Translating the Treaties


Treaty Interpretation

Using Chinook Jargon for Treaty Translation

This lesson is designed to introduce students to the concept of events and perspectives on events. Students will create a timeline of events leading up to the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 and analyze those events from the differing perspectives of the Natives and Whites. It is based on a series of lessons created by Mark Bowden of Yelm Middle School. Much thanks for permission to adapt and publish this work here. If you are not associated with the Nisqually area, you may want to adapt yet again and use the treaty that governs the lands around you.

Treaty of Medicine Creek, 1854—Nisqually drainage, southern Salish Sea

Treaty of Point Elliott, 1855—Western Washington, north of Medicine Creek to the 49th parallel, Cascades to the Salish Sea

Treaty of Point No Point, 1855—Eastern and central Olympic Peninsula to the Salish Sea

Treaty of Neah Bay, 1855

Treaty with the Yakama, 1855

Treaty with Walla Walla 1855

Quinault Treaty, 1856



1.   Introduce students to "Treaty Time at Nisqually" by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter. They can read the article individually, as a whole group, or in partners. Click here for the article. 

2. Students will then go through the article, either alone or in partners and highlight or circle dates that are mentioned.

3. Students will then complete the intersecting timeline worksheet. After finding all the relevant event, they will write the result of this action or event on both sides of timeline. One side is for Native people and the other side is for the Whites. Click here for the timeline worksheet.   


Treaty Interpretation

This lesson is designed to have students work in small groups to rewrite a sample of the actual text of the Treaty of Medicine Creek into more modern language. The language in the treaty is challenging. An alternative would be to do part of this process as a whole class and then distribute a simplified text for everyone to work with. 

1. Students should work in small groups, divided however the teacher chooses. Ideal group would be around three students. Each group receives a copy of the Medicine Creek treaty, to access click here.

2. Each group is given a number which corresponds to an article in the treaty. In some cases the articles have been combined together because of length or content. The groups then read the corresponding section, or sections, of the treaty. It would be best to look at the treaty and think about how many groups that you have. There are six longer passages – 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 – and six shorter passages – 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13. Article 3 and the introduction are medium length. It might be a good idea to do the introduction together as a class. 

3. After the group has read through one time they should have a discussion of what they initially think that the section is about. Depending on the students they may be close to the actual meaning or very far off.

4. Groups then move on to the deciphering worksheet where they will write out their first guess. Next they will pick out nouns, proper nouns and verbs. This will help them break apart the text by focusing on the actions that are being taken and who is doing them and what is being requested. They will then list words that they do not know. If they are words that can be found in a dictionary the students will write out the definition that they think is most appropriate. To access the deciphering worksheet, click here.   

5. Groups will then write out what they now think their section means and be ready to share with the rest of the class.

6. Each group will share what they think their passage means, with guided help from the teacher in situations where the students may need it, and the rest of the class will paraphrase the meaning on their own note sheet. Depending on time the teacher may have groups share what their original thoughts were, what changed about their ideas and how they were changed. To access the student note sheet, click here . To access a key for guidance or to help lower level students, click here

7. After all groups have shared teacher may have a discussion about what was gained by each party, what was lost, and other issues such as how the treaty relates to tribal sovereignty. Consider introducing the following passage into the mix. It's by Frank Shaw, assistant to the U.S. Indian Agent for Puget Sound, Mike Simmons.

"Personally, I have always believed that there was a great deal of humbug about making any treaties with the Indians....The questions was, shall a great country with many resources be turned over to a few Indians to roam over and make a precarious living on, making no use of the soil for timber or other resources, or should it be turned over to the civilized man who could develop it in every direction and make it the abiding place of millions of white people instead of a few hundred Indians."  —Frank Shaw

Using Chinook Jargon for Treaty Translation

This activity gives students the opportunity to translate the Medicine Creek treaty into Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon, or Chinuk Wawa, is the language Governor Stevens relied upon to explain the treaties to Native people. Of course, with its limited vocabulary, it was not well-suited for translating complicated legal matters that were being debated in the treaty negotiations. George Gibbs drafted the treaty and later, in 1863, also published a dictionary of Chinook Jargon, available here. Make a copy of this dictionary available to each group. It won't be long before students realize how difficult the experience is, but have them share their results anyways. 

          Considering the diversity of languages and dialects in the region, which very few whites understood, how easy would it be for Stevens to arrange the numerous interpreters needed for negotiations in the Native languages? And would they have been able to do a better job than speakers of Chinook Jargon?