Excerpt: Framing Chief Leschi, by Lisa Blee

Framing Chief Leschi: Narratives and the Politics of Historical Justice by Lisa BleeIn 1855 in the South Puget Sound, war broke out between Washington settlers and Nisqually Indians. A party of militiamen traveling through Nisqually country was ambushed, and two men were shot from behind and fatally wounded. After the war, Chief Leschi, a Nisqually leader, was found guilty of murder by a jury of settlers and hanged in the territory’s first judicial execution. But some 150 years later, in 2004, the Historical Court of Justice, a symbolic tribunal that convened in a Tacoma museum, reexamined Leschi’s murder conviction and posthumously exonerated him. In Framing Chief Leschi: Narratives and the Politics of Historical Justice, Lisa Blee uses this fascinating case to uncover the powerful, lasting implications of the United States’ colonial past.

In the following excerpt (pp. 70-72), Blee examines how the war in Iraq informed the Historical Court of Justice’s decision to exonerate Chief Leschi 150 years later.


[Ezra] Meeker wrote in the introduction to Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound and the Tragedy of Leschi: “To tell the truth about [Indians] is no more than justice.” Although Meeker intended the “truth” to rescue the honor of the “pioneers,” one hundred years later the petitioners also equated truth and justice to argue for Leschi’s exoneration in the Historical Court.[1] The expert witnesses relied upon a mix of nineteenth-century documents to build their case: government reports, settlers’ letters, newspaper reports, public meeting minutes, journals, accounts of the legal proceedings, and other publications. They also used settlers’ memoirs penned in the 1890s, because those writings held information about Leschi that was especially helpful to the petitioners’ case. Meeker, for example, laid the blame for Leschi’s death upon territorial officials, which helped the petitioners build a tidy legal argument but obscured the fact that non-Indians benefited for generations from federal aid and the use of military force against indigenous peoples. The petitioners seemed to accept Meeker’s depictions of settlers’ innocence as long as the judges admitted that a mistake had been made. In 2007, one of the petitioners’ legal advisers said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a binding decision or not. Leschi’s still dead . . . [but at least] Stevens is discredited.”[2] The petitioners used settlers’ writings to build an argument in a narrowly defined legalistic case, but the continuities in colonial ideology expressed in these documents remained largely outside of this specific framing.

The Committee to Exonerate Chief Leschi and its legal counsel used the documentary record to develop an argument advocating for the legal status of combatants in U.S. wars, an approach that seemed especially tailored to engage with an on-going debate in the early twenty-first century. In 2003 and 2004, a flurry of books and films from across the political spectrum questioned the so-called War on Terror, especially the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the Bush administration’s efforts to justify it.[3] Much like the Puget Sound War in the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. overseas conflicts in the early twenty-first century were arguably an outward manifestation of domestic economic, political, and cultural crisis—“an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life,” as Andrew Bacevich puts it.[4] This context of war and public debate about its righteousness shaped the petitioners’ legal arguments and the judges’ interpretations of the documentary record related to Leschi. Although the military law experts who testified in the Historical Court did not mention the current wars, one judge recalled afterward that “all of us were aware of what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan” as they deliberated Leschi’s case.[5] Leschi’s exoneration offered the judges the opportunity to confirm America’s commitment to liberal values of equality and freedom in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war. The judges’ decision could help Americans declare the United States as both powerful and good.

The army lawyers’ interpretation of Leschi’s wartime status as an enemy combatant served as the basis for the petitioners’ case and the judges’ decision in the Historical Court. The petitioners’ argument was especially interesting in light of contemporaneous debates over the legal status of combatants captured in the War on Terror. In the months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States commenced military operations in Afghanistan and other places in pursuit of members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. President George W. Bush and military lawyers determined individuals captured in these operations to be unlawful enemy combatants because the group was stateless and, according to the United States, waged an illegal war by ignoring international conventions of war. Executive branch lawyers released legal memos justifying detention and torture on legal grounds, despite the fact that international law prohibited such treatment for prisoners of war. President Bush’s military order of November 13, 2001, declared that belligerents captured in this conflict could be held indefinitely without legal recourse. If the case advanced to a hearing, the suspects would be tried and sentenced by a special military commission not subject to “the principles of law” generally recognized in U.S. criminal courts. In early 2002, about 500 prisoners were transported to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.[6] The Central Intelligence Agency, meanwhile, took detainees to detention centers in undisclosed locations around the world, called black sites, to conduct interrogations.[7]

The administration’s wartime policy of holding “unlawful combatants” without trial received a great deal of public scrutiny.[8] Just as Nisqually leaders began conversations about exonerating Leschi, half a dozen habeas corpus cases wound their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time, in April 2004, 60 Minutes II broadcast disturbing photographs of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the New Yorker published the photographs a few days later. The ensuing public horror prompted President Bush to condemn the “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.” Those values became the subject of public debate and strengthened the rhetorical impulse toward civil and human rights.[9] By the autumn of 2004, the Supreme Court had rejected sweeping wartime powers claimed by the Bush administration regarding legal rights for enemy combatants.[10] The petitioners thus presented an argument for Leschi’s exoneration around an issue of concurrent public concern: U.S. adherence to international laws of war and the legal rights of enemy combatants.


From Framing Chief Leschi: Narratives and the Politics of Historical Justice, by Lisa Blee. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Meeker held a paternalistic view of Indians, which was typical for the period. See Meeker, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound and the Tragedy of Leschi, 222–25. [Tribal historian Cecelia] Carpenter used quotes from Meeker’s book for her testimony, especially pp. 206–11. Ironically, Meeker’s legal and political perspectives could also undercut the petitioners’ legal case in 2004. Meeker described Indian nationhood and land title as fictional, and, although he characterized Leschi as a principled combatant, he denied that Nisquallies had reason to resist land loss and that they had the right to commence war. Meeker, Seventy Years of Progress in Washington, 349. The writings produced at the turn of the twentieth century had various results. On the one hand, older non-Indians taught a younger generation of Washingtonians negative stereotypes about their indigenous neighbors and dismissed the legal force of Indian treaties. On the other hand, Meeker’s sympathy for Leschi heavily influenced twentieth-century historians. In the second half of the century, writers used Meeker’s work to create romantic depictions of preservation Indian life and exalt Leschi as a tragic victim. By the close of the century, Leschi had been used to promote a variety of liberal critiques of American culture, from capitalism and environmental destruction to racism and militarism. See Binns, Mighty Mountain; Chaplin, “Only the Drums Remembered”; Emmon, Leschi of the Nisquallies; Vaughn, Puget Sound Invasion; and Eckrom, Remembered Drums.
  2. [2]Interview with Thor Hoyte.
  3. [3]Bacevich, New American Militarism, 4–5. Michael Moore’s documentary Farenheit 9/11 opened at number one in U.S. theaters in the summer of 2004. Dawson and Schueller, Exceptional State, 13.
  4. [4]Bacevich argues that Americans’ tendency to conflate liberty with consumerism leads to imperialist wars justified as a defense of Americans’ freedom. Bacevich, Limits of Power, 5–11.
  5. [5]Kluger, Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, 282.
  6. [6]Wald, “Supreme Court Goes to War,” 38–39; Dorf, No Litmus Test, 131, 133; Lepore, “Dark Ages,” 28–29.
  7. [7]Sikkink, Justice Cascade, 190–191.
  8. [8]The “War on Terror” is a label applied to U.S. military operations fighting against networks identified by the United States as “terrorist organizations.” The military operations in this “war” commenced in Afghanistan immediately following al-Qaeda’s coordinated attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The “War on Terror” label later extended to encompass the U.S. war in Iraq, which began in March 2003. For more on the ambiguous meaning of the label, see Raz, “Defining the War on Terror.”
  9. [9]Sikkink notes that since the story at Abu Ghraib broke, reports from the Red Cross and leaked official documents indicate that the practices of degrading and inhumane treatment were widespread and long-standing, occurring at black sites around the world as well as at Guantánamo Bay. Sikkink, Justice Cascade, 197–98; Lepore, “Dark Ages,” 32; Wald, “Supreme Court Goes to War,” 39, 41; New Yorker, “The Abu Ghraib Picture”; White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “George W. Bush Speech.”
  10. [10]Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 124 S. Ct. 2633 (2004); Rasul v. Bush, 124 S. Ct. 2686 (2004).