Coast Salish Leaders Advise Young People to 'Learn the Treaty'

At the annual Treaty Days commemoration for the Swinomish Tribe on January 21, leaders spoke to the youth with a clear message of educating themselves on the treaty so they could properly defend the tribes rights.

SWINOMISH, Wash. – This wasn’t a landmark anniversary. It was the 157th, to be exact. But the message was as strong as if it were the first anniversary of the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855—Young people must study the treaty and must get the proper education so they can defend it.

At the annual Treaty Days commemoration in the Swinomish Smokehouse January 21, one leader talked of how, as a child, he saw his parents get arrested for fishing without a state license, even though Article V of the treaty was their license to fish. Another talked of being harassed recently for hunting elk in traditional hunting areas, another for harvesting cedar.

And so, the battle to protect treaty rights continues. Doing so takes tenacity and it takes education so the individual knows how to defend the treaty in courts and in the halls of government of the dominant society, they said.

“One hundred and fifty seven years ago, the treaty was signed. We gave up a lot,” said Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon. “(The U.S.) wanted us to live on reservations, they wanted us to learn to farm. The assimilation effort was on. But because our ancestors had the hearts of warriors, we have our language and our way of life today.”

The Treaty of Point Elliott was, in a sense, a bill of sale: In exchange for a large swath of land – bordered roughly by Canada to the north, Seattle to the south, the Salish Sea to the west and the Cascades to the east – the U.S. government promised cash, reservations, health care and schools. The 82 Coast Salish leaders who signed the treaty on January 22, 1855 also reserved the rights of their people to fish, harvest and hunt in their “usual and accustomed grounds.”

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that treaties, as well as the Constitution and federal statutes, are "the supreme law of the land." But problems for the Point Elliott Treaty began as soon as the last signer made his mark.

Settlers flooded into the area in the four years between the treaty’s signing and its full ratification by Congress on April 11, 1859, displacing indigenous populations although, without ratification of the treaty, the U.S. government’s purchase of the land was not yet effective. Seattle’s early non-Native residents successfully petitioned their congressman to prevent a reservation from being established for the Duwamish, whose leader was the first signer of the treaty.

(Coincidentally, this year’s treaty commemoration came on the 11th anniversary of the Duwamish Tribe’s recognition by the outgoing Clinton administration, a recognition that was reversed by the succeeding Bush administration on the grounds that there was a break in continuity of Duwamish’s political and social structures in the 1920s. Restoration of Duwamish’s relationship with the U.S. government is now the subject of a congressional bill and a lawsuit).

Potlatches were outlawed until 1934; languages were banned in residential schools. The U.S. government tried to terminate its relationship with treaty tribes and turn that role over to states. Native people were sent from reservations to urban areas to work. The treaty right of the region’s First Peoples to fish wasn’t upheld until 1974, by the U.S. District Court in U.S. v. Washington.

Early policies took their toll on the culture. But because of the courage of the treaty’s defenders since 1855, the culture survives.

The battles continue. On the environmental front, for example, the treaty signatories are working to correct years of havoc wreaked on salmon populations through habitat destruction, pollution, development near shorelines and overfishing by commercial fisheries. The salmon is important to the cultural, spiritual and physical health of the state’s Indigenous Peoples.

“No habitat equals no salmon. No salmon equals no treaty rights,” Chairman Billy Frank Jr. of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission wrote recently. “And no treaty rights equals a breach of contract between the tribes and U.S. government.”

Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, a great-great-grandson of a treaty signer, said the treaty was the foundation for the positive economic and cultural changes at Swinomish in his 27 years in leadership.

“Never forget what our elders did for us in 1855. They traveled in their canoes in the middle of winter … they braved the elements for each of you,” Cladoosby told those in the smokehouse. In attendance was Marty Loesch, chief of staff to Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“When you go home, let your leaders know how important the treaty is. Let them know our treaty rights are not for sale.”

Read the full text of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855 here.