservation was granted, a group of settlers in Tacoma convinced the US government to build an army base in Pierce County. The army called the base Camp Lewis, which later became Fort Lewis.

Fort Lewis would eventually cover 90,000 acres, 3,500 of which were the eastern two thirds of the Nisqually reservation. At the time, the land was held by 25 Nisqually allottees. The government forced the Nisqually to sell their land at below market value to make room for the base. The Nisqually people were again displaced. Many graves, including Leschi’s had to be moved.

Today, Fort Lewis, which merged with McChord Airforce Base in 2010, is known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).

An Injustice Reexamined

In the early 2000s, a group of people, led by Leschi’s great niece and Nisqually tribal chair Cynthia Iyall, began a campaign to correct the injustice of Leschi’s hanging. In 2004, the group convinced the Washington State Legislature to formally request that the State Supreme Court revisit Leschi’s case.

Though then-chief justice Gerry Alexander believed that the state court could not reopen cases that were decided by a territorial court, he agreed to form an historical court, formed of volunteer judges, to revisit the case.

146 years after Leschi’s execution, the historical court overturned his conviction.

Nisqually Resilience

Despite the horrors they have endured as a result of white settlement, the Nisqually people have continued to fight for their land and river—and for their human dignity. In the 1960s and 70s, Billy Frank, Jr., a Nisqually, led the struggle to protect and preserve Native fishing rights.

Today, the Nisqually tribe actively participates in restoring habitat for salmon and other species that depend on healthy ecosystems.

Every year on January 29th, they close their tribal offices to celebrate Chief Leschi Day.

Further reading

Framing Chief Leschi, by Lisa Blee

Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies, by Cecelia Carpenter

Nisqually Indian Tribe, by Cecelia Carpenter

Tears of Internment, by Cecelia Carpenter

The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, by Richard Kluger

Where the Salmon Run: The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank, Jr., by Trova Heffernan

Where the Waters Begin: The Traditional Nisqually History of Mount Rainier, by Cecelia Carpenter

~Carla Saulter

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