The Nisqually Tribe is an American Indian nation in western Washington State. The tribe resides on a reservation in the Nisqually River valley near the river delta. The reservation is adjacent to the Fort Lewis Military Reserve and situated on the lower Nisqually River east of Olympia.
The Lushootseed language, which is the traditional tongue of the Nisqually and neighboring tribes, is a subgroup of the Salishan family of Native American languages.
For millennia, the traditional territory of the Nisqually bands was the Nisqually River drainage. Their forebears ranged from the waters of Puget Sound, (Whulge) to the woodlands of Mount Rainier(Tacobet). A legend holds that precursors of the present-day Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Squalli-absch, which means "people of the grass country," trekked north from the Great Basin and traversed the Cascade Mountains. They founded a settlement in a hollow presently called Skate Creek, outside the southern boundary of the Nisqually River watershed.
Nisqually culture was based on the natural environment, in particular species of salmon and the red cedar. They harvested shellfish from the sound, dug the starchy camas root, gathered berries, grasses and bark on the prairies between Whulge and Tacobet. They also hunted, and raised horses. They reverenced living things in ceremonies and rituals.
Land-hungry settlers began to encroach upon the area in the 1840s. In ensuing years their numbers increased, which created tension between the cultures. However, the Nisqually remained peaceful. When other Western Washington tribes advocated a war against the growing number of white settlers, Nisqually tribal leaders dismissed the notion.
In 1853, Washington territorial governor and Indian agent Isaac Stevens terminated Indian land rights, leaving only reserved land that was held in common by extended families. Under coercion, area tribes relinquished nearly all of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula some 2,240,000 acres to the government according to terms of Treaty of Medicine Creek of 1854.
Nisqually chiefs Leschi, and his brother Quiemuth, declined to ink the treaty because of its meager provisions. While American settlers were being issued 160 acres of land per person, Stevens' treaty gave Indians roughly four acres per individual. He also assigned the Nisqually to a small parcel of scrubland at a considerable remove from their life-giving river.
The Puget Sound Indian War, in which Nisqually warriors participated, erupted in 1855. The Indians fought courageously, but they ran short of supplies and were heavily outnumbered. They gave up the fight in 1856. Quiemuth was apprehended by white soldiers and stabbed to death under custody. Leschi was hanged in 1858.
Some blame the war partly on Stevens' policies. U.S. government authorities were persuaded that he had botched the state of affairs and saw to it that the natives were provided more suitable reservation acreage. Stevens was relieved of his duties as the Indian agent. Consequently, the Nisqually were assigned a new reservation on the river, which was three times the dimensions of the original parcel.
However, survival became a bitter struggle for South Sound Indians. Restricted to their reservations, they were deprived of outside resources to fend for themselves. This became especially true for the Nisqually in 1917, when the U.S. military confiscated 3,370 acres of their reservation to create the Fort Lewis Military Reserve. Tribal members began to cut themselves off from their cultural roots and seek homes elsewhere.
In the early 1900s and up to the 1940s, the U.S. government forbade the tribes from controlling their children's formal education. Youngsters were packed off to boarding schools, where Indian languages were proscribed in a domineering spirit of assimilating them into the dominant society.
The Nisqually Tribe adopted a constitution in 1946, according to provisions of the relatively liberal 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. By the 1950s, however, only a few hardy families, whose homes lacked electricity and plumbing, subsisted on the Nisqually reservation.
The 1960s and 1970s ushered in a change when tribal members began to press for their fishing rights as stipulated in the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty. The treaty had guaranteed that Indians could continue to hunt and fish in their traditional tribal areas, no matter if those areas were off reservation lands. However, modern Indians were being harassed and apprehended for fishing off their reservations.
Highly publicized "fish-ins" won the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes national notoriety, and the federal government took legal action against the State of Washington for ignoring its own treaty. In 1974, federal judge George Boldt handed down a decision stating that Washington tribes were entitled to half the salmon and steelhead from their traditional fishing grounds. The ruling led to legal rights, resources, and revenue for the tribes that had been lacking for 120 years.