The Suquamish Tribe welcomed thousands of visitors last weekend to celebrate the legacy of one of our leaders, Chief Seattle. Neighboring tribes came to compete in canoe races. Young people vied for the title of Miss Chief Seattle Days. Hundreds enjoyed grilled salmon dinners. And songs, drumming and dances continued in front of the Tribe’s House of Awakened Culture throughout the weekend.
The most solemn event of the Chief Seattle Days is the ceremony by the chief’s gravesite, where we pause each year to reflect on the legacy of our ancestral leader. At a time of division among peoples and increasing threats to our ecosystems, his teachings are as relevant today as ever.
Chief Seattle lived in Old Man House, a longhouse built by his father, Shweabe, Chief Kitsap, and other tribal leaders. Old Man House was one of the largest such buildings in the region, and it served as a gathering place for people throughout the Salish Sea who came for potlatches and important occasions. The name Suquamish comes from the location of the longhouse at D’Suq’Wub, “Place of the Clear Salt Waters,” but our people also had villages throughout central Puget Sound region, including a permanent Suquamish village in what is now Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
As we have done for many years, Chief Seattle Days royalty traveled this year by canoe from the grounds where Old Man House stood to The House of Awakened Culture to officially begin the weekend’s festivities. Their arrival was marked by the appearance of a humpback whale. The sighting reminded us of our ancient connection to the Salish Sea, and of the threat to marine life posed by sewage spills, industrial runoff and tanker traffic. The water is heating as the climate changes, and it is becoming acidic. The starfish that once lined our beaches are gone; salmon are scarce, and our orca relatives are in danger of extinction.
At the gravesite ceremony, the Suquamish Tribe’s oldest member, Bob George, 92, stood to recite Chief Seattle’s famous speech: “Every part of this Earth is sacred to my people.”
Chief Seattle was known for his powerful oratory and for his diplomacy — he made peace when he could, and made war when necessary. He formed close friendships with some of the early settlers, and he was the first to sign the Treaty of Point Elliot. His foresight — assuring that we would have the rights to fish, hunt and to live on our own land base, and to our sovereignty — is what makes our lives possible today.
Chief Seattle’s legacy of diplomacy has been put to the test over the years. Old Man House was burned by order of the government’s Indian agent in the late 1880s in an attempt to force our people to adopt the settlers’ ways of life. The Treaty of Point Elliott failed to establish a reservation for the people of Chief Seattle’s mother, who hailed from a village on the Green River, near what is now known as Kent. Most of her Duwamish relatives became members of the Muckleshoot Tribe, the Tulalip Tribes and the Suquamish Tribe, which maintains a presence in Seattle today. Meanwhile, much of our land base was sold by unscrupulous Indian agents and taken from us by the U.S. military. Most devastating of all, our children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their language and practicing their traditions. Many were abused.
Yet the treaty signed by Chief Seattle held its power. With the backing of the 1974 Boldt Decision and subsequent court decisions, our right to fish and gather shellfish was recognized by government agencies, the courts and law enforcement. Our right as a sovereign government to operate tribal businesses, including a casino and resort, made our economic revival possible.
In 2001, Chief Seattle’s gravesite was desecrated during a time when some non-Native residents of our reservation were fighting the tribe’s plan to build housing for our members. Instead of dividing us, this crime had the opposite effect. It brought the community together to reject hostility and racism. Through the shared pain and recovery, we found new ways to work together, Natives and non-Natives alike. Over time, this collaboration grew, and in 2005, it brought about the return of the land where Old Man House once stood — land that had been taken from us 100 years earlier — The Place of the Clear Salt Water.
We continue to face challenges. Still, our growing strength means we are now more able than ever to stand up for our tribal members, for Native peoples throughout our region, and for the natural environment that supports us all. This is how we continue to build on Chief Seattle’s legacy.