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A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America

by Richard Kluger

Pub Date: March 3rd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26889-1
Publisher: Knopf

Intense history of a vicious confrontation between whites and Indians in 1850s Washington Territory.

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and journalist Kluger (Seizing Destiny: The Relentless Expansion of American Territory, 2007, etc.) writes accessible prose and turns up fascinating obscure records, but readers will quickly suspect that this story doesn’t end well. A central figure, Isaac Stevens (1818–1862), became the first governor of the Washington Territory in 1853. His major task was to facilitate white settlement by removing indigenous tribes. To achieve this, he sent representatives to survey their lands and, with no tribal input, choose a reservation. After drawing up a written contract, they called tribes together to feast and listen to whites extol its benefits, including promises of schools and farm equipment. Kluger points out that the Indians were illiterate, did not understand contracts and had no concept of land ownership. Despite their unease, most—according to white observers—signed. One leader, Leschi (1808–1858), protested and organized resistance during the 1855-6 Puget Sound War but was defeated, captured and, despite appeals from some whites, hung (though obviously useless to him, Leschi was exonerated in 2004). Forced onto tiny reservations, the tribes sunk into poverty, and their number dwindled. By the end of the 20th century, most whites agreed that they had treated the tribes badly, and legalization of Indian casinos has stimulated some prosperity for the survivors. Kluger does not conceal his indignation, painting a portrait of the whites as greedy, materialistic and racist, with a few ineffectual exceptions. The tribes are portrayed as modest hunter-gatherers, devoutly in tune with nature.

An accurate narrative, but the lack of nuance makes for a painful account that will keep readers gnashing their teeth throughout.