By Ernest A. Jasmin, Puyallup Tribal News Editor
The Puyallup Tribe commemorated a pivotal moment in Tribal history with a ceremonial tree planting on March 11 at Chief Leschi Schools.
A few dozen attendees turned out on a chilly afternoon to witness the placement of a special sapling. It was grown from a seed from the Treaty Tree, a famous Douglas fir that once stood in Thurston County at the site of the Medicine Creek Treaty signing of 1854.
Puyallup Tribal Council members Fred Dillon and James Rideout were among 10 Tribal members that carried the sapling to its new home as Clinton McCloud, Mike Hall, Yelki bill and other musicians performed an honor song. The tree bearers and four witnesses – two elders and two youth – wore blankets draped over their shoulders, signifying their roles on this special occasion.
“Today, we remember all of those that gathered in the Nisqually Valley on Medicine Creek,” Puyallup Tribe Culture Director Connie McCloud said, delivering opening remarks.
The Treaty Tree succumbed to disease in 1979, and the remaining stump fell during a winter storm years later, in 2007. “Somebody in their wisdom, when the tree finally fell, gathered the seeds,” McCloud explained.
Chairman Bill Sterud, Vice Chairwoman Sylvia Miller, Monica Miller, and Annette Bryan also represented Tribal Council at the event. Councilwoman Anna Bean was absent due to illness.
“Today is a day of celebration,” Sterud declared. “This is big, really big, in our Tribe’s life.”
The Chairman alluded to the Medicine Creek Treaty’s controversial history. The document was signed in the shadow of the Treaty Tree on Dec. 26, 1854, the first in a series of treaties that Gov. Isaac Stevens made with Tribes across Washington Territory.
The treaty decreed that members of the Puyallup, Nisqually, Steilacoom, Squaxin Island and other tribes cede 2.5 million acres of land in exchange for three small reservations, $32,500, and access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds.
The tribes were coerced into signing, and there is reason to believe that some of the x’s that were presumably the signatures of Tribal leaders were forged.
“When I saw the treaty in person, the actual treaty, I cried,” Bryan recalled. “I know that those little x’s were misunderstood. I know that our ancestors wouldn’t have wanted us to go through what we had to go through; and I know they didn’t have a choice but to sign that X on that paper.”
Tensions escalated into armed conflict between Tribes and militiamen, culminating in the capture of the Nisqually leader, Chief Leschi, who was executed in 1858.
Though U.S. forces were victorious, Stevens met with Puyallup and Nisqually leaders and agreed to larger reservations for both tribes. More than a century later, the Medicine Creek Treaty became a basis for enforcing Tribal fishing rights, inspiring the Fish Wars, the great fish-in protests of the 1960s and ‘70s.
“So, how is the treaty beneficial?” Sterud asked Saturday. “It secured certain rights forever. Every so often, they try to take some away, and we have to go fight to get it back — which we do.”
“Lots of things were taken from us, not just our land,” Sylvia Miller said. “So, it’s a big honor for each and every one of us to be a part of this today, to witness it — all of us. It’s something we’ll all remember and hopefully pass it down to our children.”
“This is history that needs to be written down, what is happening today,” Monica Miller said. “Our history needs to carry on.”
Rideout called the tree a reminder of the need for Tribes to work together. “They tried to divide us so they can conquer us,” he said. “But here we stand today, together. Each and every one of us, we’re always going to be stronger together. And hopefully, our kids will learn from this day and take it into the future.”
The sapling was a gift from the Nisqually Tribe, which had its own planting ceremony in January, which Dillon attended. He added a bit of levity to Saturday’s event, admitting to how nervous he felt for being chosen for such an important mission.
“I don’t know how to keep things alive like this. So, why are you doing this to me?” he joked. “I come from fisheries. … So, I’m like, they can keep a tree alive, right? So, I brought it to fisheries, and they had it for a little while.”