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Nisqually veterans of all wars, honored at flag ceremony

OLYMPIA, Wash. - When Bob Sison was a little boy, he stood on the docks in Juneau, Alaska, and waved goodbye to the troops boarding ships to go to war.

It was World War II, the Big One, and he wondered which men would be coming home and which would lay down their lives on foreign ground. He says those moments were the start of his personal spiritual journey.

Many years later, as a Nisqually tribal elder and a Navy veteran of the Korean and Cold wars, Sison was concerned about the numbers of Nisqually veterans who lay, unremarked and unhonored, in the Leschi Cemetery not far from his home on the rural reservation. He was not the only one concerned. The whole tribe was aware that elders who knew the locations and numbers of veterans in the cemetery were passing, taking the knowledge with them.

The tribe agreed a symbol, some kind of memorial, was needed to honor the veterans of two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, but for many years nothing was done.

Speaking at a luncheon meeting one day last November, Sison mentioned his dream of having a ceremonial American flag and flag pole erected in the cemetery to honor the tribe's veterans. Much to his surprise, a Colonel Pease from the Pentagon was in the audience and came up to him after his speech.

"He took it to heart what I was saying," Sison says. "He went over and spoke to a representative from Fort Lewis and challenged him - if they would put up a flagpole, he would fly the flag over the Pentagon and send it to me."

The challenge was picked up by Army Col. Luke Green of Fort Lewis. The fort's engineering corps designed and installed the flagpole. Col. Pease kept his promise, flew a flag over the Pentagon in honor of the Nisqually Tribe, and packed it off to Sison. In late August his vision finally came true.

At a formal ceremony, Nisqually tribal members stood in the damp, grey mist with representatives from the Air Force and Army and representatives of Congressmen Adam Smith and Brian Baird and state Representative Patti Murray, honoring the estimated 100 Nisqually veterans who died, fighting to protect their country.

In an odd twist of fate, it also proved to be a long-overdue ceremony for other Nisqually members who died fighting the U.S. government back in 1854, including the famous Nisqually Chief Leschi.

Tribal administrator Richard Wells made it clear the honoring ceremony included those who died defending the very ground upon which Fort Lewis Military Reservation stands.

"We look upon it as a war between the Nisqually and United States," Wells says. "So the Nisqually Indians that are buried in Leschi Cemetery are veterans of that war. ... I don't know if the military knows that's how we look at it, but they will after they hear my speech."

The tribe's earliest war heroes died fighting a war that was brief, little known, but highly effective.

When the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty failed to grant the tribe a portion of the Nisqually River for fishing and a segment of prairie land, Leschi refused to sign the treaty.

Although he later met with acting Governor Mason, peacefully seeking the lands requested, he was again refused. Fearing an uprising by the Nisqually, Mason ordered a detachment of volunteers, Eaton's Rangers, to arrest Leschi and his brother Quiemuth.

The brothers fled to the mountains to the east. Other Nisqually and Puyallup warriors and their families joined him, and Leschi was chosen to be war chief of the Allied Indian Forces.

Although Leschi stressed that the war was only against military troops and not settlers, other warrior groups attacked and killed civilian families, burning their homes.

The governor was infuriated and refused further peace talks with Leschi, saying he would not rest until "every savage who murdered the families on the White River is hanged by the neck until dead."

The United States government intervened and the next governor, Governor Stevens, met with the Medicine Creek Treaty Indians and granted the Nisqually Tribe the desired area on the Nisqually River. The brief war was over, but Leschi and his brother Quiemuth remained hunted men.

Both were eventually captured. Quiemuth was murdered by his captors. Leschi was sentenced to be hanged as a murderer, but no sheriff would do the job, claiming Leschi was a prisoner of war.

"So then the governor asked the Army to hang him and the Army refused him because they considered him a prisoner of war rather than a murderer," Wells says.

Frustrated, Governor Stevens asked the Legislature to change the rules, allowing deputy sheriffs to hang prisoners. On Feb. 19, 1858, Chief Leschi went to the gallows. He forgave his accusers, stated again that he did not kill those he was accused of murdering, and died like the chief he was.

The flag ceremony was an appropriate, late tribute.

Sison, who hand-built the stone memorial in front of the flag pole, was happy that at long last all those who were so deserving had been honored. He says it is visions that come from the heart, such as his vision of this simple ceremony, that have the most impact in life.

"I want people to not be dreamers," he says. "We must have visions and then work on our visions. ... I think people need to know that to dream of something is not really a reality. But to visualize it and feel it within your heart, then you'll have it. ... And this I've felt from my heart."