Umatilla, Walla Walla & Cayuse
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Establishment of Fort Nez Perces
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Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
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1855 Stevens Map
National Archives
Courtesy of the
Tamastslikt Cultural Institute
1857 Stevens map
National Archives

Umatilla > Culture > Making Treaties
To set the stage, let's first go back to 1853. The U.S. Congress had allocated $150,000 to explore and survey the land west of the Mississippi for a transcontinental railroad. The newly nominated governor of the Washington territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Isaac I. Stevens, was to lead the party that would explore the northern route, from St. Louis to the Puget Sound. His job was also to negotiate treaties that would ensure peace among the many native people along the route and purchase portions of their homelands, creating reservations for the "tribes."

Before the coming of White people each Umatilla family band was considered independent. Those groups that we today call "tribes" were really a number of different family units who spoke a common dialect that gathered together during the winter and other times throughout the yearly cycle. In the course of these get-togethers headmen, or leaders, from each family band gathered for council. If a headman or any individual was in disagreement with the group consensus, they could not be forced to follow it (Stern 1998). The headman or "chief" of a group was not a fixed individual; different people led at different times. Nor did these leaders have formal power over others; they were more like respected individuals among equals with considerable powers of persuasion (Teverbaugh 2000). So, those "chiefs" who signed treaties with the United States government were not qualified to speak for the many people who were affected by these agreements.

Walla-Walla Treaty Council Signed June 9th, 1855
In one of the most beautiful spots of the Walla Walla valley, "many different people of the Plateau gathered to council with those representing the U.S. government (Kip 1855: 10). Headmen of only a few of the bands spoke for many of the Plateau people. The government officials said that these men had authority to make important decisions and sign the treaty that gave up much of the 6.4 million acres of Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse land. Actually, they had no more right to sell the property of others or live on another's land than someone today has to sell their neighbor's house or move onto their property (
Sohon, 1855
Courtesy Washington State Historical Societ
At the beginning of the council Stevens had intended on moving the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse onto the Nez Perce Reservation, which none of the Indians wanted. Those who voiced their displeasure to the move were intimately attached to their homelands and did not wish to be moved far from them.
Tauitau (Young Chief), leader of a band of Cayuse, powerfully expressed the sentiment of the Indians at the council on June 7th:
Tauitau, aka We-ah-te-na-tee-ma-ny
Sohon, 1855
Courtesy Washington State Historical Society

I wonder if this ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come to life and what is on it? I hear what this earth says. The earth says, God has placed me here. The earth says that God tells me to take care of the Indians on this earth.
It was because of the opposition of Peo-peo-mox-mox of the Walla Walla, Stickus of the Cayuse, Tauitau of the Umatilla, and many others that a separate treaty with a new reservation, the Umatilla Reservation was created. The Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse bands were given 245,000 acres of land, and Stevens gave the powerful and influential Peo-peo- mox-mox several gifts, including an up-front lump sum of $500 cash. Other treaty goods were promised as well. image
Sohon, 1855
Courtesy Washington State Historical Society

Most important to the Indians were the rights they reserved to fish, gather roots, berries, medicines, hunt game, and graze horses and cattle outside the reservation on the 6.4 million acres of their traditional homelands. Those rights were reserved to ensure that their future generations would have food and medicine, that they would be able to continue their traditions and customs.

Despite the fact that there were several interpreters helping with the treaty negotiations, the various parties did not leave the council grounds with the same understanding. Tauitau, Young Chief, leader of a band of Cayuse told Stevens, "The reason we could not understand you was that you selected this country for us to live in without our having any voice in the matter" (Slickpoo and Walker 1973:125).

Stevens (1855: 98) told the tribes at Walla Walla Council that they "will not be called according to the paper [treaty] to move on the reservation for two or three years." Yet, before the treaties were ratified, large invasions of goldseekers and homesteaders moved into the territory that had been set aside for these tribes. The treaty wasn't ratified until 1859. For years, many of the Umatilla and Walla Walla continued to follow their traditional seasonal round, refusing to move to the Umatilla Indian Reservation where they would be forced to abandon their life-ways for that of an American farmer (Stern 1998).

Tribal Understanding of Treaties

"To understand the tribal view of the treaties you have to start with the minutes because that's what was presented to the tribes, that's what they were agreeing to, not some document signed at the end of negotiations, but rather the talk. They even used that phrase a lot; if you look at the council minutes carefully, no Indian or tribal member there ever uses the word "treaty," they use the word "talk" typically. While there is a lot of correspondence between what was said and what was eventually written, they are not the same, and the tribal understanding necessarily must come from the minutes and not the document itself. The treaty is in the minutes and not in the document that the Senate ratified, from a tribal perspective." Dennis Colsen, Professor of Law, University of Idaho


"What shall we do at this council? We want you and ourselves to agree upon tracts of land where you will live; in those tracts of land we want each man who will work to have his own land, his own horses, his own cattle, and his own home for himself and his children. On each tract we want an agent to live who shall be your brother, and who shall protect you from bad white men.

"Then you the men will be farmers and mechanics, or you will be doctors and lawyers like white men; your women and your daughters will then teach their children, those who come after them to spin, to weave, to knit, to sew, and all the work of the house and lodges, you will have your own teachers, your own farmers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and mechanics; besides this we want on each tract a saw mill and a grist mill.

"Now we want you to agree with us to such a state of things; you to have your tract with all these things; the rest to be the Great Father's for his white children." Gov. Isaac I. Stevens, 1855 Treaty Council

"And now while there is room to select for you a home where there are no white men living let us do so." General Palmer

Background adapted from: 1858 John Mullan's Map of Military Reconnaissance from Fort Dalles, Oregon, via Fort Wallah-Wallah, to Fort Taylor, Washington Territory, assisted by Theodore Kolecki and Gustavus Sohon.
Courtesy of Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana, Missoula