Hundreds sat in the bleachers at Chief Leschi School’s gymnasium below dozens of flags of Indian tribes from around the country. Elders from the Nisqually Tribe stood near the half-court circle, eulogized the chief and recalled memories about Indian culture. Dozens stood in a circle and sang during a drumming ceremony.
It was the final ceremony of the inaugural, daylong "Honor & Celebration of Brothers," which pays tribute to the lives of Chief Leschi of the Nisqally Tribe and his half-brother, Quiemuth.
Leschi was executed 150 years ago Tuesday after a conviction that proved controversial at the time and has since been vacated. Quiemuth was killed while in protective custody.
The festivities prove that much the times have changed, one participant said.
"To me, it’s phenomenal that we’ve reached a point that a Native American who was executed is honored and recognized," John LaPointe said. "In the most elementary sense, he was a true American – fighting for freedom, fighting for democracy, fighting for his people."
About 100 people met Tuesday morning at a marker in Lakewood erected in honor of Leschi. Three hundred yards away, the engraving reads, the chief was hanged 150 years ago today. They ran a 12½-mile course from the marker to Chief Leschi School.
Others participated in "unity walks" from Grandview Early Learning Center near Roosevelt Park to Leschi’s grave near the Church of the Indian Fellowship to Chief Leschi School in Puyallup.
At the grave, participants listened to speeches and offered a prayer for the chief. The walkers heading toward Chief Leschi School strode down the shoulder of Pioneer Way wearing bright yellow T-shirts bearing stenciled images of Leschi and Quiemuth between a drawing of Mount Rainier and writing in English and the Nisqually language.
At the school, about 300 people ate lunch, listened to speakers and watched dance-and-drum performances.
"Chief Leschi had everything," Ramona Bennett, a Puallup tribal leader, told the audience at the school. "Everybody respected him. He was smart. He was well-to-do. For an Indian person, he was very well off.
"But he made a stand with our treaty, our fishing rights, our natural resources. He knew you could not live with dignity if you had to be on your bloody knees begging for a handout. He wanted us to be self-supporting."
The terms of the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty ultimately led to Leschi’s execution. After the chief realized how little the tribe received in the pact with the federal government, he led a period of resistance that lasted several months and included periods of sporadic violence.
After the violence – which included killings from both sides – Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens granted amnesty to most of the Indians. Leschi and Quiemuth were excluded.
Leschi was arrested and charged with murdering a militiaman – a charge the chief denied – and was convicted. He was hanged on Feb. 19, 1858.
Quiemuth turned himself in to authorities after the first of Leschi’s two trials. That night, while in protective custody in the governor’s office, intruders shot him in the arm and stabbed him in the heart.
The state legislature decreed in 2004 that Leschi was wrongly convicted and executed. A historical court exonerated him later that year.
"This is a healing process today," said Cecelia LaPointe-Gorman, a Swinomish tribal member and a linguistic historian.
Organizers and participants stressed the educational benefit of the ceremonies. Treye McKinney moved to Washington as a teenager and didn’t learn about Leschi in school. He was running Tuesday to stand in solidarity with oppressed people, he said, and hopes that more will learn about the chief.
And some hope it will have a positive impact on the community,
"I asked my aunt about Leschi and the treaty," said James McCloud, a Nisqually tribal elder and historian. "She said, ‘That was the beginning of the end.’
"We’re beginning again today."