Yakama / Palouse Chief

1800 - 1877/ 8

Head Chief of the Yakamas.

As a young Yakama boy, questing in the snowy slopes of Mount Rainier, Kamiakin had a vision.

In this vision a buffalo sang a power song to him.

His elders interpreted his vision, saying he would become a great warrior, but would lead a tragic life.

They advised him to be nevertheless true to his course of action, because it was the right course.

However, a vision alone was not enough to insure that Kamiakin would become a leader of his people. Heritage also played an important role.

His mother, Kamoshnite, was the daughter of Weowicht and the sister of Owhi and Teias, two prominent Yakama chiefs.

His father, Tsyiyak, was from the Palouse tribe.

Kamaikin lived in what is present-day central Washington as a child, but his family traveled to the Great Plains, where he was distinguished as a warrior and buffalo hunter.

He accrued substantial wealth, allowing him to take five wives.

He broke tribal conventions by marrying women from rival families, incurring the wrath of his uncles, but this strategy also bought him influence among many tribes.


A Natural Leader

His natural endowments—courage, good judgment, and generosity-were, in fact, Kamiakin's best claim to leadership.

He demonstrated good business sense early in the 1840s by traveling to Fort Vancouver, trading horses with the white immigrants for cattle, and driving the cattle back to Yakima.

Kamiakin's herd was the first in the Yakima Valley.

Kamiakin planted one of the earliest gardens known to the agricultural history of Yakima at his home in Ahtanum.

His interest in gardening was uncommon for his time, and he pursued this avocation even to the extent of irrigating his land.


Kamiakin Seeks a Teacher

As early as 1839, Kamiakin saw the need for a white teacher for the Yakama tribe.

To this end, he tried to persuade the missionaries, Henry Spalding at Lapwai and Marcus Whitman at Waiilatpu to establish a mission near his tribe.

Over the next couple of years, the Protestants repeatedly postponed making a decision, leading him before finally dashing his hopes for a teacher for his people.

In 1850 another opportunity arose to secure a teacher for his people, when Kamiakin met a Catholic priest in Walla Walla.

Kamiakin offered the priest a place on his property for a mission, if the priests would teach his tribe.

As a result, two Catholic Fathers arrived, and built St. Joseph's Mission on the Ahtanum Creek.

In addition to teaching the Catholic faith, the priests trained the Yakamas in digging irrigation ditches and growing crops.

Classes would begin with a prayer at 5am each morning, followed by the Catechism.

At 6am classes were held in reading and writing for the children.


A New Power in the Region

In 1853, when Washington Territory was established, Kamiaken was the most prominent Yakama chief, although not the head chief.

There were several Yakama bands, each headed by its own chief.

However, the representatives of the U. S. government did not understand the ways of the Indians, and seeing that he was the major political and military leader in the area, their reports bestowed upon Kamiakin the office of Head Chief.

"Every inch a king," is how author Theodore Winthrop described the chief, whom he met at the Ahtanum mission.

"He was a tall, large man, very dark, with a massive square face and grave, reflective look.... his manner was strikingly distinguished, quiet and dignified....He had the advantage of an imposing presence and bearing, and above all a good face, a well-lighted Pharos at the top of his colossal frame."

Word went out to the Indians that the Great Father in Washington, D.C. desired their land for the white men, and that a great white chief was on his way west to buy it.

Moreover, if the Indians refused to sell, soldiers would come and drive them off their land.

This news understandably aroused the indignation of the tribes, resulting in prejudice against the newly appointed Governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens.


The Treaty Process Begins

Governor Stevens, for his part, immediately embarked upon the treaty process with the objective of "civilizing" the Indians, pushing them onto reservations out of the way of the hordes of white settlers already headed west.

Stevens began his treaty-making efforts with the Coastal tribes, but through the Indian grapevine, Kamiakin and other eastern Washington chiefs were made aware of the challenges they were about to face.

In an early meeting with Ow-hi, a prominent chief of the Yakama, Stevens is purported to have told the chief that if the Indians refused to make a treaty with him, giving up their land, soldiers would be sent into their country to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Stevens asked Ow-hi to communicate this message to the other chiefs, which he did immediately.

When Kamiakin learned of Stevens threat, he exclaimed:

At last we are face to face with those dreaded people, the coming of whom was foretold by the old medicine man, Wa-tum-nah, long ago. Pe-peu-mox-mox, who has been in California, says that the Indians there are fast dying off. I have traveled through the Willamette valley since its settlements by the whites and found only a sad remainder left of the once powerful Mult-no-mahs and Cal-a-poo-yas. So it will be with us, if we allow the whites to settle in our country. Heretofore we have allowed them to travel through unmolested, and we refused to help the Cay-uses in their war with them, for we wanted to live in peace and be left alone; but we have been both mistaken and deceived. Now, when that pale-faced stranger, Governor Stevens, from a distant land, sends to us such words as you have brought me, I am for war. If they take our lands, their trails will be marked with blood.

Kamiakin sought counsel from the priests at the mission, but he was told that although war might delay the threat for a time, the battle could not ultimately be won—the Yakamas would inevitably lose their homes to the white men.


Preparing for Trouble

At this point, Kamiakin began building a confederation of Indian tribes to oppose the white threat.

He quickly enlisted Pe-peu-mox-mox, Head Chief of the Walla Walla and Looking Glass, War Chief of the Nez Perce to his cause.

In secrecy, these three chiefs planned a council to be held in the Grande Ronde valley of Eastern Oregon, a rendevous selected both because of its remoteness, and because it was hoped the Snake tribes might be induced to join.

Couriers quietly and quickly spread word of the clandestine council throughout the region.

The Grande Ronde council of 1854 was the most noteworthy gathering of Indians ever held in the territory.

Lasting five days, speeches were given by representatives of nearly every tribe.

Only three chiefs - Lawyer of the Nez Perce, Sticcas of the Cayuse, and Garry of the Spokanes—were in favor of signing a treaty.

The Sho-sho-nees, as well as other tribes not directly influenced by the upcoming treaty process said:

We have been for many years in almost constant warfare with the whites and are in a position to begin hostilities at any time. If you decide on war and begin to fight, let the signals flash from the mountain tops and we will do our part: but will fight only in our own country.

The war-inclined chiefs of the council then decided to mark the boundaries of the tribal lands so that in the treaty council each chief could claim the area within his boundaries, and ask for that land as a reservation for his people.

In this way, there would be no lands for sale, the treaty council would fail, and the concerns of the peace-minded chiefs would be allayed.

During the spring, the tribes laid in extra stores in preparation for the possibility of war.

However, a subtle force was working to undermine the resolve of the Grande Ronde council chiefs.

Lawyer, the Nez Perce chief, had notified A. J. Bolon, the Indian agent, of the council.

The secret was out, and the Governor knew what to expect going into the treaty council.

The Walla Walla Council of 1855 Kamiakin reached the council ground, accompanied by Peo-peo-mox-mox, on May 28th, 1855.

When they saw the huge number Nez Perce present, they began to realize that Lawyer had betrayed their trust.

Not wishing to accept gifts from false friends, Kamiakin refused Stevens' offer of tobacco for his pipe and provisions for his party.


Isaac Stevens wrote of him:

He is a peculiar man, reminding me of the panther and the grizzly bear.

He countenance has an extraordinary play, one moment in frowns, the next in smiles, flashing with light and black as Erebus the same instant.

His pantomime is great, and his gesticulation much and characteristic.

He talks mostly in his face, and with his hands and arms.


The Chiefs Speak

The speeches of the council went on day after day, with all the chiefs—except for Kamiakin—setting forth their wishes for their tribes.

Peo-peo-mox-mox addressed the gathering with these words:

I do not know what is straight. I do not see the offer you have made the Indians. I never saw these things which are offered by the Great Father. My heart cried when you first spoke to me. I felt like I was blown away like a feather. Let your heart be to separate as we are and to meet another time. We will have no bad minds. Stop the whites from coming here until we can have another talk: let them not bring their oxen with them. The whites may travel in all directions through our country: we will have nothing to say to them, provided they do not build houses on our lands. Now I wish to speak about Lawyer. I think he has given his lands, that is what I think by his words. I request another meeting; it is not in one meeting only that we can come to a decision. If you come again with a friendly message from our Great Father, I shall see you again at this place. Tomorrow I shall see you again and tomorrow evening I shall go home. That is all I have to say.


Then Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon, said:

I want to say a few words to these people, but before I do, if Ka-mi-akin wants to speak, I would be glad to hear him.

Kamiakin replied, "I have nothing to say."

The Walla Walla treaty was signed by all the chiefs present including the unhappy Kamiakin.


William Cameron McKay, stockman and later physician to the Cayuses, but present at the council as an interpreter witnessed Kamiakin's signing:

...when the Indians hesitated, the Governor said to tell the chief, "if they dont sign this treaty, they will walk in blood knee deep." To illustrate, Mam-ia-kin (Kamiakin) was about the last to sign by making his cross. When he returned to his seat, his lips were covered with blood, having bitten them with suppressed rage. Father Chaurause (Chirouse) the Catholic Priest was standing by me at the time, and he drew my attention to the blood, remarking "I am afraid we will all be murdered before we leave these grounds."

The council ended; the treaty was signed.

The Nez Perce held a great Scalp Dance, with 150 women taking part, then began breaking camp.

Only the Nez Perce left the council happy with the bargain they had struck.


The Yakima War

It is the consensus of historical opinion that neither Kamiakin nor any other head chief condoned the killing of Agent Bolon, the event that triggered the Yakima War.

However, Kamiakin, who may have known which Indian youths were involved, was held unjustly personally responsible for the murder.

Kamiakin fought for a time against regular troops and volunteer militiamen, but because of dissention within the Yakama leadership and the successes of the U. S. Army, he finally left the Yakama country for good.

He founded a village near the Palouse River among the people of his father, and considered himself from that time on a Palouse chief.

Although occasionally involved in the skirmishes of the 1858 war, he did not instigate any further conflicts.

In 1860, Kamiakin was invited by the Indian Bureau to once again assume the office of head chief of the Yakama.

Because accepting the position would imply acceptance of the Walla Walla Treaty, he refused, choosing instead to live a poor, but independent life outside the reservation.

On one occasion, an Indian agent attempted to mitigate Kamiakin's poverty by giving him some blankets due under the provisions of the 1855 treaty.

He rejected them with contempt, and pointed to his ragged clothes said:

See, I am a poor man, but too rich to receive anything from the United States.

Kamiakin died in 1877, and was buried near the village he founded.


This is (maybe) Kamiakin when he was young