I like small town historical museums, where in just a few hours you can glean nuggets of insight about a time and place. These museums usually present the stories that a passionate group of town elders want to preserve for future generations. Sure, they highlight the positive and sometimes gloss over or ignore some of the negative backstory. But often, if you can take the time to dig, they present different sides of the story.
The Fort Walla Walla Museum, in that dusty Eastern Washington farm town turned thriving wine mecca, has a mixed bag of agricultural, pioneer, military and native artifacts from the region’s varied history. Like a pre-combustion engine Harris combine from 1910, with 33 life-size mule models that really bring to life the power it took to pull one of these monsters across thousands of hilly acres.
And there’s an intriguing diorama of a brief interaction in 1806 that took five languages to complete. As the Lewis & Clark expedition was returning east, Yellept, a headman of the Wallah Wallah people, invited Captain Clark to stay a few days. In the native tradition, Yellept presented the Captain with “a very elegant white horse”, receiving Clark’s sword and other gifts in return (though what Yellept really wanted was a kettle). According to the display, five languages were used in the gifting: Clark’s English to Francois Labiche’s French; Toussaint Charbonneau’s Hidatsa to Sacagawea’s Shoshone. And the Shoshone woman held captive in Yellept’s camp translated into Sahaptin, the Wallah Wallah people’s language!
A shameful history, and a friendship
But the museum’s collection that really drew me in was the beaded Palouse peoples’ clothing, and in particular the story of the friendship between a band of Wanapum people and the family of Wesley Lloyd. It’s a remarkable story in the context of our terrible history of westward expansion as a national policy goal, and the treatment of native peoples to get them out of the way. As settlers poured into the Columbia River basin, conflicts with the regional tribes were inevitable. The governor of the Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens, negotiated a series of treaties in the 1850’s that pushed the region’s native peoples into progressively smaller reservations away from the homesteaders, transportation corridors, and away from the most productive farmland. Stevens was said to be arrogant, politically ambitious, and a shrewd negotiator. He also, according to observers, instructed his interpreter to say, “Tell the chiefs if they don’t sign this treaty they will walk in blood knee deep.” Despite the treaties, there was continued fighting and distrust between the settlers and the native bands.
Against this background, a former member of the Oregon Volunteer Militia, Albert Lloyd, concluded a treaty with the Palouse people for use of their land. In exchange, the native people retained the use of a traditional campsite on the property. The Lloyd farm was near the small but growing town of Waitsburg, and through the next 80 years or so, friendship and trust grew between the Lloyds and their Wanapum neighbors. They shared resources, exchanged gifts, and seem genuinely to have loved each other’s children.
In the 1920’s, native women often watched Wesley and Ina Lloyd’s two young sons while she did her chores. The Lloyd children were given moccasins, gauntlets and a teepee. A particular friendship grew between Wesley Lloyd and Pasco Sam of the White Bluff’s band of the Wanapum people. Pasco Sam was fond of young Tony Lloyd, giving him a complete set of regalia including an eagle feather headdress, and teaching him traditional men’s dances and songs.
This friendship continued into the 1940s, and the Lloyds stored away the gifts they received over the years. Now, fortunately for us, these wonderful examples of native dress are on display at the museum, which I, for one, really appreciate. It’s important to learn about the shameful history of our relations with the native peoples of our region, but I also love getting a sliver of insight into more nuanced human relationships.