Wrongheaded Murder?

What the Chief Leschi case could teach us about the war on terror.

I am all for the outing of the hideous skeletons in our historical closet. In a previous column (see "Breed and Weed," April 16, 2003), I called for Gov. Gary Locke to prod the state to make official amends for the state's involvement in the eugenics movement—policies and laws that advocated selective breeding and the elimination of "inferior" people for the sake of public health. Washington was one of the first states to authorize forced sterilization of "degenerates" to clean up the gene pool. Under the state's eugenics laws, some 700 Washingtonians were sterilized in the name of social "hygiene." More than 2,600 Oregonians met the same fate under a similar law passed in response to a gay-sex sandal in Portland. Long before the Nazis were getting rid of "perverts," the U.S. was leading the way, and the Pacific Northwest was leading the U.S.

Making amends is not about demanding reparations. It's about asking for public recognition of wrongs, especially those perpetrated by the state. Many states have simply and publicly apologized for their eugenics practices—and facilitated a public discussion of what happened and why.

Our region has many ugly episodes in its past: forced ice-pick lobotomies (the procedure was "invented" here at Western State mental hospital); radiation testing on the genitals of inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla; wiping out animal populations (e.g., beaver, salmon) to deny livelihoods to resident Native Americans; spreading diseases like small pox to the Indians; forcible banishment of the Chinese from Seattle; internment of Japanese civilians during World War II; release of radiation from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that poisoned unknowing "downwinders."

Later this week, the state is embarking on a perfect example of attempting to publicly hash out a historic wrong. On Friday, Dec. 10, a "Historical Court of Justice" will convene at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma to retry the case of Nisqually Indian Chief Leschi, who was active in the Indian uprising in the Washington Territory in the mid-1850s. Leschi led the attack in the original "battle in Seattle" in 1856. He was later accused—some say falsely—and convicted of the murder of a colonel in the Washington territorial militia, A.B. Moses. The case resonates today because some of the issues echo those of our era, especially controversial practices in response to the so-called war on terror. Was Leschi a prisoner of war who lawfully killed an enemy combatant? Or was he essentially a terrorist who, if he did not commit the act himself (and there is doubt that he was even present at Moses' killing), certainly led and condoned the native "rebellion" against white settlers? Was he lawfully protecting his homeland from invaders who lied, cheated, and stole his land? Should he have been tried, and if so, did he get a fair trial?

Then, as now, the "war" was racially charged. Many historians—and not a few contemporary pioneers—believed that the execution of Leschi amounted to a legal lynching done to exact revenge for Indian depredations during the Indian War. And don't think that it wasn't a violent, brutal time: Settlers and Indians alike were monstrously murdered and mutilated.

One killing that might have helped set the mood among settlers was the murder, in 1857, of Isaac Ebey, one of Puget Sound's most prominent citizens. Leschi had nothing to do with this case, but it's indicative of the kind of frightening climate the pioneers lived in. Ebey was attacked and beheaded on the front porch of his Whidbey Island home while his family fled out the back window of the cabin. The killers were a band of Indian raiders from Alaska who sought to kill a white man in revenge for the killing of one of their chiefs by the U.S. Navy at Port Gamble the year before. Ebey, like Moses, was a colonel in the local militia. He was also a legislator, businessman, and, at one time, perhaps the most powerful federal appointee in the territory. His killing inflamed Puget Sound's white residents, even more so because his killers were never caught. (They escaped to their village in Russian territory.) But it was an act that stirred fear and hostility among people reared on the biblical precept of "an eye for an eye" and who well knew that many of the region's natives, too, lived by that code.

At times, the frontier struggle amounted to a guerrilla war of the kind that earlier had inspired an 18th-century French participant in the frontier French and Indian War to observe: "Nous sommes tous sauvages"—we are all savages.

The "retrial" of Leschi will be a forum for exploration of these issues. Even though there were many settlers who thought Leschi innocent or wrongly executed, we can now benefit from 150 years of history and apply our modern lens to long-ago events. I think the "Historical Court of Justice," an idea hatched by state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, who will preside, is terrific. It could be a model of how to deal with other historical events—injustices or cold cases that remain unresolved or unsolved. It's a way to educate the public but also a way to examine what we're doing now and perhaps a path to reconciliation. Are we repeating injustices? Have we learned anything in 150 years? Does the Leschi case offer a way for us to see, in a new light, what is going on at Guantánamo Bay, in the streets of Iraq, on death row in Texas, in Israel and Gaza, on Indian reservations across America?

Learning from the past isn't a matter of simply reading the history books. Sometimes we need to grab the past by the lapels and give it a good shake.


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