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  • Indian Resistance as Race War
  • Lisa Blee (bio)
Richard Kluger . The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. xi + 330 pp. Maps, figures, bibliography, notes, and index. $30.00.

When Richard Kluger conceptualized the topic for his new book, he hoped to write a fictional novel set in the rough-and-tumble Old West. What he found instead was a true story of clashing worldviews, charismatic heroes, failed diplomacy, war, and courtroom drama set in territorial Washington—the essential ingredients of an exciting narrative. Kluger thus adopted a biographical framework and delved deep into the archives to reconstruct a political, legal, and cultural story of how white Americans came to dominate Native American homelands.

Kluger states that his goal is to provide an illustration of the "interaction between the white and red races" to better understand a "monumental tragedy" (p. xvi). To this end, Kluger relies on the small scale to tell what he sees as a representative story of Americans' land-hunger and Indians' victimization. Kluger nominates Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens and Nisqually Indian headman Leschi as symbols for white and Native America, respectively. Readers familiar with Northwest history will recognize the events recounted here, as previous authors have covered aspects or the entirety of the story.1 Kluger does not offer a novel interpretation—although he contributes new material in the epilogue—but he does provide the most comprehensive account available. He has also endeavored to place what has been considered a regional story into a national framework with broader significance.

Kluger is a gifted storyteller. His writing style is accessible and conversational, but his tone is not neutral. Kluger does not hold back criticism of Americans or hide his admiration for native people (p. xvi). Although based on sound archival research, this book is not appropriate for a scholarly audience. Rather than footnotes, at the end of the book Kluger offers a list of sources consulted for each chapter. At times his authorial voice blurs with nineteenth-century Americans' social attitudes toward Native Americans, resulting in language that will make scholars cringe and may not offer the best model for students: a description of natives as "children of nature" (p. [End Page 254] 19) and phrases like "on the warpath" (p. 52) perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans. Furthermore, while Kluger explains that Euro-Americans were motivated by "manifest destiny" to greedily take Western land, he seems to adopt the premise of the ideology to tell his story. For example, after describing how pre-contact Nisqually people lived from the abundance of the land, Kluger offers a dramatic foreshadowing: "It was their misfortune that history was about to catch up with paradise" (p. 19). Kluger suggests that nineteenth-century American policies and practices were an irresistible force of modernity that would inevitably clash with unsophisticated native people; this framing, however, ultimately justifies the land grab that he set out to criticize.

The book is divided into two parts plus an epilogue. The first part introduces the main actors (including a lengthy biography of Isaac Stevens), the founding and early years of Washington Territory, the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty, and the increasingly violent interactions between demanding immigrants and natives of the region who followed Leschi's lead in criticizing the treaty. Kluger's research in reports, letters, and reminiscences helps him to create colorful individual biographies and bring treaty negotiations to life. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are those in which his investigative process is revealed: in the controversy over whether Leschi signed the treaty, Kluger drops his authoritative authorial voice, wades into the morass of differing accounts to weigh their reliability, and ultimately concedes that we cannot know with certainty what happened. The final chapters of the first part detail the Puget Sound Indian war of 1855-56, which contained more political intrigue within the territorial government than pitched battles. Kluger provides many fascinating details (even those drawn from highly questionable sources) to craft a cohesive narrative.

The second part of the book reveals Governor Stevens' obsession with punishing Leschi for serving as a leader in the war. Against the...


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pp. 254-258
Launched on MUSE
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