The forgotten move: The Yakamas

April 22, 2010

Yakima’s move four miles to the north overshadowed another move: more relocation of the Yakama Nation.

An Indian encampment near the Yakima fairgrounds in 1900.

The story of Yakima’s beginning was told with great pride among the people who settled here. They viewed the new city as the harbinger of great progress and unknown possibilities.

Not so for the Yakama Nation.

The railroad’s arrival in Central Washington occurred 30 years after tribal leaders signed the 1855 Treaty with the U.S. government and reluctantly agreed to relocate their families and children to the Yakama reservation.

There are few tribal elders left who carry the oral history of how the Yakamas felt about the city’s incorporation or how they interacted with its inhabitants. But the histories that remain are infused with sadness.

The growing numbers of white settlers in the late 1880s not only breached the reservation boundaries, but the Indian way of life.

W.D. Rogers of Minnesota buys horses on the Yakama Indian Reservation in this undated photo.

Tribal leaders watched the settlement of Old Yakima — now Union Gap — uproot a tribal cemetery, ancient fishing sites and a village that once occupied the entire Upper Valley, says Yakama elder Russell Jim.

An undated photo of an Indian teepee.

“Union Gap was a significant campsite area and there were a lot of fish coming up the Ahtanum — it was a great place to stay,” he says. “This whole area was very significant, clear up to the Wenatchee area.”

The home of Chief Kamiakin’s father-in-law, We-ow-wicht — considered a great chief  — once stood where the Central Washington fairgrounds now sit.

In recent years, the tribe has had success protecting cultural remnants in areas outside the reservation. But back in the 19th century, dealing with white governments was a different story.

“They seemed to think that we were powerless, and I guess at the time we were,” Jim says.

By the time North Yakima was incorporated in 1885, most Yakamas were confined to the reservation in the Lower Valley.

As more newcomers settled, North Yakima became a major retail and trading hub that lured tribal members. Many merchants learned a form of the tribal language that allowed them to trade with the Yakamas.

“Everybody was speaking with Chinook jargon, and all the merchants knew it and that’s how they spoke to Yakamas,” says tribal elder Virginia Beavert.

Two Indians on horseback about 1905 on Yakima Avenue.

Meanwhile on the reservation, tribal leaders were grappling with federal laws that carved up the reservation into specific parcels that were given to each tribal member. Some of those lands eventually fell into the hands of non-Indians.

Tribal members interested in farming embraced the idea of having their own land while members holding to their traditions opposed it, according to “The Yakima,” a history book by the late Helen Schuster.

By the 1870s, the tribe boasted more than 3,000 acres in production, about 12,000 horses and 1,400 head of cattle worth $195,000.

Some tribal members began embracing Christianity as well, while many more held on to their traditional religion.
It was a recipe for resentment between those embracing change and those opposing it.

Historic photos show tribal members boarding the train from reservation towns like Toppenish bound for North Yakima. Other photos show tribal members and their children laboring in Moxee’s hop fields with teepees set up nearby.

“All tribes were exploited in the fields,” says John Baule, director of the Yakima Valley Museum. “There was a lot of bringing people in, Indians from western Montana. Then they were marched back to the trains. There was no encouragement for them to stay.”

Indians were lured to farm work by the prospect of earning wages during a time when their reliance upon their traditional way of life was dwindling, says Yakama General Council Vice Chairwoman Mavis Kindness.

Still other tribal members held on to hunting, fishing and gathering natural foods as their mainstay.

We-yal-lup Wa-ya-cika

In 1913, a prominent Indian chief, We-yal-lup Wa-ya-cika , through a translator, wrote a petition to government officials, fighting for the tribe’s water rights. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had been taking water from the Ahtanum while also charging Wa-ya-cika and other Indians for the water they used.

“When the treaty was signed the law was established that the land and water was given us. The law was satisfied. We were satisfied. This law is still there, but it is not regarded by the white man. I have not forgotten this law, but my people are passing away. I am grieved that the white man has not kept his word. When an Indian lies, Me-yay-wah (God) is angry. When the white man lies his God is not ashamed …”

“I look at this ditch as alive today. It is mine; as God gave me water for my land. Now the Reclamation men steal my water and I want to see why I must pay for water which is mine. When they made the new canal, they took my old ditch. They rob me. I have nothing, but I own the water … I have no money to pay for this water.

“I want no lies in this letter. You write it good and send it Washington, D.C. I can get no justice here. I want the high officials to know how we are treated and robbed. I want to hear from them. This is all.”

Wa-ya-cika died two years later, having received no answer.


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