“Polaklie Illahee”: Excerpt from Chapter Six of Michael Schein’s “Bones Beneath Our Feet”

As the early dusk of Christmas Eve fell over the treaty grounds, a commotion arose at the western bank of the rain-swollen creek. It was the Governor and his entourage, canoeing up from the steamer Major Tompkins, that had whisked them from Olympia to the delta in only two hours. Moving with the efficiency of ants, the Bostons unloaded mountains of supplies, setting up two large white canvas tents, each the size of hunting camps. On tables that had been constructed for this purpose, they piled great platters of beef, mutton, venison, elk, goose, duck and salmon, along with carrots and potatoes, all still steaming from the shipboard ovens.

The Governor quickly disappeared into a tent, but Leschi was gratified to see his old friend Mike Simmons emerge through the darkening air, his formerly flame-red beard now tangled with grey. Though Mike was strong as ever, Leschi noticed the creeping paunch around his middle, a sign not merely of age but of new-found prosperity. “Mike Simmons!” he called, and Mike came right over and extended a big, calloused hand.

“Leschi! Klahowya?” was all Mike could say, his Chinook being somewhat limited, “Klahowya? klahowya?” – “How are you? how are you?” – and he pulled Leschi in to his chest and pounded him on the back.

Muck-a-muck?” asked Leschi, hungrily eyeing the mounds of food.

Wake” – “No” – answered Mike, shaking his head and waving Ben Shaw over to interpret. “Before we feast,” he began, his drawl clipped by Shaw’s Northern chirp, “there is much to do. Since the first day we met, I have always wanted to repay the favor you did us, Leschi. Now, I can do so. I am joined with the greatest Tyee in the West, Isaac Stevens. It pleases him to use his power to help the Indians, and this pleases me too, because of our long friendship.” After pausing to allow Shaw to interpret his words, Mike held up a paper covered in ornate black scrawls. “This, Leschi, is an important paper that I have gotten for you. It is a commission signed by the Governor himself, appointing you as one of the Chiefs of the Nisquallies. With this paper, the Great Father in Washington City will recognize you as a big man with the power to sign a treaty for all of your tribe. This paper is strong medicine; guard it carefully, and keep it always safe.” Mike held out the paper to Leschi, who took it proudly, and displayed it about for his family and tribesmen to see.

“Quiemuth,” called Mike, and Quiemuth stepped forward. Speaking through Shaw, Mike bestowed upon him with equal ceremony, another commission as a Chief of the Nisquallies. Quiemuth held it out from his face, as if it might bite. The paper felt dry, a thing of death. It had no scent. He had no place to keep such a totem; he handed it to Moonya with instructions to place it between two mats, roll it up, put it inside a bearskin pouch, and carry it straight to the Medicine Man to be examined for evil tamanous.

Mike distributed several more commissions to other Nisqually head men, including John Hiton of Olympia, and Wahoolit of Yelm Prairie. To Leschi’s dismay, Mike also handed a commission to Wyamooch, who glowed with pleasure at the recognition denied by his own tribe.

Then Mike held up another even larger paper. “This paper,” he said through Shaw, “contains on it the outline of Whulge, all the land from the ocean to the tops of the Cascade Mountains, and from the Columbia River to the tip of Vancouver’s Island. For reference, we’ve drawn the principal lakes and rivers, as best as we could do it. Using these pencils that I will give you –” and he held up sticks, pointed like small black-tipped arrows – “the Governor orders the Chiefs to draw out the full area of land which has been claimed by your tribe in the past. This is not the land you will get when we make our treaty, but the lands you now claim, including the lands you will sell to us so that all of us, and our children, may forever live together in peace. Do you understand?”

Leschi nodded though his head was spinning, for it would not do for a great Tyee to betray any sign of weakness. Mike handed over the paper with an eager flash of his green eyes. “Kloshe, kloshe,” he said without Shaw’s aid – “Good, good.” Leschi, Quiemuth, and their fellow Chiefs spread the large map on a table furnished by Simmons, and huddled by the light of the Bostons’ oil lanterns. The paper was filled with squiggly black lines, but no matter how long they discussed it, they could not fathom how this paper related to their river with its still pools, narrow rapids, broad rocky crossings and meanderings. They and their ancestors wandered far and wide, as did the people of the neighboring tribes; what were they to say about the overlap in their lands? And what of the places where only spirits could go – if they were to mark those down upon the white man’s talking paper, would the spirits be angered? They stared and stared but could not see Ta-co-bet’s shimmering snowfields on the paper, or the soft limbs of the red alder glowing in late autumn sunshine, or the splashing smaller creeks like Muck and Tanwax and Ohop, or the spike and bright yellow spathe of the skunk cabbage in spring, or the quiet marshes where the great blue heron stands still as death, waiting for the silver flash of a fish, or even Laliad, spirit of the wind, which every fool knows is everywhere.

When Mike returned but a short time later, he was annoyed to find that they had marked nothing on their paper. Pulling a watch from his pocket he exploded with a long string of angry words. Shaw sought in vain a translation for “hour,” then whittled it down to one bland question: “It has been an hour–what have you been doing?”

Insulted, Leschi tried to explain. “This oow of which you speak, it is nothing. We have wandered this land since Whulge was new.”

Mike just scowled, and grabbed the map away. “Tell me, what is the farthest south your people range?”

“To the Skookumchuk,” replied Leschi, referring to the fast-running river that flows into the land of the Chehalis.

“And the furthest north?”

“The T’kope,” replied Leschi, referring to the river that joins the Puyallup, then empties into Commencement Bay by the growing town of Tacoma.

“OK,” said Mike. “And we’ll assume you go all the way from Sound to Mountains – right?” No answer. So he made two big slashes on the talking paper. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” he asked with an unfriendly grin. “Now you can muck-a-muck,” he added as an afterthought. Gathering up the pencils and the map, he rushed off to the next table, where the Puyallups stood puzzling over their own strange talking paper, to do the same for them.

The Nisquallies shuffled off to the feasting tables, but the food was cold.

Christmas Day, 1854, did not dawn crystalline and bright on Medicine Creek; some say it did not dawn at all. It was one of those Pacific Northwest winter mornings in which the transition from night to day is imperceptible, a mere exchange of gloom for gloom, one wet, consumptive breath following another. It was dark, and then it was less dark. The lone raven perched on a dripping limb of the snag gradually adjusted its eye to a startling tableau below: seven hundred painted and bejeweled Indians gathered in concentric arcs before two glowing white tents. The Chiefs stood tall as their bowlegged statures would allow, in breeches and tunics of cedar, trimmed with whistling marmot and cougar, majestic in bearskin cloaks, gripping Hudson’s Bay fusee muskets and bone-tipped spears by their sides. Their faces were painted black and ochre beneath otterskin caps, brightened by white eagle and indigo mallard feathers. In a display of wealth, the Chiefs
’ necks were laden with string upon string of rare hiqua necklaces.

Facing the Natives sat the treaty commissioners, snug under a canopy in stiff-backed fir chairs at document-strewn tables, brandishing steel quills in the place of muskets and spears. Lieutenant Slaughter wore his full dress uniform, red-striped pants smart over spit-shined boots. Shaw, a veteran of General Zachary Taylor’s campaign from Palo Alto to Buena Vista, was also in uniform, gold braid on his shoulder pining for a bit of light to reflect. The Harvard men, Charles Mason and surveyor George Gibbs, wore proper black woolen frock coats, with high starched collars and black cravats smartly pinned at the throat. Mike Simmons represented the pioneer spirit, in fringed buckskin under a big black woolen greatcoat with brass buttons.

One empty seat waited at the very heart of this assemblage, directly in front of the point where the towering treaty snag, like some grey and malevolent wizard, was calling down buckets of torrential rain. At last two small vibrant figures emerged from the tent. It was the Governor, accompanied by his twelve-year-old son Hazard, who stood off to the side between soldiers and members of the Governor’s staff as his father strode to the center table. The Governor was wearing a dark frock coat over a red flannel shirt, with baggy woolen trousers tucked into his scuffed boots “California style,” and his trademark insouciant felt slouch hat angled on his head. As usual, a clay pipe was tucked neatly into the hatband. Two sharp points protruded beneath the hat: Stevens’ nose and his neatly trimmed goatee, giving him at first the appearance of Punch from Punch and Judy. Rather than sitting, the Governor mounted the chair to survey the Chiefs with eyes that danced and burned like lightning. They saw his power, and some were afraid.

Stevens began to speak in a clear high voice, and although Shaw had already demonstrated facility with Whulshootseed, he interpreted in the clumsy Chinook trading jargon with its limited vocabulary. Leschi was surprised, but Shaw knew what he was doing: following the Governor’s strict instructions.

“Today is Christmas, a special day for the white man because Jesus Christ, the son of God, was born this day,” he began. “And this particular Christmas is extra special, because it is a day of peace and friendship between your people and mine for all time to come. You are about to be paid for your lands.” Leschi smiled and relaxed upon hearing this news affirmed by the great man himself, thinking that it was indeed, as his friend Mike Simmons had said, kloshe.

“The Great Father in Washington City has sent me today to treat with you concerning payment. The Great Father lives far off beyond the mountains. He has many children, too many for him to keep track of by himself, so he sent me here to watch out for them. My people and I have studied your wants and your needs, and because I feel much for you, I went to the Great Father and told him what we have seen here of your hardships, of the white settlements on your lands and the quarrels that have arisen, of the diseases you catch from the white man. The Great Father took pity on his children, and he has sent me here today to make a treaty for your benefit.”

“Leschi,” whispered Kitsap, “I am no child. I am a man. What about you?” Leschi shifted uneasily, but said nothing.

“The Great Father wishes you to have homes, pasture for your horses and fishing places. He wishes you to learn to farm, and for your children to go to a good school. He wants me to make a bargain with you, in which you will sell your lands, and in return be provided with all these things. My commissioners will explain to you the terms of the treaty. If it is good you will sign it, and I will send it to the Great Father. I think he will be pleased with it and say it is good. If he does, it will be a fixed bargain, and payment will be made. If he wants changes he will say so, and then if you agree it will be a fixed bargain and payment will be made.” This was confusing and especially hard to follow in Chinook, but each time he spoke of payment Stevens waved his hand toward the many tables heaped high with furs, blankets, necklaces, bolts of calico and lace, bales of brightly-colored ribbons, crates of shiny axes, shovels, hammers, pitchforks and knives, saddles, bridles, harnesses, plows and harrows. The Indians looked longingly at the tables, but they were guarded by soldiers holding rifles.

Kitsap leaned over and whispered to Leschi, “Look carefully, fellow Tyee. There is everything we could want on that table, except for the guns needed to keep the white man from stealing it all back again.” Leschi nodded; the point was not lost on him.

The Governor turned the proceedings over to Secretary Mason, who did his best to bore everyone into submission by a long recital of what he called “irrevocable covenants and conditions between the treating paahties,” which Shaw translated as skookum mahkook kwahnesum – “strong bargain forever.” What was this? Leschi did not understand. No two tribes had ever made a treaty that could not be changed later. Did not the great cedars themselves grow old and eventually fall? Everything changes. How could men make something that could not change? Something outside the great wheel of life?

Mason continued: “The Indians will retain the right to take fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations in common with all citizens of the Territory, together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses on open and unclaimed lands.” Well, thought Leschi, that is very good. Sah-hah-lee Tyee made the earth big enough for all, and Doquelbuth stocked the streams to bursting; there could never come a time when there was not enough land or fish for all.

“Indians will be prohibited from using or selling firewater on the reservations,” continued Mason, which pleased Leschi, “and they will also be barred from keeping or trading in slaves,” which did not seem right to Leschi. Had they not always done so? Hadn’t Washington Bush admitted to him that the Tyee of Tyees in Washington City protected his own peoples’ right to own slaves in many of the lands controlled by the Bostons? Besides, without slaves, who would do their hardest, dirtiest labor? Toilet pits could not be filled by free members of the tribe, even women. They would be soiled irrevocably, so the spirits would not help them into the afterworld.

“The Government can deduct each year from its payments for your lands, the value of any property stolen by Indians,” continued Mason. Leschi frowned. Treating them as criminals dishonored them. In unscrupulous hands, could this not prevent them from receiving any payment at all? Leschi was becoming concerned.

Young Hazard Stevens grew bored with the lengthy recitation of legalisms, and ran off with Quiemuth’s son George and the other Indian boys, to explore down by the creek. Mason droned on and on, still never really getting to the point of what it was that they had come to hear. Finally, he turned to Mike Simmons. “Mr. Simmons will now explain the lands set aside for you, and the payments to be made. Mike?”

There was Leschi’s good friend, the man he’d rescued like a helpless bear cub now grown full to grizzly, ready to repay the debt. Only the words were not adding up; perhaps it was the jargon. The Nisquallies were to be paid a lot of money – Mike called it “$32,500.” Leschi did not know what that was; such numbers were unfamiliar to him. They were to be paid that money over twenty years. He knew “years” – it meant a cycle of seasons, what his people called “summers,” and “twenty” was two tens. But at the beginning they would get $3,250, and then in other years different amounts, until at the end they would get $1,000. Was that more or
less? And was it more or less than $32,500? What were these numbers? Was it as many as the salmon that they were to give up? As many as the trees in the forests they were to sell? He knew what his people could do with a salmon or a red cedar, but what could they do with $32,500?

“You will not be paid, of course, until the Great Father in Washington ratifies the treaty.” The word was translated – tumtum kunamokst – agree. If the Great Tyee Stevens says it is good, is it not a bargain? Or has he not the power we were told that he had? Leschi did not understand.  How could the White Tyee of Tyees in Washington City, who had never visited their land, never looked them in the eye or seen how they live, know what is best for them?

“You will not be paid in cash, but in the equivalent value in goods, selected at the discretion of the Government.” There was no word for “Government,” so Shaw simply substituted Boston lalang – “Boston Tribe.” Leschi’s head began to swim. They would be paid, but not yet, and then not paid. How would the Bostons know better than they how to spend their dollars?

“The President retains the authority,” continued Mike – which Shaw translated as skookum, this time meaning “power” instead of “strong” – “when the interests of the Territory may require, to relocate your reservation to another location which, in his sole discretion, is suitable for your purposes.” Speaking quickly to keep up, Shaw first rendered “another location” as polaklie illahee, then paused and thought for a minute, before correcting it to huloima illahee. A murmur of dismay was audible from the gathered Natives. Despite the correction, the damage was done: Shaw had spoken the name of the land of perpetual blackness, a frigid land where the streams run foul and a single sting of an insect is fatal.

“Silence!” commanded Stevens, “allow Mr. Simmons to finish.” And Simmons proceeded to the most important part, explaining in detail exactly where the various reservations for the tribes were to be located. Leschi listened intently as Simmons pointed behind them to the rocky wooded bluff that dropped to the sea from high cliffs, comprised of what he called “1,280 acres of prime forest land.”

“This high land by the Sound,” said Leschi’s friend Mike Simmons, uttering simple words that slashed like bear claws, “shall be the reservation for the Nisqually people.”

Even the gulls fell silent.

Simmons asked if there were any questions. Leschi’s stomach felt as if he’d been punched hard. He closed his eyes and transported himself back to the rim of Ta-co-bet from which he drew a powerful angry breath of flame. “Would you move all of your people there,” he cried, jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the inhospitable bluff, “forsaking Tenalquot to live on a tiny, rocky, wooded cliff, Govenol Stevens?” Leschi spit out the name in English, his black eyes like coals startling the little Governor, who had not expected to be addressed directly and by name.

“Questions for me, Leschi,” hissed Simmons through Shaw, but Stevens was already standing, pushing Simmons aside.

“Translate it,” commanded Stevens, and Shaw did so. Stevens leaned over to his commissioners. “Who is this impudent siwash?” he demanded.

“Leschi, sir. One of the Nisqually Chiefs,” replied Mason. “Dr. Tolmie vouches for him; says he’s been a good friend to the whites.”

“You believe that limey weasel?” muttered Stevens. “Simmons, you seem to be acquainted with this so-called Chief. Is he a troublemaker?”

Mike paused only half a beat. “Yes, suh.”

“What do we know about him – I mean, to his disadvantage?”

“Well, Gov’nor, the varmit’s only half-Nisqually. His ma was Klickitat. A lot of his people ain’t too comfortable with that; them Klickitats got themselves chased over to this-here side of the mountains, and the Nisquallies think the Klickitats’re trying to take over their lands.” Stevens smiled and nodded. Mike had done his job well.

Stevens turned to face the Indians once again. Everyone was tense, waiting to see how he would respond to the challenge. The Governor just smiled blandly at Leschi. “If I were in your position, Mr. Leschi, charged with looking out for the best interests of the Nisquallies,” he said with extra emphasis, “I would move my people to that safe and secure ridge, and be grateful for the opportunity.”

“We are grateful, great Tyee,” responded Leschi cooly, straining to rein in his temper. “We are grateful every day when we rise, and we see the trees and sky and fish jumping in the river, like our ancestors before us. You say there is a Great Father in a place called Washington City, who feels pity for his children. We are not grateful for that. We are men, like yourselves. We ask for respect, not pity. We have come here as men, to make a treaty with other men.”

“We have made you our offer, Leschi, because we want your people to be cared for,” replied Stevens. “But you must realize, you can no longer care for yourselves in a land governed by the United States of America. A people who cannot care for themselves are like children. Be thankful that you have a Father in Washington City who really does care for the best interests of all his children, and who will treat you with justice and mercy. Now, we will all take a break to enjoy the great feast that I, as your host, have prepared for you, my honored guests. As you eat, consider well what we offer to you – peaceful homes on a protected reservation, all the usual fishing, hunting and gathering that you have always done, plus the means to learn the white man’s way of life. There will be no changes to our offer. If it is good, sign the treaty; if it is not, do not. But I warn you,” and here his voice grew hard, “there will be consequences for any tribe that does not sign.” The row of soldiers brandishing rifles made it unnecessary to elaborate. Stevens smiled. “Now, eat well. Enjoy the blessings that only come from peace.”

Bones Beneath Our Feet by Michael Schein © 2011, Michael Schein, all rights reserved. Bennett & Hastings Publishing. Excerpt from Chapter 6 – used by permission.

Michael Schein will lead three afternoon workshops in fiction and poetry as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Michael is the author of a literary crime novel, two historical novels, a play, and a logorrhea of poems. Bones Beneath Our Feet, Michael’s new historical novel of the conquest of Puget Sound by the “Boston” tribe, will be released May 1. His first novel, Just Deceits, has been keeping readers up late since 2008.  Michae is the director of LiTFUSE Poets’ Workshop, and BURNING WORD at Icicle Creek. His poetry has been widely published, nominated for the Pushcart twice, and stuck to refrigerators by magnets. Check out his website here!


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