The Relentless Pursuit of Umatilla Lands

In 1855, at the treaty negotiations in Walla Walla, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla peoples were left a reservation of 245,699 acres, and the ability to hunt, fish, and gather in “usual and accustomed places” off the reservation lands. Over a century of relentless pressure by white settlers and the United States Government reduced the reservation to 85,322 acres. With some restorations, it is now 172,000 acres, but nearly half of the land is white-owned!

I think most of us see reservations as “fixed” on the lands described in the original treaties. Those of us who know some Nez Perce history know about the second—1863—treaty and the taking of 90 per cent of the lands described in the 1855 treaty. But this was advertised treaty breaking and remaking.

The more pernicious diminishments of reservation lands were accomplished by settler and government prodding and amending and gaining access and sometimes ownership of lands that had originally been “off limits” to non-Indian peoples. Across the country, the biggest piece of reservation land diminishment occurred with the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, a program to assign individual allotments of reservation lands to tribal members—and declare the unallotted lands “surplus” and available for sale to non-Indians. The oft-quoted statistic is that 90 million acres of Indian lands were taken away by this act! This accounts for the “checkerboards” of ownership on reservations today.

The Umatilla Reservation was targeted earlier. David Weaver of the Wallowa History Center recently forwarded me the 1871 Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, which includes a 21-page “Report on Umatilla Reservation” by commissioner Felix R. Brunot. A joint resolution of Congress in July of 1870 sent three commissioners to the Umatilla convene a council “to ascertain upon what terms they would be willing to sell their lands and remove elsewhere.”

The ink on the 1855 treaty, which promised “forever,” was barely dry when restless settlers and government officials anxious to grow the new—1859—state of Oregon thundered onto the reservation with the mission of doing away with it! Chiefs of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla made eloquent pleas for not selling. Brunot admitted that promised schools and a hospital had not been built, and that a sawmill was built poorly in the wrong place at too great a cost. Yet, in his final comments to the Chiefs, he warns that “if you want to keep the white man from wanting it [your land] after a while you must live on it yourselves. You must plow and fence it and build houses on it, and raise grain and stick to it yourselves, so that your children after you will be as white men…”

In as days go by: Our History, Our Land, and Our People, The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, the story of white pursuit of Indian lands and assimilation of Indian people is eloquently told. I confess that I first read this book over 15 years ago, at the time of its 2006 publication. I think now that I did not know enough about Indian America at the time to “get it.”

I didn’t get the degree of pressure for those on the Umatilla Reservation to become white, nor the tremendous pressure to relieve the Umatilla of Tribal lands, and of individual, allotted lands. The individually held lands could not be legally sold for 25 years, but they could apparently be leased, in a trust agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

And what I really didn’t get was the fact that there was “The Umatilla Allotment Act, 1885,” two years before Senator Dawes’ “General Allotment Act” of 1887! Dawes and Oregon Senator James Slater—from Union County—were supporters of the Umatilla Act. as days go by says that “The impetus for action on the reservation had everything to do with its location relative to the Oregon Trail, with its influx of settlers, and the availability of federal soil for agricultural purposes at the base of the Blue Mountains within the Treaty reservation boundary.” (p. 105)

So, the Umatilla Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse people have the distinction of being the “trial run” for Dawes and his General Allotment Act, a stepping stone to the national theft of 90 million acres of Tribal lands.

Fortunately, we are now learning the true stories of mistreatment and theft in the names of assimilation and progress through books like as days go by, and, fortunately, the people of the Umatilla Reservation have persevered, and they, and Tribal peoples across the country, are now staging a remarkable comeback.

# # #

1 Comment

Leave a Reply