Yelm’s partnership with Nisqually Tribe growing stronger after rough beginnings


Editor’s note: This year, Yelm will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city’s official incorporation, which took place on Dec. 8, 1924. Every month this year, the Nisqually Valley News will present an aspect of the city’s history since its incorporation. Yelm’s history with the Nisqually Indian Tribe is the focus for the fifth volume of the series.

The history of Yelm’s relationship with the Nisqually Indian Tribe dates back to the mid-1850s, about seven decades before the City of Yelm became incorporated in 1924.

The Yelm Prairie was originally inhabited by tribal members before the first permanent American settlers came in 1853 to join the Hudson’s Bay Company sheep farmers already in the area.

According to historian and author Edgar Prescott, the company had established a ferry across the Nisqually River and maintained a herdsman’s station on the prairie. 

One of the most formative events in not only the Nisqually Tribe’s history but also in the history of the entire Puget Sound region was the Medicine Creek treaty and the Puget Sound Treaty War that it sparked. The war, which lasted from 1855 to 1856, was an armed conflict between tribes involved in the Medicine Creek Treaty, including the Nisqually, and the U.S. Army and Washington territorial volunteers.

Tribes entered the treaty with the United States agreeing to cede nearly all of their lands, retained three tiny reservations and access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds. It was disputed if Nisqually Chief Leschi agreed to the treaty. Tribal leaders were dissatisfied with the treaty because the tribe had to give up its land, but Washington Gov. Isaac Stevens assigned them less livable and isolated shrubland on which to live.

James Longmire, who is widely considered to be Yelm’s first citizen, described in an interview with Lou Palmer detailed in Prescott’s book, “Early Yelm,” the treaties and how the following uprisings affected his family and neighbors as they came to Yelm by way of the first emigrant train to cross the Cascades north of the Columbia River and by the Naches Pass.

“From day to day they met, ’til the treaty was made by which the Indians were to receive certain lands of their own choice, reserved from the public domain for them and their children so long as the tribe would exist,” Longmire said. “This seemed satisfactory for a while, but emigrants coming in large numbers caused the Indians to grow jealous and, encouraged by persons unfriendly to the settlers, they began to appear less friendly to us, telling us that the Klickitats were getting ready for war upon the whites, but assuring us that the Nisqually would never join them and would always be friendly to the settlers.”

Longmire befriended a Nisqually chief named Quiemuth, who was the half-brother of Leschi. After Leschi was taken into federal custody following charges of the murder of a Washington territorial volunteer at Connell’s Prairie, Quiemuth surrendered to Longmire, who took him by horse to see Stevens. They slept that night on the floor of the governor’s office, but when Longmire was awakened by a loud noise, he found that Quiemuth had been murdered. Leschi was later put to trial and then executed near Fort Steilacoom, ending the wars. 

In 1856, Stevens met with Puyallup and Nisqually leaders and agreed to significantly larger reservations for both tribes. In 1884, acreage was set aside and divided into 30 family allotments on both sides of the Nisqually River, but it did not include the river itself. 

As the Nisqually Tribe continued to build its reservation, which is located just outside of Yelm, Nisqually youth continued to be assimilated into American culture, including the education system. Current Nisqually Tribal member Hanford McCloud, who grew up in Yelm, said residents and city leaders have always looked at tribal members differently.

“It’s about how we don’t pay taxes. We have special rights, and all we have are casinos and smoke shops,” he said.

McCloud added that growing up, the relationship between Yelm and the tribe suffered because of a lack of communication. He said he and his cousins were perceived poorly in Yelm schools especially.

“It was always on that fence line where there was never communication or there was not a lot of contact, maybe still a lot of hurt and anger,” he said. “I was kind of an angry young man growing up. I remember in middle school, I used to get in a lot of trouble with a group of my cousins. There was always a group of us. In high school, we were labeled as a gang just because of the color and size of the group that we were. We were the minority.”

While McCloud said that Native Americans and Nisqually members are still a minority in Yelm Community Schools (YCS), they now have “a seat at the table.” Today, the district has a Native American education program that works closely with the Nisqually Tribe to ensure that cultural perspectives and practices are integrated into the curriculum and to provide opportunities for Native students to engage with their cultural heritage. 

The program includes Nisqually language classes, professional development on Nisqually history, culture and language for new teachers, and district-wide Nisqually recognitions and celebrations, including Nisqually Day on Sept. 29, Native American Heritage Month in November, Chief Leschi Day on Jan. 28 and Billy Frank Jr. Day on March 9.

Although the relationship between YCS and the Nisqually Tribe has improved, McCloud said the relationship between the City itself and the tribe still has to improve.

“It’s a working relationship still today. I still love Yelm, but I just believe that people who move into Yelm and have these different kinds of ideas are what is really clouding what we want to do as the indigenous people of the Nisqually Tribe,” he said. “I see a lot of potential with the relationship growing in Yelm. In my terms, in the last 10 years, my relationship is me sitting at the table with everybody else, not sitting in the back waiting to come into the room to talk to them. They need to be transparent and open as we have these conversations and meetings, not as the meeting is starting or after the meeting has concluded.

“The relationship should be us walking side by side, not one person walking in front of the other and telling them what to do,” he continued. “That relationship needs to have more continuity. People come and go, but we’ll always be here. There’s already been a plan here. Let’s not change the plan. That’s what the Nisqually echoes is this is how the salmon run, and let’s keep the trees and the prairie system at least around the river.”

In the next 10 to 15 years, McCloud said he hopes the Nisqually Tribe has more of a presence in Yelm, both educationally and economically, and primarily wants more transparency and unity between the two.