It's a familiar story. So familiar, in fact, that for many it's a simple thing to ignore. The colonization of the Americas by Europeans vis-a-vis the continent's indigenous peoples is a history littered with countless examples of mistreatment and broken promises. The fact these atrocities occurred so often, however, should not diminish our sense of outrage over individual cases — particularly when there exist open avenues to healing.
The struggle of the Wenatchi tribe to have their ancestral lands restored to them is one such case. What makes their story unique in the annals of U.S.-Indian relations is that the land originally granted -- and to this day denied -- to them was part of a treaty officially ratified in 1855 by the U.S. Congress. Wednesday night, KSPS-TV will premiere False Promises: Lost Land of the Wenatchi, a new documentary from award-winning Seattle filmmaker Rustin Thompson.
Thompson (whose work includes the acclaimed feature-length documentary, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle) describes how he first became seduced by the Wenatchi story.
"The Wenatchi were a tribe I never even knew existed," he says. "Once I found out about them, I discovered that their original land was right where Leavenworth is today. When you go to Leavenworth, you see absolutely no evidence that there was ever a Native American presence there. There isn't even a Western presence there. It's like this Bavarian La-La land. So I was intrigued on that level, but I wasn't sure what distinguished the Wenatchi's claim from so many others. Then I realized they had not only a treaty, but an agreement, both of which were ratified by the federal government. In most cases, treaties never even got to the government."
The film is based on the research of E. Richard Hart, a historian with 30 years' experience in tribal issues. Through interviews with Hart and living tribal members, archival photographs and the words of the last Wenatchi chief, Chief John Harmelt, the Wenatchi people are vividly brought to life.
The 1855 treaty provided the Wenatchi tribe with a 36-square-mile reservation surrounding the Wenatchapam Fishery located at the confluence of Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River. It also honored the tribe's hunting, gathering and fishing rights in their traditional territory. A subsequent agreement (ratified in 1894) offered tribal members allotments of land in the Wenatchapam fisheries area in lieu of the reservation promised them, while again acknowledging their rights under the 1855 treaty. But neither the terms of the treaty nor the agreement was ever honored by the government. The reservation was never surveyed, and eventually white homesteaders and the railroads came in and divided up the Wenatchis' lands, sending the tribe into exile.
"On the books, they have fishing, hunting, gathering and land rights in that area," says Thompson. "They want those rights recognized, which will allow them to fish legally at the Wenatchapam Fishery and allow them to go on to lands that were once theirs. They also would like to get some of the land that is still open, that is public land, returned to them for their use. But they have no interest in moving people off their land."
Wenatchi tribal leaders are today pursuing extra-legal means to compel the government to recognize their rights under the treaty (including screenings of False Promises before congressional delegations in Washington, D.C.). Failing that, they will turn to the federal courts for justice.
Says Thompson, "For them, land is so tied up in who they are. They have this deep spiritual connection to it that I don't think the rest of us can understand."