David M. Buerge’s new biography is the result of 20 years of research about the man who gave our city its name.

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Lit Life

Twenty years ago, David M. Buerge had a brilliant idea: write a biography of Chief Seattle, our city’s Native American namesake. Then the second thoughts came flooding in.

A historian and teacher, Buerge had written a series of articles for the Seattle Weekly about Seattle and King County’s deep history, including the story of the native people who call our area home. At that point just one biography of the chief, a children’s book, had been published. But written accounts of Chief Seattle were almost nonexistent, as far as Buerge knew. Still, “there were a few clues to how articulate and poetic he was,” he remembers.

A literary agent shopped the idea to eastern publishers. No one bit, but like most inspired notions, the idea wouldn’t go away. Buerge, a genial imp of a man with a bottomless love of history, made a pact with himself, that he would keep working on the book as long as it didn’t interfere with earning a paycheck. He went on the hunt, mining explorers’ journals, Catholic priests’ diaries, Indian agents’ records, pioneer reminiscences and the memories of Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe, one of two local tribes (along with the Suquamish) that calls Seattle its own.

The result, “Chief Seattle and the Town that Took his Name” (Sasquatch, 325 pp., $25.95) is a thoroughly researched, insightful and at times heartbreaking book that transforms the chief’s image as a gloomy prophesier, an impression largely based on a rewrite of his most famous speech by white pioneer Henry Allen Smith.

Buerge grew to know the chief as “a survivor of cataclysm … as a ruthless war leader, as a single-minded impresario, as an influential head chief, and as a Christian convert who successfully navigated the transformation of his world,” he writes. Seattle’s first priority was the welfare of his people, but his decision to work with the whites would help cement our city’s survival.

Buerge answered some questions about his book — here’s an edited version of the conversation:

Q: Seattle lived a full life for that era. How long did he live?

A: We don’t know exactly when he was born. On his gravestone (at the Suquamish Indian reservation — Seattle was the leader of both the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes during the pioneer era, and both tribes claim him) it says he lived about 80 years. He told Americans he remembered (British naval officer George) Vancouver’s visit in 1792. He would have been 6 years old … he said he was born on Blake Island — it was a contemporary camping spot.

Q: Paint a picture of him as you have come to know him.

A: Tolmie (William Fraser Tolmie, a doctor who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company) called him the “handsomest Indian” he had ever seen. … Tolmie said he had an aquiline nose, fine features, expressive eyes, a commanding presence.

Other people said he was tall. He was not fat. He was immensely strong. He had this incredible temper and this powerful voice. One contemporary said: “When Seattle spoke, it was the other person that shook.”

Q: What made him a leader?

A: He was impressive for his good sense, (though) he was very belligerent early on. He made an impression because of his open attitude, and also his sense of humor.

For a long time, he was also a war leader. When he was supposed to confess his sins he said, yes, he killed a great chief. That was what war leaders did. He was tactical and strategic, but he was fearless.

He also had a way with words. His ability to come up with vivid analogies and similes and metaphors was really impressive.

Q: Seattle actually recruited Doc (David) Maynard, one of the city’s first pioneers, to move from Olympia to Seattle to start a fishery business with him. What were his motives in partnering with the pioneers?

A: Seattle was nothing if not single-minded. He realized that being a war leader with the Americans was not a good choice. He decided he would side with the Americans, come what may. It was a strategic choice.

Q: I was surprised to learn that when the pioneers decided to name their settlement after Seattle, he felt ambivalent about it!

A: This was his name; it was like a copyright. He seems to have been not amused. According to Ezra Meeker, he charged a sort of tribute payment. They gave him an unnamed sum. It was an interesting arrangement.

Q: Why did the pioneers name the town for him?

A: The settlers owed their lives to Seattle. The Duwamish made sure they survived that first winter. In 1851-1852, there were 14 whites among at least 100 Indians, and sometimes many hundreds more at the winter dances. He ensured that the Indian attack on Seattle (the 1856 Battle of Seattle, when some tribes attacked the city out of anger at white incursion and the terms of the Treaty of Point Elliott) was not fatal. I think the settlers recognized that he was crucial to the city.

Q: How do you think Chief Seattle’s flexibility, and his people’s willingness to live and work with white people despite many sacrifices, shaped the city?

A: Without it I don’t think the city or town would have evolved the way it did. Certainly he had a role to play as positive as any of the pioneers. I think he has to be regarded as a co-founder and protector — the impresario of the town.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about him?

A: His vision (of the town) was that of a racially hybrid community. That was what he strove to create and for the first two years or so, it worked. Most of the whites in town were young unmarried males. They married with the Indians, and many had families and descendants. (The city’s history) has been riven with class disputes, but it has never lost its cosmopolitan nature … the treaty of Point Elliott at Mukilteo, he said, pay attention to these Changers (white people), follow what they do, and learn from them.

Q: It’s shocking to me that, as you write, no Seattle mayor has ever met with the Duwamish. In your opinion, what political considerations have kept that from happening?

A: The (federally) recognized tribes are no more sympathetic to the Duwamish than the whites. The recognized tribes depend on their political and economic relationships with the federal government. … There’s only so much in the federal pie, and the city fathers don’t want to run afoul of the recognized tribes.

The Duwamish are an unrecognized people, thanks to the city of Seattle. (Buerge has worked with the Duwamish researching their applications for recognition.)

The federal government provided the Duwamish with a sub-agency in West Seattle and was amenable to the Duwamish having a full reservation. However, on at least three occasions, the white residents of Seattle lobbied successfully to kill the idea of a reservation, because the land was too valuable. … They actively lobbied against it, and they succeeded.

To me it’s a moral question. It’s genuinely embarrassing.