Hundreds celebrate Leschi

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By Scott Fontaine -- The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

TACOMA, Wash. (MCT) - Hundreds sat in the bleachers at Chief Leschi School's gymnasium below flags of tribes from around the country. Elders from the Nisqually Tribe standing near the half-court circle eulogized the chief and recounted memories. Dozens stood in a circle and sang during a drumming ceremony.

It was the final ceremony of the inaugural ''Honor & Celebration of Brothers,'' a daylong tribute to the lives of Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Tribe and his half-brother, Quiemuth.

Leschi was executed 150 years ago, on Feb. 19, after a conviction that proved controversial at the time and has since been vacated. Quiemuth was killed while in protective custody.

The festivities prove how much times have changed, one participant said.

''To me, it's phenomenal that we've reached a point that a Native American who was executed is honored and recognized,'' John LaPointe said. ''In the most elementary sense, he was a true American, fighting for freedom, fighting for democracy, fighting for his people.''

About 100 people met to pay tribute to the chief at a marker in Lakewood, erected in honor of Leschi near the spot where he was hanged. They ran a 12 1/2-mile course from the marker to Chief Leschi School.

Others participated in unity walks from Grandview Early Learning Center near Roosevelt Park to Leschi's grave, near the Church of the Indian Fellowship, and on to Chief Leschi School in Puyallup.

At the grave, participants listened to speeches and offered a prayer for the chief. The walkers heading toward Chief Leschi School marched down the shoulder of Pioneer Way wearing bright yellow T-shirts bearing stenciled images of Leschi and Quiemuth.

At the school, about 300 people ate lunch, listened to speakers and watched dance and drum performances.

''Chief Leschi had everything,'' Ramona Bennett, a Puyallup tribal leader, told the audience. ''Everybody respected him. He was smart. He was well-to-do. For an Indian person, he was very well off.

''But he made a stand with our treaty, our fishing rights, our natural resources. He knew you could not live with dignity if you had to be on your bloody knees begging for a handout. He wanted us to be self-supporting.''

After the chief realized how little the tribe received in the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty with the federal government, he led a period of resistance that lasted several months and included periods of sporadic violence.

After the conflict, which involved killings on both sides, Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens granted amnesty to most. Leschi and Quiemuth were excluded.

Leschi was arrested and charged with murdering a militiaman - a charge the chief denied - and was convicted and executed.

Quiemuth turned himself in to authorities after the first of Leschi's two trials. That night, while in protective custody in the governor's office, intruders killed him.

The state Legislature decreed in 2004 that Leschi was wrongly convicted and executed. A historical court exonerated him later that year.

''This is a healing process today,'' said Cecelia LaPointe-Gorman, a Swinomish tribal member and a linguistic historian.

Remembering the past, some hope, will make for a better future.

''I asked my aunt about Leschi and the treaty,'' said James McCloud, a Nisqually tribal elder and historian. ''She said, 'That was the beginning of the end.'

''We're beginning again today.''

Copyright (c) 2008, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.