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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A fitting name at last, to honor a warrior woman

When the name of George Wright comes down off that road at last, it will be replaced with one that deserves to be there.

A Spokane woman warrior. A fighter. A figure of resistance.

Whistalks Way will replace Fort George Wright Drive as the name of the road that runs between North Government Way and the T.J. Meenach Bridge – a naming in honor of Whist-alks, a member of the Spokane Tribe and a figure of defiance to Wright’s brutal campaign against Native people in the Northwest in the 1850s. The naming, supported by the region’s tribes, is intended to honor Whist-alks and by extension all Indigenous women, past and present.

“The Spokane Tribe not only wants to honor our native women from the battlefields of the 1800s – we also want to honor the Spokane tribal women of our families today,” the tribe said in a memo to the City Council. “We honor the female warriors who daily fight to protect and preserve our culture, our lifeways, our families, our lands, our environment, and our Tribe.”

The Spokane City Council approved the change Monday night, following an effort spearheaded by council members Karen Stratton and Betsy Wilkerson, as well as tribal representatives from around the region. Efforts to rename the road have been made – and either dropped or thwarted – for years, but this one finally stuck.

The decision doesn’t change the region’s history a bit, of course, but it admirably alters our relationship to it. It reflects a better sense of who we should honor and who we should not, and it widens the frame on who is named and whose voices are heard when we consider what it means to live here, in the wake of that history.

You’ve likely heard of Qualchan, the Yakama warrior hanged by Wright in typically duplicitous fashion in 1858 – as Wright’s campaign against the Plateau Indians had reached an especially vicious pitch.

Whist-alks was Qualchan’s wife, and fought Wright’s men at the scene of her husband’s hanging near Latah Creek. It was just one incident among many in the cunning, dishonest and brutal effort by Wright’s troops and the U.S. government to wipe out the tribes, but it was an act that apparently disquieted even some of his own men, according to a history written by Spokane author Don Culter, “Hang Them All: George Wright and the Plateau Indian War.”

Wright’s campaign against the region’s tribes in the 1850s evolved toward greater and greater brutality over time. The general once urged tribal leaders to surrender peacefully: “Put your faith in me and trust to my mercy.” His eventual actions would make a mockery of those sentiments.

The marriage of Qualchan and Whist-alks – whose name means “Walks in a Dress” – had brought unity and stability to the region’s tribes, according to an oral history by Spokane tribal elder Jim SiJohn provided to the council. SiJohn said it was common for both Coeur d’Alene and Spokane women to fight alongside men in the battles against Wright, in which the tribes were eventually overpowered.

Whist-alks customarily rode with Qualchan and carried his medicine staff, SiJohn said, and she accompanied him to Wright’s camp on the day of his death in late September 1858.

By this time, Wright’s troops had nearly completed what Cutler called a westward “march of destruction” through the region, indiscriminately taking hostages and hanging them, often in the most pitiless manner possible – strangling them as they dangled from short ropes – and burning tribal food stores as winter approached. It was less than two weeks after Wright’s infamous slaughter of more than 900 tribal horses. All talk of faith, trust and mercy had vanished.

Still, the region’s chiefs met with Wright near Latah Creek to seek peace. Wright took a Yakama chief, Owhi, into custody, and ordered a message sent to his son, Qualchan, whom Wright believed responsible for attacks on white settlers: If Qualchan did not show up in Wright’s camp, Owhi would be hanged.

It is not clear that the message was received, but Qualchan and Whist-alks appeared in Wright’s camp the following day, according to “Hang Them All.” Qualchan was seized and hanged in minutes.

According to one account quoted in the tribal history provided to the council, Whist-alks said, “I tried to cut one soldier with my knife, but another one kicked the knife out of my hand and then a great number of soldiers crowded in, overpowered us.”

Upon Qualchan’s hanging, Whist-alks leapt onto her horse and “in a frenzy of chagrin dexterously twirled her decorated lance over her head and uttering a shrill cry drove it into the ground, where she left it and rode away,” according to a military history that Cutler quotes in his book.

Whist-alks moved to Flathead country, where she participated in buffalo hunts, before returning to spend her final years along the Spokane River, the tribal history said.

Her story is thinner, in terms of page count and books written, than the story of George Wright. But it will last a little longer now, and gain at least a few more pages, as a result of the council’s decision to honor her – and, by extension, to honor all the region’s Native women.

“She was strong and she rode alongside her husband – not behind him,” said Margo Hill, a member of the Spokane Tribe and professor of urban planning at Eastern Washington University who helped lead the renaming effort.

“We really wanted to honor women. Here in the city of Spokane, we have all these strong indigenous women who are nurses, teachers, lawyers, professors. … Across the landscape, it’s women and Indigenous women who really are the backbone of our community.”

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