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When he arrived at Medicine Creek, Stevens brought already-drafted treaty language that would be read to the approximately 600 to 700 tribal delegates who converged on the treaty ground on Christmas Eve 1854. Stevens’s treaty also reflected some understanding of the cultures of the Puget Sound Indians. Indian officials were stingy and that allowing Indians to fish on their former lands would reduce the government’s responsibility for feeding them.
He knew that salmon fishing was central to their lives, that tribal leaders would never countenance a treaty that removed them from their homelands’ streams, rivers, and saltwater bays. Last, Stevens knew that incoming white settlers would need access to Indian labor. There is little doubt that the tribal leaders were confused by the proceedings.
Yet the story of Indian treaties is more than a chronicle of coercion and bad faith.
As the historian Alexandra Harmon reminds us, the narrative arc of treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns” and produces unexpected outcomes that have bolstered Native rights and tribal sovereignty.
On February 19, 1858, 300 people gathered around an outdoor gallows near Fort Steilacoom, south of present day Tacoma, to witness his execution.
Leschi proclaimed his innocence to the end, and many people, including his hangman, believed him.
“It’s a treaty we’re fighting for.” It was this fundamental belief in the sanctity and power of the Medicine Creek Treaty that helped inspire the great fish-in protests on the salmon rivers of Western Washington in the 1960s and ’70s.
Those acts of resistance fixed national attention on Indian treaty rights and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the modern tribal sovereignty movement that continues to define life in Indian Country today.
“We have this treaty right, the supreme law of the land under their Constitution,” the Indian fishing rights advocate Valerie Bridges (Nisqually, 1950–70) declared.
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“I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” Charles Grainger recalled years later, “and I believe it yet.” Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Native peoples of the Puget Sound region continued to remember Leschi as a great tribal leader and a wrongly convicted man.
Today a neighborhood in Seattle, a city park, a marina, and a school on the Puyallup Indian Reservation bear his name.
In 2004, 146 years after his execution, Leschi was exonerated at a historical retrial presided over by the chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.