Despite it all, they remember.
Despite the disproportionate suffering they’ve endured during the COVID-19 pandemic and despite all the other painful news they’ve had to process in the past year, the Yakama Nation is commemorating the 166th anniversary of the Treaty of 1855 this week.
Even with health precautions limiting the 2021 schedule of activities, Treaty Days remains one of the Nation’s favorite occasions. Cheers, smiles and waves brightened Wednesday’s drive-thru parade, which followed a moving flag-raising ceremony earlier in the morning.
Spirits were as strong as ever.
It’s kind of a party, but it’s not exactly a celebration. After all, the Treaty of 1855 wasn’t kind or even fair to the 14 tribes that signed off on the deal with the U.S. government.
The agreement confederated the tribes into the Yakama Nation, but the Native people had to give up more than 11 million acres of land stretching from the Columbia River to the Canadian border — a piece of property roughly equal to a fourth of what is now Washington state.
The governor at the time wanted to make way for white settlers and a railroad that would bring in trainloads of changes to the Northwest. So there it went.
Tribal leaders did, however, secure the right to govern themselves. And that’s at the heart of why this commemoration is so significant.
Because despite what the tribes gave up 166 years ago, the Yakama Nation’s people and ways have survived.
The Yakamas mark Treaty Days even as they keep alive the memories of hundreds of indigenous women who have vanished, seemingly falling off the Earth itself. They continue despite news like last month’s heartbreaking discovery of 215 sets of remains from children — some of them preschoolers, all of them abused mercilessly — buried years ago on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
And as they remember a day 166 years ago that meant sweeping change for everyone living in the region, they remember that it couldn’t break their culture. They remember that their strength has helped them endure centuries of hardships, and that they’ll be able to withstand even more if need be.
Yes, this is a week to commemorate a treaty. But it’s also a week that honors the spirits of people who remember the past, yet work for the future.