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This is an etching of Col. George Wright, who led the military campaign that ended the Indian Wars in the Inland Northwest during the 1850s. (Courtesy of the)

Questions arise over Col. George Wright’s legacy

Leah Sottile Correspondent

Col. George Wright came for blood.

On the arid plains of the Inland Northwest, he found it: sprayed across the battlefield at Four Lakes on Sept. 1, 1858, as his soldiers fired long-range guns into charging Indians. He found it again four days later: at the Battle of the Spokane Plains, where local tribes attempted to thwart U.S. troops by lighting fire to the dry grasses and were met with the thunder of Howitzers. The battlefield ran red with Indian blood.

“I did not come here to ask you to make peace; I came here to fight,” Wright told Chief Spokane Garry, chronicled in N.W. Durham’s 1912 “History of the City of Spokane and Spokane Country.” “Now when you are tired of war and ask for peace, I will tell you what you must do: You must come to me with your arms, with your women and children … and lay them at my feet. … If you do not do this, war will be made on you this year and next, and until your nation be exterminated.”

If threats of holocaust weren’t enough for local tribes to fear Wright, his subsequent acts surely struck terror into their souls. On Sept. 8, Wright’s men seized 800 horses from local tribes and began the sadistic process of murdering them on the shores of the Spokane River. For two days, the only sounds that could be heard were bullets, the crush of clubs against skulls, and high-pitched screams. “It was distressing …” wrote Lt. Lawrence Kip in his journal, “to hear the cries of the brood mares whose young had thus been taken from them.”

Wright then ordered the Indians’ barns of wheat and food destroyed, and cattle shot. This, Kip wrote, “will bring upon the Indians a winter of great suffering.”

Two weeks later, on the shores of a sleepy creek buried in the Palouse hills, Wright lured Indian leaders under the ruse of a white flag. There he hanged Qualchan, a Yakama sub-chief accused of killing a white man, after a mere 15-minute interrogation. By the time Wright left Washington Territory, 16 more Indian necks would snap by his ropes.

In the past year, Spokane landmark names have been a topic of public conversation – and some say a re-evaluation of how Wright is remembered in the Inland Northwest is long overdue, particularly the name of Fort George Wright Drive, the mile-long, tree-lined north Spokane boulevard. The “most prominent thing (Wright) did in this area was murder people,” said Larry Cebula, a history professor at Eastern Washington University. “Certainly it’s well past time for a conversation.”

Others agree: Don Cutler, author of the forthcoming book “Troubled Legacy: George Wright and the Plateau Indian War,” said that Wright’s actions through the Washington Territory went above and beyond his military call of duty. He points to the horse slaughter: “The real reason that (Wright) kills them is to terrorize the tribes,” Cutler said. “They knew the impact it would have. They knew the Indians were watching. And they knew it would be devastating.”

Last spring, when word spread that the new Spokane City Hall plaza would be named for “The Father of Spokane,” James Glover – a man who divorced his wife and saw to her institutionalization at Eastern State Hospital – letters and emails of protest flooded City Council member’s inboxes. After months of public input, the plaza was named the Spokane Tribal Gathering Place, and given the Salish name Snt’el’eminttn – meaning “the place where the salmon is gathered.”

But what about the places that already exist? Is changing a name of a Spokane landmark possible? Or is changing a place name revising history to conform to modern standards?

“I think if we looked back at our other city streets, we probably have quite a few (names) that have a legacy that … we’re not proud of,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “I guess I don’t know about going back and re-examining every one of them.”

“Would I name something for George Wright now?” he said. “No, absolutely not.”

But unlike Glover’s personal misdeeds, Wright’s time in the Inland Northwest was blood-soaked. “For the last 80 miles our route has been marked by slaughter and devastation,” Wright wrote in his reports.

“ ‘Our route has been marked by slaughter and devastation.’ He wrote that! It’s historical fact. There’s no disputing or cause for interpretation,” said Raymond Reyes, associate academic vice president and chief diversity officer at Gonzaga University. “Once the story is told in what he did, then it becomes the question to the community … Do we want to honor him that way? Do we need to do that? And does that represent the ideas of the community?

“Certainly, devastation, annihilation and slaughter is not a value of this community,” Reyes said. “Is it?”

It’s been decades since Rusty Nelson first addressed an envelope “Fort Wrong Drive.” Decades since the former director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane came up against stark opposition in his efforts to change the name of Fort George Wright Drive.

In a letter dated July 27, 1993, Nelson asked for the support of Dr. Vern Loland, then-president of Spokane Falls Community College – located on Fort George Wright Drive. “We propose to remove the name of George Wright from the street as an act of solidarity with the Spokane People who were so mistreated by Colonel Wright,” Nelson wrote. “Although it will be an inconvenience to your institution, we ask that you support our efforts as a matter of simple, if much delayed, justice.”

“The opposition was so unexpectedly strong,” Nelson said recently. “We got accused of trying to rewrite history.”

In fact, an article in a Feb. 7, 1994, SFCC faculty newsletter shows an overwhelming opposition to a street name change, quoting then-history professor Rudy Alexander: “Wright was a superior military officer and a product of his time,” he said. “He and the fort are two separate issues and neither should be diminished in an attempt to sanitize history.” A Spokesman-Review story at the time – titled “George Wright shamed his name, group claims” – also quoted Alexander, who argued Wright was less offensive than other military men of his time.

After all the research he’s done for his book, Cutler said he can’t see Alexander’s view. “There are some people who really get upset if you attack George Wright, because they think what he did was necessary. And the biggest common argument that I hear was he shed blood knowing he was saving more widespread warfare,” he said. “But that doesn’t explain why he killed all those horses and why he made those hangings into more theatrical events.”

The same 1994 newsletter showed the results of a poll of SFCC administrators, faculty and staff over a name change – a poll Loland said in that same newsletter skewed “one-sidedly in favor of leaving things the way they are.” Fifty-four voted for some kind of name change; 124 voted to keep the Fort George Wright Drive moniker.

Nelson said that when PJALS brought its proposal before the Spokane City Council, he heard a justification for not considering a name change that shocked him: Stationery.

“They were saying people would have to change their letterheads. … I’ll admit, changing a letterhead in 1993 was more difficult than it is now,” he said. “But still.”

Nelson said the PJALS effort lasted for about a year before the group shifted its focus to capital punishment issues and the Gulf War. “It was pretty much back burner by then.”

In fact, Nelson’s campaign wasn’t the first time Spokane citizens rumbled about Wright’s questionable legacy. A 1987 Spokesman-Review article reported that a class of North Central High School students were disgusted when they learned of Wright’s 1858 campaign, and wanted to see Wright’s name removed from the street. “People like that should be thrown in jail, not have landmarks named after them,” said junior Gary Thompson. “I thought the guy was supposed to be a hero,” said another student.

A Spokane author, Edmund T. Becher, was interviewed for the same article. “It’s history. And after all, we should call a spade a spade and not go around romanticizing things too much.”

But Jimbo Seyler, an education specialist for the Spokane Tribe, said one side of history is already being romanticized: Wright’s side. He points to the 1997 effort by Spokane County Commissioners to change the name of Hangman Creek to Latah Creek (a name similar to its indigenous name).

“To legitimize a cowardly act is improper … Latah Creek is a pretty-sounding name, and it has significant history,” County Commissioner John Roskelley told the S-R then.

Seyler disagrees. “To us Natives it’s still Hangman Creek, because Native Americans died on that creek. They’re trying to make it a good, happy place,” said Seyler, who supports renaming Fort George Wright Drive. Removing the Hangman name was an attempt to sterilize Wright’s brutality.

“People died there. People were hung,” he said. “It’s where our blood went into the ground.”

In 2006, a Portland street was renamed Rosa Parks Way, and in 2009, another was named Cesar Chavez Boulevard – despite public outcry that neither figure had significant ties to the city.

When independence came to Zimbabwe in 1980, the names of past imperialist leaders were removed from landmarks.

Name changes are commonplace – from Cleveland to Montreal. But in her 10 years sitting on the Spokane Planning Commission, City Councilwoman Candace Mumm said no street name changes ever came across her desk. “I don’t recall a renaming.”

Mumm said the new City Hall plaza proved how the community can work together through naming. And names can signify changes in public opinion.

She points to Martin Luther King Jr. Way in the University District: “Would that have happened 50 years ago? I don’t know,” she said. “Perspectives on history can change over time. And if Fort George Wright Drive became something the city and the public wanted to right … I think the City Council definitely would be open to hearing why.”

Mumm argues that Spokane has plenty of schools, parks and streets named for white men. And maybe it’s time to revisit that. “I think we need to assess voids when it comes to Native Americans, to cultures who have history here and to gender,” she said.

Robbie Paul, director of Native American Health Sciences at Washington State University Spokane, advocates for interpretive landmarks that show more than just one side of history. Paul’s great-great-grandfather Chief Ut-sin-malikan was a Nez Perce guide recruited to fight against the Spokanes alongside Wright’s men. The Nez Perce had little choice. “They would be killed just like those folks who came underneath the white flag (at Hangman Creek),” she said.

Paul has also done extensive research into intergenerational trauma. She said remembering George Wright with a city street only furthers the pain felt by families like hers, but also reinforces long-standing prejudices tribal members have felt here.

“He thought that we were heathen,” she said. “That’s the legacy that we’re still trying to undo. We’re not less than. We’re just as equal.”

Spokane’s new City Hall plaza isn’t the only local landmark with a Salish name. In 2007, SFCC opened its new Business and Social Sciences Building, called sn-w’ey’-mn, Salish for “place of commerce.”

A Salish-named building, with a Fort George Wright Drive address.

“It’s so ironic, isn’t it?” said LaRae Wiley, executive director for the Salish School of Spokane. Wiley, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribe, said she’d like to see Spokane take more cues from places like Hawaii, where landmarks pay tribute to native languages.

Wiley agrees that a street named for Wright sends a bad message to local tribal members – past and present. “You see that person is being memorialized or venerated – you feel like you don’t matter. Your voice doesn’t matter. Your people don’t matter. And I think that’s a really detrimental message to send to our youth.”

“I want my grandkids and great-grandkids growing up in a city where they can look at the street signs and places and know that they’re respected, and know that our city honors diversity,” Wiley said.

Some question if a street named for Wright is enough to prompt people to learn of his history here. But Gonzaga’s Reyes questions if people actually know Wright’s story.

“I think people in Spokane don’t know what they don’t know,” Reyes said. But if they know what Wright did, he said, and they simply stand silently by something they don’t agree with?

“There’s the old Dante saying: silence is endorsement,” he said. “There’s a hot place in hell for that.”

Someone has been trying to correct history.

Etched in a stone monument erected in 1935 at the site of the Battle of Four Lakes is a story. “On this historic ground … Col. Geo. Wright, U.S.A. routed 5000 allied Indians. Four days later, the rallied hostiles were decisively defeated.”

“It wasn’t 5,000,” Don Cutler said. “It was probably 500.”

“It wasn’t just a stone carver’s mistake,” he added. “I think there was a whole attempt to turn this into heroic narrative.” Both Cutler and Cebula have noticed that over time, someone out there has slowly been rubbing away at the final zero.

“Every historical monument represents two time periods,” Cebula said, “Time to tell and time it was erected.” By the 1930 and ’40s, when the Four Lakes and Horse Slaughter Camp markers were placed, “there’s a real change,” Cebula said. “Indians are not a threat, so Americans can be sad.”

Today, the Horse Slaughter Camp memorial sits on the banks of the Spokane River near Liberty Lake, but you can hardly hear the waters raging by. The marker sits behind a weigh station where trucks rumble off the freeway. On a recent visit, a deflated helium balloon that reads “Congrats!” sits in the tall straw-colored grass.

To the cyclists who speed by on the Centennial Trail, the Horse Slaughter marker tells a clean version of Wright’s acts here. “After defeating the Indians in two battles, he captured 800 Indian horses,” it reads. “To prevent the Indians from waging further warfare he killed the horses on the bank of the river…”

But what the monument doesn’t say is how for 50 years, the carcasses of those horses sat baking in the sun. How carcass turned to bone, how bone bleached in the sun. How, finally, the river washed the slaughter away.

It doesn’t tell the story of how for the past 157 years, local people have limped along, trying to recover from the things Wright did to their ancestors.

“He was here to eliminate us,” Seyler said. “This happened. This is real. This isn’t something about Pocahontas in a cartoon. This is not animation. It’s true life.”