Descendants of Chief Leschi, the Nisqually tribal leader who was wrongfully convicted and executed by hanging in 1858, were on hand Saturday at the Washington State Capital Museum to celebrate his memory and kick off an exhibition of a canoe paddle that once belonged to him.
The wooden paddle will be on display at the museum through Aug. 4 in a climate-controlled case. It was donated to the museum in 1943 but had previously been stored for safe-keeping at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
“This is a very good day to be with good people,” said Larry Seaberg of Olympia, a direct descendant of Leschi’s. “In honoring Chief Leschi, you are honoring all of our people.”
The SQwALI?ABSH Canoe Family Drummers performed and danced during a ceremony on the museum’s lawn. Guest speakers included Washington State Historical Society Director Jennifer Kilmer, Nisqually Tribal Chairwoman Cynthia Iyall, Seaberg, who is a “fifth-generation Leschi,” and Jim McCloud, a descendant of Leschi’s brother Quiemuth.
“We love Chief Leschi; he still means so much to us,” Iyall said.
The speakers told the story of Leschi, who refused to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854. The treaty proposed an allotment of land to the Nisqually tribe that Leschi thought would have given his people no fertile soil, access to fisheries, or pasture land for horses. After Leschi’s death, the Nisqually were allotted a better land deal than the one proposed under the Medicine Creek Treaty, Seaberg said.
By 1855, Acting Gov. Charles H. Mason ordered that Leschi and Quiemuth be taken into custody, and Leschi became a war chief during a conflict with the local militia.
Leschi, who now has a neighborhood and a school in Seattle named after him, was hanged after he was convicted for the murder of Washington Territorial militiaman Abram Benton Moses during the Puget Sound War of 1855-56. In 2004, a Historical Court of Inquiry presided over by then-state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander exonerated Leschi of the charge of murder, ruling that even if Leschi was present during Moses’ killing, the death occurred during an act of war.
Alexander, who was at Saturday’s ceremony, said “there were people at the time that thought Leschi wasn’t there” when Moses was shot dead during a melee. Military lawyers from Fort Lewis testified about how the conflict between the Nisqually and the militia was a war, and that the crime of murder could not have occurred, Alexander added.
Alexander said that during the Court of Inquiry’s 2004 ruling at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, “the place was packed” with Nisqually tribal members. The ruling made headlines across the country, including in The New York Times, Alexander said.
“His name has been revered in many circles,” Alexander said of Leschi.
No photos of Chief Leschi exist, although there is a painting of him.
McCloud spoke Saturday of learning details of Leschi’s life from tribal elders. He said Leschi was a “negotiator, an arbitrator,” who kept order and discipline among the Nisqually, as well as tribes throughout the Northwest. Leschi was 50 when he was executed, he said.
“He was in the prime of his life; he was just getting started with what he was doing,” McCloud said.
Seaberg pointed out that Leschi “traveled far and wide, and was equally confident on horseback as he was with paddle and canoe.” Leschi “was a caring and kind man,” but also “a fierce warrior” when necessary, Seaberg said. The U.S. military respects Leschi’s memory with an urban-warfare training area named after him at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Seaberg added.
All Saturday’s speakers spoke of the importance of honoring Leschi, so that his story is remembered and passed down to future generations.