Monday, March 7, 2011

Moses, an Epic Figure of 19th Century Washington

Sulk-tash-kosha (Moses), bronze medallion by Olin Warner, 1891

A few years ago I came across a set of bronze medallions at the New York Metropolitan Art Museum. The medallions were of famous northwest First Nations peoples. It was a rare glimpse at art of the late 19th Century era depicting images associated with what is now Washington State. I came across the same set of medallions at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in December. Some of the individuals portrayed in the medallions were not only famous, but played a significant role in shaping what is now the landscape of Washington State. One medallion is of Chief Moses.

Moses Lake, both the City and the Lake are named after Moses as is Moses Coulee. Both interesting geologic features. The lake occupies a former Missoula flood channel downstream of the famous Dry Falls and other Missoula Flood channels. Moses Coulee is carved into the southern part of the Waterville Plateau as a result of the continental ice sheet diverting the Columbia River during the last glacial period approximately 18,000 years ago. Both of these features are located in central Washington in the area that had been Moses' homeland.

Moses' life spanned the American settlement of the far west of America and he lived through and played a significant role in nearly all aspects of the wrenching changes that swept his homeland and what is now eastern Washington. His general reputation is that he was peaceable, but that really is the result of a couple of key moments when he decided not to go to war. Moses was perfectly willing to fight and indeed at times he did.

In 1855 Washington's first territorial governor Stevens brought together Indians in western Washington for a treaty and then traveled to eastern Washington near Walla Walla for a treaty negotiation with eastern Washington tribes. Many tribal leaders participated and signed the treaty, but certainly not all and matters were far from settled when Stevens left the future state.

Moses was not happy with the treaty. And for good reason. The treaty would have extinguished his peoples claims to land they were living on. Post 1855 treaty, Moses is reported to have participated in battles near Toppenish fighting off soldiers attempting to quell the dissatisfied Indians. He along with several other Indians headed towards the Palouse to join the Spokanes and other non treaty tribes to fight off Colonel Wright's counter attack avenging the defeat of Colonel Steptoe in May 1858. But Moses arrived after the Spokanes and their allies were defeated. Wright definitely wanted Moses for Moses' actions against settlers and miners in eastern Washington, but Moses slipped away. It is very likely Moses would have been hung by Wright as one of his associates was hung.

After the Spokane War, Moses as well as most First Nations peoples kept a low profile and he kept his people in check allowing the passage of cattle drives from Oregon to the Caribou mining district in Canada through his land. The Civil War also allowed time to pass before a more active effort at resolving the issue of numerous non treaty Indian groups. Another factor may have been diseases including small pox that swept through First Nations peoples of the area in the 1860s greatly reducing the population and severely disrupting the cultures of the people.  By 1872 a new reservation was established in northern central Washington, the Colville Reservation. But Moses refused to agree to go to the reservation and remained part of the non treaty Indians attempting to hang on to their land.

Peace held even during the Nez Perce War as Moses declined to join Joseph's Nez Perce band's battles with the army and did not take advantage of the the otherwise preoccupied army. After Joseph was captured, Moses went to council with General Howard in 1878. Moses requested that the Columbia Basin northwest of a line running from Spokane to Yakima be set aside as a reservation for the Columbia Indians. Howard ordered no further white settlement and the request was forwarded to President Hayes. In 1879 Hayes turned down the request.

However, Hayes asked that Moses come to Washington DC. After Moses' trip to DC, Hayes ordered a new reservation to be created west of the Colville Reservation covering the west slope of the North Cascades. Hayes shortly afterwards extended the reserve to the south to the south shore of Lake Chelan.

This Indian Reservation was called the Columbia Reservation.  Look at a map today and there is no Columbia Reservation. It did not take long for objections to be raised. Initially geology came into play. The northern portion of the reservation was an identified mining district that had been overlooked. The northern 15 miles was subsequently removed by Hayes. Problems and objections to the Columbia Reservation continued including the fact that Moses was now living, not on the Columbia Reservation, but on the Colville Reservation. Hayes asked Moses to come to Washington DC again.

A couple noteworthy things can be said about Moses' trips to DC. One was on the first trip he had a pending murder charge against him that he was acquitted from after his return. Another was that his first trip required a steamer boat trip to San Francisco to catch the train to the east. On his second trip Moses was able to take a train from Spokane. While in DC Moses was asked if he and the other Indians he was traveling with would accept payment to be viewed on stage. Moses said of the event "We went and all we had to do was sit on stage, look wild, smoke a pipe of peace and give an occasional yell."

During the second trip Moses agreed to cede the Columbia Reservation in exchange for a sawmill, grist mill, cows, wagons, plows and a payment of $1,000 per year. The treaty was ratified in 1884. This agreement received a mix response by Columbia Basin and Cascade slope Indians. In fact there are bands of Columbia Basin Indians that never agreed to a treaty and remained off of reservations continuing to claim their land.

Moses lived on the Colville Reservation the rest of his life. He invited Chief Joseph and part of Joseph's band of Nez Perce to live near Nespelum with him. Perhaps he saw opportunity to gain more services and supplies for his people and Joseph's. Moses may have taken advantage of his leadership position, but he certainly never got a very good deal from the US Government. One last betrayal took place in 1891. Again geology played a key role. Gold and other minerals were discovered on the northern portion of the Colville Reservation. The government offered to buy the land from the tribes on the Colville Reservation for $1.5 million. Moses counseled "Yes, take the money because the whites would take the land anyway." He had seen the pattern before. The tribes of the Colville agreed to the deal. The money never came; Congress removed the funding from the budget.

The Colville Reservation is an interesting place and governing must be interesting with multiple tribes making decisions as a confederated group. Moses lived out his days on the southwest part of the reservation. Chief Joseph lived there as well and the two very different famous personalities made an intriguing pair that historians of that period frequently comment on. I am not sure I fully can ever understand the remarkable changes that took place during Moses' life or how he had to deal with those changes.

Besides the medallion depicting Moses, a bronze medallion of Joseph and other northwest Indians are hanging in the Smithsonian and the New York Metropolitan Museum. The story of the how the medallions came to be is for another post.

Sin-kah-you Chief Moses (seated on the left), Umatilla Chief Pee-peo-mox-mox (seated on the right) and two other delegates sent to Washington, D.C. to petition President Hayes in 1879

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