Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Indian Views of the Stevens-Palmer Treaties Today

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Indian Views of the Stevens-Palmer Treaties Today

Article excerpt

THE STARTING POINT for discussion of many current issues in the Columbia River Basin is the treaty relationship between Indian tribes and the U.S. government, often established before the states were formed. The foundational treaties between the U.S. government and the Indian nations of the lower Columbia Basin are the so-called Stevens-Palmer Treaties, negotiated in 1854-1855 on behalf of the United States by Isaac Stevens with tribes in Washington and by Joel Palmer with tribes in Oregon.

"The bad thing about history," Yakama leader Ted Strong says, "is that those who write it are those who are going to be believed, and Indians did not write the American history as it is currently documented." Oral history collections can help to bring in the often underrepresented perspectives of American Indians. Excerpts from three oral histories--one from a Yakama Nation leader and two from leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nation--offer some Indians' perspectives on the treaties and the issues they raise for the relationship between the tribes and the U.S. government.

In 1999 Jeff Van Pelt participated in the CCRH project "Columbia Communities," which explored the histories of eight communities in the Columbia River Basin since the building of major dams on the river and its tributaries beginning in the 1930s. One of the communities included was Umatilla, Oregon, a town on the river northwest of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation where Van Pelt grew up. In 2000, Ted Strong and Antone Minthorn participated in oral history interviews for "Managing the Columbia," a project conducted by the Center for Columbia River History (CCRH) in conjunction with the Oregon Historical Society. This project's intent was to document the contemporary history of the Columbia River Basin. The oral histories included the voices of men and women who disagreed with the way the Columbia River system has been managed and used at various times. More than sixty oral histories were conducted with narrators from many fields, agencies, and tribes, including sport and commercial fishers, former U.S. Forest Service employees, farmers, environmentalists, university educators, business leaders, and Indians in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. In all three oral histories included here, the narrators offered their views on the Stevens-Palmer treaties and their influence in the region today. *

Jeff Van Pelt

On March 16, 1999, oral historian Donna Sinclair interviewed Jeff Van Pelt, a descendant of the Cayuse, Pitt River, Siletz, and Umatilla Tribes and enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). He served as Cultural Resource Protection Program Manager within the Department of Natural Resources of the CTUIR for many years and is now a consultant.

Donna Sinclair: Can you talk about the reserved treaty rights? What those mean to the tribes?

Jeff Van Pelt: The treaty of 1855. To understand treaty rights is a very complex issue. And I'm not an attorney, I'm not a judge, but I'm going to talk about how I personally think treaty rights are by what I've been taught. Treaty rights can't be interpreted by the treaty language or the articles they were written under. The Supreme Court in looking at treaty rights had a very difficult time, so they developed guiding principles called the canons of constructions, and the canons of construction, basically in a layman's kind of a summary as I understand it is, if I was going to contract with you, I'm a man. I'm stronger than you. You're a woman. You're physically weaker. So if I was going to go into an agreement with you, if I was to grab your arm and pull it behind your back and say, "Alright, I'm going to give you ten percent of what we're going to make, and I'm going to take ninety percent." And I bent your arm till you agreed to it, would that be a formal, fair contract that you and me would go into? …

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