Kluger ’56 explores tragic clash between white settlers and Native Americans

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Richard Kluger ’56 (Michael Lionstar)

New book: The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, by Richard Kluger ’56 (Alfred A. Knopf)

The author: A social historian who looks at the complex social and historic fabric of America, Kluger has written about the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation (Simple Justice), the rise and fall of the New York Herald Tribune (The Paper), the cigarette industry in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ashes to Ashes, and America’s land grab (Seizing Destiny). Kluger also is a novelist and when he began working on his latest book, he thought he was going to write a historical novel set during the “frontier days of the Old West, when life brimmed with peril and where the line between virtue and villainy at times grew indistinguishable,” he writes in the preface to his book.
 
The book: His latest book is not a historical novel, however. Instead with the help of a librarian, he found an “all but forgotten episode” involving a notorious murder conviction of a Native American tribal leader, Leschi, who was executed in 1858 in the Washington Territory. He tells the story surrounding that case — involving a fierce war between the Nisqually tribe and the territory’s militia and army and centering on two leaders: Washington’s first governor, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, who aimed to persuade the Native Americans to turn over their lands to the government; and Leschi, chief of the Nisqually tribe who objected to the Medicine Creek Treaty and sparked the native resistance movement.
 

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From the book: “In person [Isaac I. Stevens] could be talkative, at times insufferably so, and inclined to dominate the conversation until he got his point across. On paper Stevens was likewise prolific and prolix, a compulsive letter writer and drafter of memoranda, some of them compelling reading but at times long-winded. … Stevens’s passionate striving for personal advancement, along with his patriotism, courage, and intelligence, may be readily gleaned from this mass of material. Ironically, though, Isaac Stevens is remembered today, if at all, not for his daring or any luminous achievement but for his vendetta aimed at destroying the last chief of an obscure Native American tribe — a man who was, so far as modern scrutiny can tell, a no less devoted patriot to this little nation, equally brave, and just as smart by his own culture’s determinants.”

 
Reviews: “Meticulously researched, elegantly written, and sophisticated, the book uses this all but forgotten episode in American history to give a human face to the injustices visited on Indians in treaty-making, on the battlefield, and, surprisingly, in the courtroom,” wrote a critic for the Minnesota Star Tribune. “By focusing on one tribe’s historic struggle,” wrote The Seattle Times, “Kluger shines a light on our nation’s deplorable treatment of its native people.”