Heather Lockman does a great job sketching out the Indian Shirt Story in Olympia (the actual story) and how it changed over the years.
If you don’t end up watching the video (but you should), the gist of it is that the details in the story get more sinister and anti-Indian as the years go on. So, why over time, did people telling the story of an Indian who wants a shirt change details to make them more scary?
It probably has to do with how we related to Indians when the story actually took place (1850s) and when the final details of the Indian Shirt story were finally added (in the early 1900s).
In those initial years, the relationship with Indians and non-Indians was certainly and violently one sided. Most of the murder victims between 1854 and 1857 were Indians being killed by white people. Yes, we now have stories of farmers abandoning their homesteads for towns and blockhouses, but when you look at the details of the Puget Sound War, you find the Mashel Massacre, Quiemuth and Leschi. You also have the internment of hundreds of other non-combatant Indians during the war.
There were certainly victims of the war on the non-Indian side, but in those years, you could hardly imagine the majority of whites (especially pre-Puget Sound War) being afraid of an Indian asking for a shirt.
Even after the war, roving bands of whites walked into Indian reservations and murdered people, seemingly without punishment. From Oyster Light’s “All the Bunting Trails”:
George McCallister (the late James’ 21 year old son) headed the group to bring in Too-a-pi-ti. The young McAllister, between the murder of Quiemuth and going out to track down Too-a-pi-ti, had also reportedly killed another Nisqually Indian on the tribe’s reservation, who had bore some guilt for his father’s death.
The era of the original telling of the Indian Shirt Story was a violent time, mostly for Indians. But, as the years go along, the relationship changes. Mostly to an attitude of glorifying the past and bringing to light actual fears whites had of being murdered themselves, and ignoring their own violence.
In her talk, Heather points out the phenomena locally in the early 1900s of beginning to worry about the imminent deaths of that original pioneer generation. Many of our first historical monuments date from the first two decades of the last century.
Looking at those years deeper, it also shows how the Indian/non-Indian relationship had changed. Mostly, the concern was “why didn’t these Indians just go away?”
From Oyster Light’s “E.N. Steele”:
The local anti-Indian sentiment surrounding the cases is encapsulated in an editorial in the Olympia Recorder that ran the same day as the Kennedy v. Becker news.
Coverage of Peters’ and James’ case was typically sprinkled with terms like “squaw,” “pow wow,” and “Papooses.” While Steele himself wasn’t immune to language like this, the Recorder editorial shows that defending Indians for fishing and hunting was not a popular task:
The Indian thinks his ancient treaty rights give him the authority to shoot a deer or spear a salmon at any time he contends that the game laws do not affect him. He declares that the white man is trying to go back on his bargain… Of course the supreme court, in holding that the game laws abrogate the treaty, is ruling that the laws were passed to govern all the people, white, red, black and yellow, and that the treaty is superseded just as all former laws that conflict with new ones are repealed.
If it is non-Indian history, it is a vital cultural heritage to be preserved. If its a treaty with Indians, it is “ancient” or in contrast to modern living.
Non-tribal society at this point had moved on. It remembered the blockhouses and their own telling of the Puget Sound War, so naturally, the Indians in the shirt story would be violent and scary, approaching at night, threatening a young mother. The implied context in the early 1900s is that the non-Indians in the 1850s heroically defeated the violent Indians. They forget about George McCallister and others like Josepth Bunting and Jim Riley.
Hoo boy. You should read about Jim Riley. He’s a piece of work.