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‘Nisqually Indian Tribe’

Over the years, millions of words and thousands of books have been written and published about various Indians and their tribes, but very little has been written about specific tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Maria
Victoria Pascualy and Trisha Hunter have attempted to address that oversight and by doing so, have created a beautiful and moving tribute to the Squalli-absch people. Their new book, “Nisqually Indian Tribe,” is a welcome and long-overdue contribution to the history of the Natives of the region.

Their book is an amazing, scrapbook-like compilation of nearly 200 stunning photos, documents, maps, sketches and articles – many of which are part of Carpenter’s personal collection – and are as stimulating as they are informative.

Carpenter is a retired teacher and the tribe’s 83-year-old historian. She holds an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Puget Sound, a Distinguished Alumni Award from Pacific Lutheran University, a Murray Morgan Award and a Governor’s Ethnic Heritage Award. She says she initially set out to write an easy-to-understand chronicle about the complicated history of her people. “It’s easy reading because you can open it at any place and select a picture and read about it,” she said.

Pascualy, curator of the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, has collaborated on a number of regional Native history projects. Along with researcher Hunter, she teamed up with Carpenter to produce the book, which was published this year as part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

Through its elegant and moving images, the book tells the story of the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest South Sound.

The Nisqually language is a southern dialect of Lushootseed, a Salishan language. The Nisqually refer to themselves as “Squalli-absch,” or, the “people of the grass country.” Primarily fishermen, the Nisqually River was the lifeblood of the tribe until the British Hudson Bay Company infiltrated the area to begin fur trading in 1833. By 1846, the British and Americans were sharing joint occupancy of the region.

The Americans constructed a fort along the banks of the Steilacoom River in 1848, and settlers began to swarm into the Squalli territory. In 1850, the Donation Land Claim Act – a precursor of the Homestead Act – was passed by Congress, promoting and encouraging white settlement in region.

Isaac Stevens, the first territorial governor of the area, worked to extinguish the tribe’s title to the land while negotiating a number of treaties, the first of which was the Medicine Creek Treaty which established a reservation of 1,280 acres on Puget Sound for the tribe. Stevens determined to relocate the tribe to the highly forested region, away from their river and their livelihood.

The tribe fought the move valiantly, and along with the Puyallup, engaged in the Treaty War of 1855 – 56. The conflict ended with the execution of the tribes’ leaders, and the Squalli were moved to their reservation 15 miles east of present-day Olympia, Wash.

In 1884, acreage was set aside and divided into family allotments on both sides of the Nisqually River. The acreage didn’t include the river, however. There, the people lived by harvesting fish, shellfish, crabs, oysters, and other seafood from the Sound, with a supplement of government rations.

In the winter of 1917, the U.S. Army suddenly moved into their reserved lands and ordered them from their homes without warning. Between 1918 and 1920, Pierce County condemned 3,353 acres of Nisqually land, transferring title to the Army to expand the Fort Lewis base. This action resulted in the displacement of some three-fourths of the tribe. These families were ultimately relocated to new lands some distance away from the rest of the tribe. These unfortunate souls became known as the “dispossessed Nisquallies.”

Carpenter says that after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, the tribe composed a tribal constitution with special provisions for tribal enrollment. Since the band had been scattered through the whittling-down of its land holdings, however, many were left off the enrollment list. This marginalization was not addressed satisfactorily until the 1974 Boldt decision mandated open enrollment for any who qualified. The Boldt decision required equitable allocation of fishing rights between the treaty tribes and the state of Washington.

“Nisqually Indian Tribe” begins with archival photos of people and places in the distant past, and chronicles the life and times of these resilient people up to the present. Many of the images are amazingly beautiful illustrations of tribal culture and various aspects of its society. This book presents the Nisqually as a dynamic and flexible people with a vibrant past, present and future. Its pictures speak a thousand words and help readers come to a deeper understanding of their complex history.

“There’s a lot of information that can be related in images that can’t be related in words,” Pascualy observed.