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On Treaties and Reservations

On Treaties and Reservations
Whitman College Convocation Address
August 29, 2014
Elyse Semerdjian, Associate Professor of History

I am going to begin this talk with two short anecdotes. 

In 1990, while on a conflict resolution study abroad program with Earlham College in Jerusalem, a debate about the West Bank ensued between a group of American students and an Israeli man who asked, “Why do you care about what happens to the Palestinians, look what you did to the Indians?”

A few years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Main Street engaged in a passionate discussion about Middle East politics with a local Nez Perce Indian who turned to me and asked, “How can you teach about the Middle East without thinking about where you are here?”  

In both instances—albeit from two very different perspectives—the conversation turned to a comparison between the plight of the American Indian and the Palestinian. So, I thought I would use this occasion to introduce the class of 2018 to the liberal arts by doing the comparative thinking that my conversation partner challenged me to do.     

If you take a look at the geography of our campus it is bracketed from the West by the Marcus Whitman statue (a statue on Main Street on the farthest corner) and from the East by Treaty Rock, a prodigious rock near Maxey Hall. We live between two important texts, if you will, that mark a history that is both violent and global. The colonial legacies we live among on our own campus are part of global forces that continue to be a source of conflict throughout the world. 

Our first stop is the Westward-looking Marcus Whitman statue created by sculptor Avard Fairbanks to commemorate our college’s namesake, one of the earliest white settlers in the Oregon Territory. In Fairbanks’ letters of correspondence with the Marcus Whitman Memorial Committee who commissioned his work, he wrote of his desire not to represent Whitman as “a mousy eastern missionary” instead he wrote, “One of the most outstanding qualities I am endeavoring to bring forward in the study of Marcus Whitman is a virility and strength of character and the spirit of a man of high and noble purposes who has chosen his field of labor out in the wilderness.  A man to inspire new settlements and plan the future of an ‘Empire.’”1 In the end, the 9-foot-tall statue imagined Whitman as a muscular frontiersman.2 Whitman's murder at the hands of sick and dying Indians was ceremonialized on our campus for many years. Back in 1897, a commemorative football game was hosted on the anniversary of the Marcus Whitman massacre.3 First-year students were required to visit the Whitman Mission during opening week until it was dropped from the program at a time I was unable to determine. The hanging of 5 Cayuse Indians for Whitman’s murder set off a rebellion, or shall I call it an intifada, here in Walla Walla. That uprising resulted in a war that concluded with a treaty.

From the second floor windows of Maxey Hall where my office is located, I can see our second stop, Treaty Rock. Many publications insist that the rock was a gift of the surrendering tribes who presented it in friendship in 1955.4 But the Whitman College archives tell a very different story. The rock was not a gift by local tribes but donated by a descendant of white settlers, A. W. Laird, manager of the Northern Idaho Potlatch Lumber Company. The plaque affixed to the rock features Hol-Lol-Sote-Tote or “The Lawyer”—the Nez Perce negotiator who quickly signed over Indian land in the treaty, a person reviled by the non-signing tribes which included some Nez Perce. This plaque was created by Whitman College graduate Ernest Norling of Seattle but donated by Whitman class of 1930. The only gift from the tribes on Treaty Rock is a second plaque donated on the centennial that simply, without embellishment, recognizes the treaty that exiled the Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakima, and Nez Perce tribes to three reservations.

On June 10-12, 1955, local Walla Wallans gathered with regional tribes on our campus to commemorate the centennial of the treaty with pageantry. These original archival photos show the grassy campus amphitheater with a speaker podium framed by two tee pees. After the speeches, there was an historical reenactment of the treaty. In 1855, some 5,000 tribal leaders met near our campus at Mill Creek before the treaty signing, placing the future location of Whitman College at this important intersection of history. When chiefs objected to the lack of time for consultation with their tribes, Governor Stevens threatened them saying: “If they don't sign this treaty, they will walk in blood knee deep.” Signed under duress, the 1855 treaty appropriated 95% of the 6.4 million acres of aboriginal land in Oregon and Washington for whites. Quickly, the reservation became a tool for further exploitation as the government proceeded to squeeze the tribes’ living space further citing “the vanishing Indian” and demographic pressure from white colonization.  The Umatilla Reservation alone shrank by another 35% between 1855 and 1887.5 Continued colonization limited the space within which Indians were able to move and restricted the fishing rights guaranteed in the original treaty.  Simultaneously, the treaty reserved land for exclusive Indian use and demanded that whites could only enter those spaces with tribal permissions.  So, while the rock symbolizes the tragic exile of all the surrounding Indian tribes to the Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce reservations, it also symbolizes the establishment of Indian sovereignty that has only increased with subsequent legal successes over the last several decades. 

Recently, our students orchestrated an artistic intervention on Treaty Rock, encasing the rock and placards I have described to you in barbed wire to represent visually the constriction of Indian living space in 1855. This was the product of one of several courses generated by the Global Studies Initiative; in this case, two faculty members Michelle Acuff in Art and Aaron Strain in Politics explored the intersection between art, geography, and politics in a course entitled “Raw Geographies.”  Through this installation, students sparked a campus conversation about the connection between the local and the global that I seek to continue.

At the centennial commemoration at Treaty Rock in 1955, Maudie Antoine, Chairwoman of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said, “Look to the natives of Africa being dispossessed the same as our ancestors were and by whom, history today repeats itself that we might remember.”6 Her global gesture to the plight of dispossessed indigenous peoples from the Whitman College amphitheater globalized treaty rock in ways I would like to explore further.

Portrayals of Indians as wasting the land reverberates in the representation of Palestinians as underdeveloped and lacking the ability to “make the desert bloom” like Zionist settlers did.7 This binary of the uncivilized Palestinian against the civilized Israeli is used to justify their removal from the land in Israel’s version of settler colonialism.  Can our recognition of the injustices of settler colonialism in the Oregon Territory help us view the plight of the Palestinians in a way that challenges this dominant narrative? If we were to probe further, could we find comparisons between the “treaties” that worked to displace Palestinians and those that displaced the Indians?

During World War I, Britain ratified the Balfour Declaration, promising the world Zionist movement that Jews could establish “a national home” in Palestine, but that same statement required that this must be done without discriminating against the civil and religious rights of existing inhabitants—the Palestinians.8 For two decades of rule in Palestine, Britain vacillated between these two competing claims until the Jewish State was birthed in war in 1948.

The rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazi menace in Europe made the need for a “Jewish homeland” more urgent. However, the Zionist cliché “a people without a land for a land without a people,” failed to recognize that Palestine was not any more empty than the Oregon territory. In 1948, 1.3 million Palestinians lived in the land as compared to 604,000 Jews, many of whom had fled Europe since the nineteenth century. The creation of the state of Israel rendered Palestinian refugees stateless, and Palestinian displacement and statelessness is the root of the conflict.

Many years later, when the Oslo Peace Accord was signed in 1993, CNN aired scenes of Palestinians waving olive branches celebrating what they thought was the intent of the documents—the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, two territories Israel seized in the 1967 war.  Instead, Oslo imposed what it called Palestinian “self-government,” not statehood, a crucial distinction.  As part of the agreement, the West Bank and Gaza were sealed off from Israel then the West Bank was divided into three parts to be released to Palestinians in stages—only the first phase giving Palestinians full control of 18% of the West Bank was ever initiated.  By the late 90s, the peace process expired, meanwhile settlements continued to expand.

After Oslo, further links between the 1948 boundaries of Israel and West Bank settlements were forged.   Settlements were then linked with bypass or settler-only roads financed by USAID, even as international law and multiple UN resolutions have determined the settlements to be illegal.  Today, the West Bank is composed of seventy non-connected, tightly-controlled Palestinian enclaves that are dissected by settler-only roads and expanding Israeli settlements.

 Before Oslo, Palestinians could visit the beach in Tel Aviv, work for Israeli companies, and have Israeli friends; today, after “peace” Palestinians and Israelis are more separated than ever and this separation has moved to facilitate the extremism and dehumanization we witness in this summer’s war.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently admitted there was no intention of granting a Palestinian state when he said: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”9 Since the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlements have tripled in the West Bank and have quintupled if we include illegal settlements in East Jerusalem.10 In this post-Oslo dystopia, half of the population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River live in these non-contiguous Palestinian reservations.

One of these reservations, Gaza, is compared to “an open air prison” because it is hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Palestinians in Gaza are not even free to leave to become refugees in other countries, nor are they allowed to import daily necessities, many of which are mysteriously banned by Israeli authorities, including soap, books, paper, salt, sugar, and chickpeas.11 Any resistance to this inhumane regime, peaceful or violent, is viewed as justification for collective punishment.  But, what purpose does this imprisonment serve? In the Whitman College amphitheater in 1955, Maudie Antoine explained: “Reservations were established to protect the Indian from complete annihilation, but more truly to keep him under surveillance and protect the white man from the Indians, that they could seize more land unmolested.

Now, I admit that the comparisons I have made today are not identical, true comparisons never are.  But at the interstices between here and there, is the space of critical inquiry. How are Palestinian reservations different from those that surround us here in Washington State? Can the Palestinian learn lessons of survival and resistance from the American Indian who has endured and won significant legal battles in recent years? To paraphrase Maudie Antoine as a question, must history today repeat itself that we might remember?

Israel/Palestine may seem far away, but as we globalize Whitman College’s geography, I draw your attention to our third and final stop—Penrose Library, a place we hope you will spend a lot of time in the next four years.  Named after Whitman College president Stephen B.L. Penrose, it’s worth noting that his son by the same name graduated from Whitman College in 1928, later worked for the CIA, and eventually became the President of the American University of Beirut.  When Israel was created in 1948 and war was waged by surrounding Arab States, 750,000 Palestinians were made into refugees and were later forbidden to return to their homes.  Penrose continued to send memos and recommendations on how to justly solve the Palestinian refugee crisis. Penrose’s recommendations penned in his own hand show a level of creativity and compassion in solving the crisis not matched by politicians who continue to ask Palestinians to concede more and more of their ancestral homelands without a guarantee of statehood. 

This is where we return to our task here at Whitman College. How can the liberal arts prepare us for the kind of comparative humanistic reasoning we need to help solve the kind of pressing global problems Penrose was trying to solve?  What can this method do to create empathy for suffering that we are connected to and sometimes complicit in creating via global entanglements of power?

Class of 2018, I leave you with a final thought about the path you will begin as you study the liberal arts and consider the common humanity that binds us. As we critically engage the history, politics, and culture of the globe at Whitman College, we must also critically engage our own place. Doing this, of course, exposes our vulnerabilities and can make us, well, uncomfortable, but that discomfort can be a launching point to learning something new.

As the granddaughter of two victims of the Armenian Genocide, I have both a personal and an intellectual investment in our community-forging humanistic project at Whitman College. In a world that prefers that we silo our opinions by turning off the channel, clicking the “unfriend” option on Facebook so that we are never exposed to opinions other that the ones we like, I suggest we opt for an overture of voices. Edward Said used the musical metaphor of the contrapunctal arrangement of a fugue, an artistic form that requires more than one voice to achieve its beauty, to describe this form of aspirational humanism.  Consider the position of others by listening to their voices in the human fugue. To quote Edward Said, “Humanism is the only - I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” On that note, I leave you with the sounds of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and his poem “Think of Others (fakar bi ghayruka).” 

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others

                                do not forget to feed the dove

As you wage your wars, think of others

                                do not forget those who seek peace

As you pay your water bill, think of others

                                those who are nursed by the clouds

As you return to your home, think of others

                                do not forget the people of the refugee camps

As you sleep and count the stars, think of others

                                those who have nowhere to sleep

As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others

                                those who have lost the right to speak

As you think of others far away, think of yourself

                                say: “I hope I am a candle in the dark”

Select Bibliography:

Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar, Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Middle East Report http://www.merip.org/primer-palestine-israel-arab-israeli-conflict-new?ip_login_no_cache=d90f76ef33c1410d6020fcc8a258ce3c

Meron Benvenisti,  Son of the Cypresses: Memories, Reflections, and Regrets from a Political Life. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2007.

G. Thomas Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition:  The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924.  Walla Walla: Whitman College, 1992.

“Gaza in 2020:  A Livable Place?” Report by the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) (August, 2012) http://www.unrwa.org/userfiles/file/publications/gaza/Gaza%20in%202020.pdf

In Honor of Hol-Lol-Sote-Tote Chief Lawyer, The Whitman College Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2 (June 1930) 4.  Whitman College and Northwest Archives.

Letter to Goldie Rehberg from Avard Fairbanks dated October 31, 1949.  Whitman College and Northwest Archives, Walla Walla, Washington.

 “Netanyahu: Gaza conflict proves Israel can’t relinquish control of West Bank,” Times of Israel (July 11, 2014)  http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-gaza-conflict-proves-israel-cant-relinquish-control-of-west-bank/

“Online Documents and Primary Sources,” Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East” The US Institute of Peace


Edward Said, Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. 

Charles Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict:  A History with Documents, 8th edition (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013)

Remarks of Maudie C. Antoine, Chairman, Board of Trustees, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation at Stevens Treaty Centennial Observance.  In “Speeches and Records of the Commemorative Program and other features of the Stevens Treaty Council Centennial Observance, 1855-1955” June 11-12, 1955. Whitman College and Northwest Archives.  

“Treaty with the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla, 1855,”


Whitson, John H., A Courier of Empire. Boston: W.A. Wilde Company, 1904.

Wiyaxayxt / Wiyaakaa'awn/As Days Go By: Our History, Our Land, and Our People--the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, ed. Jennifer Karson. Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2006.

  1. Letter to Goldie Rehberg from Avard Fairbanks dated October 31, 1949.  Whitman College Archives.
  2. Fairbanks’ allusion to empire was not unusual since a 1904 book title referred to Whitman as “a Courier of Empire,” a pioneer who opened the pathway for more white settlement in the Oregon territory, explaining his westward glance in Fairbank’s representation.  See John H. Whitson, A Courier of Empire (Boston: W.A. Wilde Company, 1904).
  3. G. Thomas Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition:  The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924 (Walla Walla: Whitman College, 1992) 166-167. 
  4. In Honor of Hol-Lol-Sote-Tote Chief Lawyer, The Whitman College Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2 (June 1930) 4.  Whitman College Archives.  See this presentation of Treaty Rock on Whitman College’s website describing Treaty Rock as a gift of the tribes:  http://www.whitman.edu/about-whitman/campus-and-community/sculpture-walk/parts-one-through-four
  5. In raw numbers, that is 245,699 in 1855 at the treaties signing to 85,322 in 1887.
  6. Speeches and Records of the Commemorative Program and other features of the Stevens Treaty Council Centennial Observance 1855-1955 Walla Walla, Washington.  Compiled and Distributed by the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce.
  7. Of America John Locke wrote of “the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry.”  He also commented on “great tracts of land to be found, which (the inhabitants thereof have not joined the rest of mankind, in consent of the use of their common money)….lie waste” in John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. MacPherson (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1980) pages 24 and 28 respectively.  For a critical historical analysis of the Zionist phrase “making the desert bloom” see Meron Benvenisti, Son of the Cypresses: Memories, Reflections, and Regrets from a Political Life (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2007)32-35.
  8. The one sentence document reads:  "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."   See http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/balfour.asp.
  9. “Netanyahu: Gaza conflict proves Israel can’t relinquish control of West Bank,” (July 11, 2014)  http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-gaza-conflict-proves-israel-cant-relinquish-control-of-west-bank/
  10. Clovis Maksood, Twenty Years After the Oslo Accords!  What now?” al-Monitor (September 15, 2013) http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/oslo-anniversary-next-steps.html
  11. Amira Hass broke this disturbing story in the Israeli press outlining the extent of import restrictions, “2,279 calories per person: How Israel made sure Gaza didn't starve,” Haaretz  (October 17, 2012).  The article also includes the full document from the Israel Health Minister marking red lines to keep Palestinians from starving, but simultaneously restrict food importation beyond those limits.  http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/2-279-calories-per-person-how-israel-made-sure-gaza-didn-t-starve.premium-1.470419
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