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Kershner: Monument to Garry a small part of our debt

Mon., Aug. 29, 2011

I’ve just paid an early morning visit to Chief Garry Park to see the Gathering Place, the monument dedicated recently to Chief Spokane Garry. As I walked through a rounded metal archway, into a graceful circle of basalt columns, I couldn’t help thinking: This is the absolute least we can do for him.

And by “we,” I mean all of us who call the Inland Northwest home. Chief Spokane Garry is an indispensable part of our story and was an altogether admirable human being. He watched, with his own eyes, the most startling transition that ever occurred on this spot where we live – from tribal gathering spot to bustling downtown – and he never wavered in his attempts to see that this transition occurred with some semblance of justice. That he never achieved much justice may turn his story into a tragedy, but it does not remotely diminish the virtue of his attempt.

Chief Garry was born around 1811, at a time when life around here revolved around fishing and gathering. It wasn’t long before Garry was immersed in a new world, the white world. His father, a Spokane chief, agreed to send him at age 14 to a missionary school in Canada. Five years later, Garry (the name they gave him at the mission school, after a Hudson’s Bay Co. official) returned fluent in English and French, schooled in math and agriculture, and able to quote extensively from the Bible.

This was in 1830, a time when white settlement was nonexistent in our region. He taught his tribe the things he thought might be useful. Under his influence, the Spokanes earned a reputation for being agriculturally advanced. He started a rough schoolhouse at Drumheller Springs in Spokane and taught some of his people how to read and write English. But he didn’t push this new culture too hard. When someone asked him why he dropped his attempts to teach Christianity, he replied it was because the other Spokanes “jawed me so much about it.”

He soon became a leader of the Middle and Upper bands of the Spokane Tribe and the tribe’s spokesman in dealing with the white world. Garry has earned a reputation in history as a conciliator and man of peace, but don’t think for a minute that he was a pushover, or that he didn’t keep the interests of his people uppermost. An Army general once accused Garry of knowing how to speak like a lawyer and “filibuster like a Congressman.” It was meant as an insult, but sounds like a compliment.

Just listen to some of his strong, and often angry, words:

• (While addressing the territorial governor after war broke out between tribes and whites) “When I heard of the war, I had two hearts and have had two hearts ever since. The bad heart is a little larger than the good.”

• (To the territorial governor) “When you look at the red men, you think you have more heart, more sense, than these poor Indians. I think the difference between us and you Americans is in the clothing; the blood and the body are the same. Do you think that because your mother was white and theirs dark, that you are higher and better? … I do not think we are poor because we belong to another nation. If you take the Indians for men, treat them so now.”

• (In a letter to the federal government, which was threatening to move his people to a reservation far from the Spokane River) “What right do you have to dictate to us? This is our country and we will not leave it.”

• (When another reservation was proposed) “My tribesmen may go, but as for me, I will die first.”

Garry spent his final decade in a last-ditch attempt to acquire the only reservation that he believed was just: Land on both sides of the Spokane River from the new city of Spokane all the way to Tum Tum, about 20 miles downstream. He encountered nothing but rejection.

Garry made good on his promise not to go to any other reservation. He settled on his own farm near present-day Hillyard, until, one day in 1888, he and his family went down to the Spokane River to fish. When they came back, a white squatter had taken over his farm and ordered Garry out. When Garry didn’t load up his wagons quickly enough, the squatter burned down Garry’s cabin. Garry tried to get recourse through the courts, but received none.

His family and tiny band of followers moved to Indian Canyon, where a white landowner allowed them to camp. Some Spokane youngsters thought it great sport to stand on a bridge and pelt the bent old chief with rocks. It was there, in 1892, that Chief Garry died after a long decline.

All of this explains why, while standing in Garry’s monument, the Gathering Place, I felt pride in the fact that Spokane today has not forgotten him. Yet this pride is mixed with sorrow.

The Gathering Place that Garry truly dreamed of? It stretches far into the distance, about 20 miles downstream.

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