The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America

  • By Richard Kluger
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.

Chronicling an interesting yet obscure moment in U.S. history.

Richard Kluger is perhaps best known for his rightly-praised landmark book about a landmark case. Simple Justice tells the story of the legal struggle leading up to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing school segregation.

Kluger went on to write a newspaper biography, The Paper, about the late lamented New York Herald Tribune, of which he was the last literary editor. Kluger then won a Pulitzer for his book Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.

His latest work tells another story that could have been titled “Simple Injustice.” In The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, Kluger recalls the sad saga of a proud Indian chief and a vainglorious territorial governor in mid-19th century America. Unlike Simple Justice, however, this is not a monumental book about a monumental event. Rather, Kluger attempts to transform an obscure historical footnote into something far grander. This is American history writ small striving to be writ large. Regrettably, it doesn’t work.

It’s not for trying. But it’s a stretch to make the war between the small Nisqually band of the Pacific Northwest and the territorial governor of Washington, an ambitious West Pointer turned politician, Isaac I. Stevens, into more than it was: an unfair treaty foisted upon a hapless tribe, resulting in tensions that led to violent clashes and the death of two whites, for which Chief Leschi was blamed, tried (twice), convicted and hanged in 1858. No witness testified that Chief Leschi shot the men, and, even if he had, it is argued, Chief Leschi was a legal combatant in a war between two sovereign nations, the Nisqually and the United States, and therefore could not be found guilty of murder. There was law and due process, but not justice, Kluger convincingly argues. Though the argument is worth making and the conclusion warranted, whether the case represents something larger, much less rises to landmark status, seems open to question.

A huge chunk of the book is background, with Kluger providing detailed biographies of Stevens and his Indian counterparts along with the historical context, as conflicts developed along the northwestern frontier. But where’s the action? The drama? The passion? The book’s subtitle, A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, is promising. Yet the book is nearly half over before the reader learns a few scant details about the deathly confrontation that underpins the narrative, and the fatal encounter is not returned to, and then only as a point of reference, for another 57 pages. In between, we learn a lot more about Stevens’ “boundless fury” over Leschi’s rebellion and the governor’s resentment towards settlers who did not share his views.

The lengthy (48-page) epilogue details recent efforts to posthumously exonerate the Indian chief. Ultimately, on December 10, 2004, there is a sort of show trial, presided over by Washington state’s chief justice, in a museum auditorium. The outcome is almost preordained in the latter day atmosphere of making at least symbolic amends for past injustices.

Also in recent years, we learn from Kluger, the Nisquallies, greatly diminished in number, regained the right to fish King salmon by their small reservation 15 miles east of Olympia, Washington’s state capital. Nisquallies are also reaping rewards from the Nisqually-owned Red Wind Casino and a clam diving business which the tribe finances and owns. But matters soon descended into intra-tribal squabbling, largely along generational lines, pitting the elders who have always run things against a younger breed of mixed race Indian activists. Ultimately, a woman 13/32 Nisqually – whom Kluger views as the tribe’s salvation – was elected tribal leader. But unless the tribe revises its rules to allow those with far less Nisqually blood (one-eighth compared to the 25 percent required currently) to claim membership, the tribe is ultimately doomed to extinction.

So what are we to make of all this? Kluger, in his preface, states that his initial goal was to forge “a stirring narrative,” but a fictional one, based on history. Then his research led him to the true story of Leschi and Stevens, and he decided to go the non-fiction route. Alas, here truth is not stranger than fiction – or more compelling. His focus on a single tribe, he writes, is an attempt to make a “monumental tragedy more accessible.” But monumental seems like hyperbole in this instance.

Much of The Bitters Waters of Medicine Creek makes for interesting reading, but one is left wondering why a book and not a long article instead? There simply does not seem to be enough in this story to justify its length, or our time.

Eugene L. Meyer is an award-winning former Washington Post reporter and editor, an author, and a prolific magazine writer with a special interest in and passion for all things historic.

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