It is no rhetorical stretch to say that Kis-’am-xay saved the Yakama Nation.
While she is honored as a warrior, medicine woman and historian, her greatest act in the Nation’s service came in 1954, near the end of her life, when she testified before members of Congress about Yakama history and customs.
Her testimony as the only living witness to the signing of the Treaty of 1855 dissuaded Congress from officially dissolving the sprawling 1.3-million-acre reservation.
According to Yakama tradition, Kis-’am-xay was born around 1845. As a child, she was at Walla Walla when the leaders of 14 tribes and bands signed a treaty with the U.S. government that formed them into the Yakama Nation and consigned them to a reservation in the Lower Valley.
Under the terms of the treaty, the Yakama also ceded more than 11 million acres to the federal government.
She fought as a warrior in wars with other tribes and U.S. soldiers, Yakama tribal leader Louis Cloud said in a 2006 interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic. Kis-’am-xay, Cloud said, would sneak into enemy camps and steal ammunition for Yakama warriors, and still carried shrapnel from being shot in battle.
Given the name Annie Billy by whites, Kis-’am-xay was also a medicine woman, gaining healing songs after, according to Yakamas, she had what we would call today a near-death experience where she was shown heaven, hell and everything in between.
She was also said to have the gift of prophecy, able to see into the future, family members said in a 2005 interview.
But it was all those things, plus her knowledge of Yakama history, that would be called on to save the Nation from a threat to its existence.
In the 1950s, at the behest of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Congress had set out to terminate the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. That would mean dissolving the reservation, selling off tribal land and relocating Yakama citizens.
It would also be a death blow to Yakama culture.
Between 1954 and 1962, 61 tribes lost federal recognition. Among them was the Klamath Tribes, who were able to get their federal recognition restored in 1986, but did not have their 1.8-million-acre territory returned to them.
The prospect of selling tribal land and parting with traditions was tempting to some Yakamas, recalled Delores George, Kis-’am-xay’s granddaughter, in a 2005 interview.
“They were saying, ‘Aw, let’s sell this land. We need money for shoes, food,’” recalled George in the interview.
But Yakama Nation elders believed that giving up the reservation would violate everything the Treaty of 1855 stood for. While it took away their land, the treaty recognized the Yakama as a sovereign nation.
And the hopes of dissuading Congress rested on Kis-’am-xay, who at that time was the only living Yakama to see the treaty signing.
As George said in the 2005 interview, getting Kis-’am-xay to do it was not easy. When tribal leaders implored her, she would pull a blanket over her head and refuse to speak, George recalled, and would say she was afraid she might say the wrong thing and doom the Yakama to termination.
Tribal leaders and her daughter, Elsie Pistolhead, convinced her to testify before Congress. But she said it would be on her terms: “They’re coming here or I’m not going to speak.”
So, in the winter of 1954, a convoy of black cars arrived at a two-bedroom house in Satus, and men in suits with briefcases in hand went inside to take Kis-’am-xay’s testimony, which was interpreted into English for the visitors.
Tule mats were placed over the window to recreate a longhouse, and Kis-’am-xay insisted the meeting open with prayers.
“She said, ‘I am going to speak from my heart, and I can’t speak until I give thanks to the Creator through Washat songs and prayer,’” George recalled her grandmother saying. After seven songs, she told her guests about the Yakama, going back to the beginning.
No, not the Treaty of 1855. She began with the Yakama’s account of the creation, talking of Grandfather Sky, Father Sun and Mother Earth.
Then she moved on through Yakama history, discussing the Nation’s culinary and religious customs, the lands where the Yakama traditionally lived, the leaders who signed the treaty and other aspects of the culture.
She also told the congressional delegation that the Nation was seeking to pass along its traditions and culture to future generations.
“She’d say, “The children are laughing. I can hear them. They are coming and we have to have something for them,’” George recalled in the 2005 interview.
Her testimony demonstrated beyond any doubt that the Yakama continued to follow their traditional customs and beliefs, and Congress never drafted legislation targeting the Yakama for termination.
Kis-’am-xay died in 1960, and was buried at Smohalla in a grave marked by a simple wooden marker and a few old bottles.
In 2006, monument maker Bob Rising crafted a headstone for her grave, listing her roles in the Nation and both how she witnessed the signing of the treaty as well as her testimony before Congress.
Hembre Mountain, south of Toppenish, was renamed Kisumxi Mountain in her honor in 2014 at the request of the Yakama Nation. The U.S. Geological Survey erroneously attributes the name to Mary Kiona of the Cowlitz Tribe.