Not long ago I was driving to the Eastside when it hit home how messy it is to name public enterprises after people. There I was in the...
Not long ago I was driving to the Eastside when it hit home how messy it is to name public enterprises after people.
There I was in the state of Washington (father of our country but owner of slaves), in the county of King (civil-rights hero but plagiarist and adulterer), crossing the bridge of Al Rosellini (first-rate governor but of late the political go-between for a strip club).
It makes you wonder: Who is pure enough to rate a public edifice named in their honor?
That’s what many readers asked after I wrote last week that Federal Way might name a school after the late Indian civil-rights activist Bob Satiacum.
The former Puyallup Tribe chief was a hero of the Indian revival movement in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Later, he was convicted of racketeering and fled to Canada, where he died in 1991.
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“So he had a few chinks in his armor. Big deal — who doesn’t?” said Ken Nielsen, a retired Seattle firefighter, who, like about half the 106 readers who responded, favored naming the school for Satiacum.
“We have to remember that, for significant portions of our nation’s history, to be an Indian was to be an outlaw,” wrote Brian McClatchey of Spokane. “Sometimes acting outside the law is the only way to find justice.”
Some noted we have schools named after white leaders who repressed and abused Indians, including the first governor, Isaac Stevens.
But just as many said it would be a travesty to put Satiacum’s name on a school.
“We might as well start naming our schools O.J. Simpson Middle School or John Gotti Elementary,” said Duncan McDonald of Seattle.
Others said Satiacum’s conviction in Canada for molesting a girl should disqualify him from ever being honored. I’d agree with that — except that the alleged victim, now a 28-year-old woman, recently said Satiacum was innocent.
One of Satiacum’s prosecutors says my column glorified a man who was guilty of serious federal crimes and who evaded tribal laws as well.
“Bob Satiacum was a consummate self-promoter, and a master at media manipulation,” wrote Peter Mueller of the Justice Department. “To judge from your column … he is still capable of such feats even years after his death.”
Some Federal Way readers said the story is fascinating but isn’t about their schools.
“Satiacum may well deserve to be vindicated, but the vindication trail should not start with the naming of our new middle school after him,” wrote parent Brian Dirks.
The Federal Way School board will choose a name on April 12. To some, whether they choose Satiacum has become secondary.
One of his attorneys in the ’80s, Lyn Crompton, says it was inevitable Satiacum’s legacy would be reappraised. She hopes to make his life story into “Satiacum,” the movie.
“We have been waiting for the day to show people that he wasn’t the devil they made him out to be,” said Chester Earl, Satiacum’s nephew. “This has become bigger than the school. This is only the beginning.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.