Pacific Postcards

The Treaty of Neah Bay (Mitchell Carter)

The relationship between the Makah people and Westerners fluctuated for over a century with violence, trading, and connections. The networks that came from this relationship were extensive and bolstered the growth of Indigenous communities as well as European. In the late 18th century, it was the natives who held the power and the natives who had to be appeased by the foreigners. But, the combination of new diseases, food shortages, and colonial expansion meant that over the next hundred years, the influence of the Makahs on the economy and culture of the Northwest would sputter out under western pressures. To ensure that what remained of their culture and people survived, the Makah cut a deal. In 1855, the United States government made a treaty with these Indians for concession of their land. The Treaty of Neah Bay vowed to preserve indigenous societies but ultimately suppressed their systems of power, tradition, and culture.

The road to Indigenous oppression began with disease. A vast array of viruses that spread through increasingly efficient European trade routes were wiping out indigenous populations across the Pacific. With the significant depopulation and loss of power that ensued, these natives were forced to make treaties like the one in Neah Bay to survive. David Igler’s The Great Ocean highlights how the impact of these diseases were immensely disproportionate in their harm to Native versus their harm to European communities. While sailors suffered illness and even death, their populations were protected by thousands of miles of ocean, immunity, medical resources, and safer environments. By the 1830’s this skewed effect was on display. Malaria had reached the shores of the Northwest by boat and was infecting natives. Though Westerners were also infected, the disease was far more detrimental to the indigenous populations because they lived in river valleys where Anopheles mosquitoes bred. According to Igler, “more distant native groups traveled to those river valleys during the summer months for trade and other social exchanges. Once the malarial parasite arrived in 1829 from an exogenous source, traditional practices and gatherings in these areas allowed for speedy transmission by the mosquito carriers.” (Igler, 68)

 The results were horrific. Scottish Botanist David Douglas described one of the Chinookan villages: “The houses are empty and flocks of famished dogs are howling about, while the dead bodies lie strewn in every direction on the sands of the river.” (67) With this detriment came new power for the Westerners. Igler describes how disease gave them the upper hand in trading and power. In one instance when “two American ships had arrived at Cape Flattery and the captain ‘threaten[ed] to send disease amongst them if they [did] not trade beaver.’” (69) With villages empty and populations destroyed, the once great and powerful tribes of the Cadi Borderlands, like the Makah, had few options left to conserve themselves so they ceded their land and their resources to the U.S. government.

On January 29th, 1855 Isaac I. Stevens and his treaty commission arrived in Neah bay, facing the still powerful yet dwindling Makah tribe. Stevens was assigned by the President to be the lead explorer to find a route for the transcontinental railroad and to serve as the superintendent of Indian Affairs. His job was to convince indigenous tribes to sell their extensive territories to the U.S. Government so the government could cultivate and westernize new land. Through treaties, these deals gave money and formal hunting rights to the natives while also restricting them to new reservations with far less space, resources, and autonomy. Despite these facts, on January 31st, 1855, 41 Makah chiefs put their marks along with Steven’s signature on the Treaty of Neah Bay, which began a new era for the Makah indians.

The treaty begins in Article 1 stating that the Makah “tribe hereby cedes, relinquishes, and conveys to the United States all their right, title, and interest in and to the lands and country occupied by it.” The land that this refers to is 300,000 acres that starts at the “mouth of the Oke-ho River, on the Straits of Fuca; thence running westwardly with said straits to Cape Classett or Flattery; thence southwardly along the coast to Osett, or the Lower Cape Flattery; thence eastwardly along the line of lands occupied by he Kwe-deh-tut or Kwill-eh-yute tribe of Indians, to the summit of the coast-range of mountains, and thence northwardly along the line of lands lately ceded to the United States... '' Article 2 describes the land in which the tribe would be reserved; roughly 30,000 acres and bordering the Pacific. This new land only accounted for a tenth of their original territory. In return, the United States would pay the Makah $30,000 over the course of the following 20 years with an additional $3,000 that would be used for an industrial school and education in trades such as blacksmithing, carpentry, and farming. This money would also be used for a doctor that would provide vaccinations and tend to other health issues. 

Even with seemingly fair compensations for the Makah land, this treaty gave the U.S government extensive control and oversight. The president had power over what their money could be used for and the power to “determine at his discretion upon what beneficial objects to expend the same.” In addition, if he felt it necessary, roads could be placed through their reservation and other tribes could be relocated there as well. The Makahs had to vow to “acknowledge their dependence on the Government of the United States” as well as agree to not “make war on any other tribe except in self-defence…” and “submit all matters of difference between them and other Indians to the Government of the United States or its agent for decision and abide thereby.”

Though this section from Article IV might seem justifiable in its attempt to eliminate violence within new Indian reservations, it intruded upon a cultural necessity that had been used for diplomacy, trade, and power dynamics in the Cadi borderlands. According to Joshua L. Reid, in his book The Sea is My Country, “Violence - or the lack thereof - [...] play[ed] a pivotal role in the political dynamics of the Cadi borderland well into the nineteenth century.” (Reid, 87) Contrary to the European belief that violence by indigenous people was always “savage,” Reid argues that their violence was a necessity to the functionality of the Cadi borderlands. He cites European historian David Nirenberg who “argues that “Perpetrators and recipients of violence were tightly bound in a wide variety of relations that enmeshed moments of violence and gave them meaning.’” (57)

 Nirenberg shared the belief that violence is multifaceted with different justifications and reasons, which can be broken up into five categories: “quotidian, cataclysmic, strategic, controlled, and stabilizing.” (57) For example, Makah chiefs frequently fought over resources, slaves, land, and sea space.Though gory in nature, this violence was a natural beat in the rhythm of the Northwest: one tribe using strategic violence to get access to a stream, another tribe using stabilizing violence to insure their competition didn’t get too powerful, etc. Europeans refused to see the importance and intricacies in this system of balance, categorizing it all as savagery. When it came to making the Treaty of Neah Bay, their mindset was to eliminate inter-indigenous violence and to insure that their Western ideas of right and wrong were applied. In the years after the implementation of this treaty, the Makah’s continued to commit acts of violence against other tribes, violating the articles of the Treaty. But, as their remaining power and influence over the Europeans waned, they were no longer able to preserve this way of life. This ultimately suffocated the interconnection of violence between tribes, another step in the increasing oppression of Indigenous people in the pacific. 

The history of Pacific Indians is rich with exploration, warfare, and power. These populations were resilient in their claims to land and resources and assertive in their fight against imperialism. The Makah tribe successfully traded with Non-Native’s for nearly a century, using new commerce to improve their society while keeping the power of the Westerners in check, and continuing to develop as a culture. But, with the onset of disease and depopulation came the beginning of the end of the Makah power over the ever persistent Westerners. With a lessening ability to defend themselves, the natives resorted to ceding their land. This came with unexpected consequences such as the suppression of systems of trade between tribes, the suppression of mediating violence between tribes, and ultimately of the suppression of their very culture. 

Works Cited:

The Treaty of Neah Bay, 1855

Igler, David. The Great OCEAN: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford University Press, 2017. 

Reid, Joshua L. The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of The Makahs, an INDIGENOUS Borderlands People. Yale University Press, 2018. 

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