The Birth of an Eternal Document: The Point Elliott Treaty

Today’s post comes from Tessa Campbell, senior curator at the Hibulb Cultural Center located on the Tulalip Reservation. The Tulalip Reservation is located in the State of Washington, 30 miles north of Seattle, and is the name of a place; not the name of a people. Their current exhibit, The Power of Words: A History of Tulalip Literacy, explores literacy from the time of the signing of the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty to today.

In 2018, the Hibulb Cultural Center, located in Tulalip, began planning for its next museum exhibition. They selected an exhibit theme to honor and celebrate the reservation’s published authors. As museum staff began studying the published materials, they observed a recurring theme among the literature. Many of the authors discussed how reading was a way to cope with the harsh realities of reservation life. They ruminated about getting in trouble for reading at the early reservation boarding schools, while others reminisced about going to the local library. The profound love of reading was evident among the authors’ childhood memories. From this, the notion of studying the history of alphabetic literacy at Tulalip came into fruition. 

Hibulb Cultural Center

Literacy, once used as a tool of Christian conversion and assimilation in the early mission and boarding schools, has since evolved into a tool of survival for the Tulalip people. The Hibulb Cultural Center made the decision to tie the original Point Elliott Treaty into the exhibition. We asked, “how has the treaty shaped Tulalip since its creation?” And, most importantly, “what does the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 have to do with literacy?” Studying the path of a document that has been alive for 165 years and how it has woven a strong, powerful, and literate community was definitely worth investigating. 

To understand the treaty-making era in Washington State during the mid-1850s, it is important to go back in time 528 years. Every American is familiar with the old adage, “Columbus discovered America in 1492.” I have always wondered how a land already inhabited by human beings could be considered as undiscovered. While Columbus was experiencing his North American encounter, my ancestors were alive and well, doing what all human beings do—raising a family and passing down knowledge to the next generation. The vast American land cultivated an environment for a highly systematic way of life for its inhabitants, who have resided on the land since time immemorial.  

Map of Tulalip Indian Reservation, undated. (National Archives Identifier 109182668)

I have worked as the curator of collections at the Tulalip Tribes Hibulb Cultural Center for the past 11 years. During that time, I have encountered some who are not familiar with the treaty, which made policies between Indian Tribes and the U.S. Government. During the time when treaties were negotiated, many tribes did not have an alphabetic writing system in place. There were, however, other forms of visual communication among tribes such as family crests and designs, and petroglyphs and pictographs. 

Aside from these visuals, information was passed down orally. The absence of documentation or written language, however, does not mean that the country was lawless before Columbus’s arrival. Tribes throughout the continental United States have always had their own forms of self-governance. These political and hierarchical structures aided in maintaining civility and trade relations between its own tribal members and other tribes and determining territory and resource boundaries.  

The tribes within the territory of Washington State have always traveled the land for trade, hunting, and gathering. Coast Salish people sustained themselves from the land, water, and mountains as they had for thousands of years. During the mid-1850s, Coast Salish tribes and bands who were signatory to the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 began to see an influx of settlers moving into the area. The British were first to begin setting up trading forts for the Hudson Bay Company. The arrival of traders and explorers led to the development of permanent settlements.

Portrait of Washington’s first Territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, undated. (National Archives Identifier 525972)

Isaac Stevens, who served as governor of the Territory of Washington from 1853 to 1857, had a major goal of negotiating treaties within the Territory to extinguish Indian title to the lands. However, when the Indian tribes consulted one another, they knew that they would not agree to give up all of the land. They knew the importance of reserving some of it for future generations.  

Without the land, Tribes wouldn’t be able to practice their cultural and spiritual life ways. They also needed the land to reserve their continued rights to hunt, gather, and fish in usual and accustomed territories, which are referred to as reserved rights. Reserved rights are those that Indian people have always had, even before the arrival of settlers in the area. These are rights that weren’t granted from the U.S. Government during the treaty negotiation process. These are rights that tribes have always had and will always have for as long as humanity exists.

The negotiations of the Point Elliott Treaty took place in Washington Territory at present-day Mukilteo, WA, on January 22, 1855. During the negotiations, Governor Stevens used an interpreter, Benjamin F. Shaw, who translated from English into Chinook Jargon. John Taylor, a Snohomish Indian, translated the Chinook Jargon into the varying dialects of Lushootseed. The Chinook language was limited, consisting of only around 50 words, which made the final translation convoluted. 

The signed treaty agreement ceded millions of acres of land to the United States Government in exchange for protected reservation land, a hospital, a school, and the reserved rights to continue to hunt, fish, and gather in the ancestral lands. The tribal leaders of the allied bands and tribes drew the letter “X” as their signature. Once the signatures and marks were all in place, the Point Elliott Treaty was born. It was created from parchment paper and ink signatures of the governor, other government officials, and several chiefs and sub-chiefs, written on both the front and back of a half-dozen documents.

Point Elliott Treaty, Washington Territory, first signature page, 1/22/1855. (National Archives Identifier 160903547)

It was a pivotal point—the first time the signatory leaders were exposed to a written agreement, as all other past agreements had been verbal. Although they were unable to read the document, they still understood its significance and importance. It would become the life force of their people. It is unknown if they were given a copy for reference. It seems logical in today’s world, but it most likely wasn’t the case. If there was only one copy, what became of the original after the signing? According to records, the original treaty was sent to the to the State Department in Washington, DC. The modes of transport during this time were horseback, train, or boat. The treaties were filed in the section of other documents on foreign relations. 

Senate Ratification of the Point Elliott Treaty, Washington Territory, 3/8/1850. (National Archives Identifier 160903547)

Next, according to the National Archives’ documented history, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on March 8, 1859. A State Department clerk then prepared the handwritten document for the President’s signature. The signature process was witnessed by the Secretary of State, who then he signed it himself, and the Great Seal was applied to the final document. President James Buchanan then proclaimed the treaty on April 11, 1859, and the original document was returned to the State Department, where it was housed in a building on the north side of Lafayette Square across from the White House.  

Although the treaty document lay dormant in the files, its significance was still as alive as ever to the signatory tribes of the treaty.  In 1938, the treaties were moved to the newly opened National Archives Building in Washington, DC, where, aside from a short period when it was temporarily moved to the National Archives at College Park, MD, during a major renovation in early 2000s, it stayed before making its way back to its homeland for the first time since its signing in 1855. 

President Buchanan’s approval of the Point Elliott Treaty, Washington Territory, 3/8/1850. (National Archives Identifier 160903547)

The planning of the Hibulb’s exhibit The Power of Words: A History of Tulalip Literacy began at the end of 2018. The Hibulb staff members began their initial research at the local National Archives facility in Seattle. This facility contains a valuable and extensive collection of Tulalip tribal history held in Record Group 75 (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs). The museum staff used the Seattle location as a main resource for research for all exhibition development and planning. Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs can be found at various National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) repositories, including those in Washington, DC; Chicago, IL; Fort Worth, TX, Denver, CO; Riverside, CA; San Francisco, CA; and Seattle, WA.

The process of making the request for the original treaty began in January 2019. The curatorial staff of the tribe made the formal request to the National Archives in Washington DC. The request was followed up with correspondence from James Zeender, NARA’s senior registrar. The next step for the Hibulb Cultural Center was to fill out a Standard Facility Report, which is a 40-page document that outlines an institution’s museum practices, its building operations, and construction specifications. NARA specified rigorous security, environmental, and lighting requirements to ensure the treaty’s physical protection. We submitted the report in January 2019, and NARA approved the loan agreement to borrow the original treaty on August 28, 2019.

Approval came just five months before the intended opening date of the exhibit. The planning of the exhibit and the coordination of the treaty arrival was meticulous and took careful planning. There were so many questions that had to be answered: How will it be displayed? Where will it be displayed? How secure is the case? What is the case made out of? Is the display case made from archival materials? Once the exhibit was prepared for opening, the center was ready to receive the treaty.

The center hoped to have a welcoming ceremony when the treaty arrived from the National Archives. Due to security reasons, however, only a few Hibulb staff members and a NARA representative were present for the arrival. The staff waited patiently outside for the treaty’s arrival on a cold winter’s day on January 21, 2020. As I waited for the delivery of the treaty, I was without words. I had many inexplicable emotions running through my mind as I gazed at the incoming truck in astonishment.  

First, I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders regarding the treaty’s safe arrival. Next, I felt tears of joy for the treaty’s first return to its place of birth since its creation. Last, I felt sadness because I had wished that our tribal community could be present to greet the treaty, which wasn’t an option due to security reasons. Although our tribal community wasn’t able to attend, I felt the presence of our past ancestors who appeared in my dreams many times prior to the treaty delivery. 

Installation of the treaty took place on January 21, which was facilitated by two curatorial staff and two Tulalip tribal maintenance staff employees. All of the hard work and careful planning culminated with a private tribal event on Wednesday, January 22. The exhibit opened to the public on Saturday, January 25, 2020, and the treaty was on public view until March 17, when the museum made the decision to close due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. The treaty lay off exhibit and protected until the museum reopened to the public on August 4. The center made another formal request to extend the loan period, which the National Archives granted. The original treaty will be on display at the Hibulb Cultural Center until October of 2020.  

Three generations of family looking at the treaty, 2020. Lita Sheldon with her daughter, Rachel Mowrer, and her two grandchildren, Hayden and Henry. (Photo Courtesy of the Hibulb Cultural Center).

Since the treaty signing in 1855, there have been significant court cases in which literacy has helped combat legal battles for the Tulalip Tribes. An example of this can be seen in a handwritten narrative in which Tulalip Tribal member William Shelton (1868–1938) collected recollections in 1926 from 12 Tulalip elders who witnessed the signing of the treaty. The purpose was to resolve a hunting case against the tribe in which Casimir Sam was imprisoned for hunting the black duck on the reservation. Decades later, one of the most significant court cases was the Boldt Decision of 1974, as it is the most documented example of a treaty right being upheld in Federal court.

The Tulalip people continue to practice their way of life in the same manner as their ancestors 165 years ago when the treaty was signed. The treaty reserves the right of the people of Tulalip to exercise their traditional customs for perpetuity. The Tulalip people are able to sing their songs and hunt, gather, and fish in their traditional territories. Last, they are able to tell their own story in their own words for future generations to pass on the words of their ancestors in order to preserve their history and culture.  

To uphold the treaty, the tribe has created a Treaty Rights Office to “assist the Tribes and its membership in securing the recognition, implementation and protection of these treaty-reserved rights.” They offer conferences and presentations for government entities, both state and Federal, on the history of the treaty as well as how it plays a role in today’s society. Their goal is to share their knowledge and collaborate with other governments to ensure that the rights granted in the treaty are acknowledged and upheld and the habitats and natural resources are sustained. The Tulalip Tribes continue to uphold the treaty for justice in cases dealing with land allotments, fishing rights, or sovereignty when the Federal and state governments are threatening the rights dictated in the treaty.  

The Tulalip people continue to exist today as a distinct group because of a single, handwritten document. This is due to the literary accomplishments and powerful words that have been used as a weapon to uphold it. Although the document is made out of lightweight paper, it is more priceless than the heaviest piece of gold.

Tulalip Tribes’ home page describes its tribes in this way: “The Tulalip Tribes are direct descendants of and the successors in interest to the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, and other allied bands signatory to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. As signatories, they agreed to cede title to their ancestral lands which expanded to the top of the Cascade Mountains, north to Vancouver Island and south to Oregon. In return, the treaty reserved the Tulalip Indian Reservation as their permanent homeland over which we have retained inherent sovereign jurisdiction.”

There are a number of ways to learn more about tribal history or become acquainted with tribal culture:

  • Make connections with local tribes, and find out if they have a tribal museum or if they offer community events to the public.  
  • Visit tribal-run museum pages. Some of them run Facebook pages or their own museum website.  
  • The Hibulb Cultural Center offers curriculum materials, videos to learn about Tulalip history and culture, and a calendar of events on our website.  
  • The National Archives makes available digitized treaties with Indian tribes both in their catalog and via DocsTeach.  

Tribal history is at everyone’s fingertips, and tribal teachings urge tribal youth to learn their history and learn where they come from. The Tulalip tribal community is so fortunate to have its original treaty back in its homeland as a significant research tool for educating tribal youth. In today’s pluralistic society, it is vital that others learn about tribal history and sovereignty to help eliminate stereotypes and misconceptions about Native Americans. In an ideal world, everyone would be on the same page when it comes to having access to accurate and authentic information. Tribes and nontribal organizations and institutions must collaborate, communicate, and correspond in order to educate and build an enriched society.

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