Seattle celebrates its sesquicentennial

150 years of rich history

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

SEATTLE -- As Seattle prepares to commemorate its sesquicentennial, the city is most known for giving birth to Boeing planes, Starbucks Coffee and grunge music. But the totem poles that pop up around town suggest the Emerald City has its roots in the culture of the area's original settlers.

To find those roots, hop a ferry across Puget Sound to the Port Madison Indian Reservation on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Founded in 1851 and incorporated in 1869, the city bears the name of Chief Seattle, a Suquamish leader who befriended European settlers. (''Seattle'' is the settlers' corruption of the chief's birth name, Sealth.)

Seattle (or Sealth) was born in 1786, the son of a Suquamish chief and grandson of a Duwamish chief. He displayed leadership traits at an early age, earning status by organizing his and other tribes to defend against attacks by rival tribes looking to raid their villages.

Chief Seattle was also a skilled orator. Intrigued by the European settlers' arrival during the 19th century, his 1855 speech at the signing of the Treaty of Port Elliott yielded memorable quotes such as, ''The white man's religion was written upon tablets of stone, but our religion is written in the hearts of our people.'' It also spawned controversy, for some historians question its authenticity.

In assessing the chief's legacy after his death in 1866, Crisca Bierwert points out in an American Indian Quarterly paper that besides questions surrounding his speech, people such as Klallam leader Phillip Howell thought of him as ''a low type of Indian, a joke among the Natives and, worse, a coward and a traitor'' for going along with the treaty negotiations.

Peg Deam, a cultural development specialist at the Suquamish Tribal Council, sees it differently. In regard to the treaties, which led to the creation of reservations, she said Chief Seattle ''was put in a position where he had to make some difficult -- and ultimately harmful -- choices. Many hearts were broken because their lifestyle was completely changed. The settlers made the Natives move to these little pieces of land, separated from each other. But as a leader and what he could foresee at that time, I think he made the right choice.''

Chief Seattle is buried at the Port Madison Indian Reservation. A memorial stating his role in the city's development greets visitors at the Suquamish Memorial Cemetery. Along the gravel trail leading to his grave are tombstones of more people from that era -- some belonging to families, others remaining unknown. Totem poles are scattered about the tree-shaded grounds.

At the Suquamish Museum, visitors can learn about the tribe's way of life -- from communal living in longhouses to adjusting to the settlers' customs. Exhibit highlights include a cedar dugout canoe with accompanying paddles and a display of baskets.

Another major site is the Old Man House, Chief Seattle's former longhouse, now a state park. The largest house in the area -- 700 feet long, 60 feet wide, and at least 10 feet high -- it could house hundreds of people at a time. Many potlatches (a ceremony for tribes to gather, socialize, and exchange gifts) were held there to mark occasions such as births, marriages, and even deaths.

The chief and the Suquamish way of life are celebrated at an annual summer festival called Chief Seattle Days. Held during the third weekend of August, this three-day celebration -- with events such as a beauty pageant and drumming contest -- draws nearly 6,000 people from all over the state of Washington.

''In 1910, the tribal leaders got together and decided to have a celebration where they could celebrate who he was in his home territory and do some traditional things, like a salmon bake, canoe races, and powwow dances,'' Deam said. ''We're continuing the same things that happened in Chief Seattle's day.''

Fishing was an integral part of the Suquamish culture. Not only was it a source of food, it was also their livelihood. One of Washington state's nicknames is the Chinook State, referring to the largest type of salmon found in the Pacific Northwest.

''In Chief Seattle's day, we didn't have to travel far to get food. The salmon came to us, the clams were outside, and the deer were in the backyard,'' Deam said. ''We were blessed with a lot of the food that's here for us.''

Today, an abundance of food can still be found along the bay at any seafood restaurant on Alaskan Way. The Fisherman's Restaurant serves dishes such as steamed clams and alder smoked salmon fettuccine. To indulge a craving for oysters, Elliott's Oyster House offers the delicacy in its many forms, like Coromandel and Tatamagouche. And for crab lovers, the Crab Pot serves the crustacean the old-fashioned way, providing the diner with a mallet and bib.

According to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the city's population today. While their numbers have decreased, their influence on Pacific Northwest culture is still prevalent. Totem poles can be found in places such as Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market and Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. As for their artwork, it draws the interest of enthusiasts at places like the Seattle Art Museum and Clarke and Clarke Tribal Arts Gallery.

Seattle has evolved in other ways, too. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which rose to prominence during World War II, recently relocated its corporate headquarters to Chicago. And grunge is no longer a buzz word around town, having become a pop culture artifact on display at the Experience Music Project. (A mixture of punk and 1970s rock, its popularity soared in the early 1990s with the help of bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden.)

Coffee shops still dot the city's streets, though, helping Seattle retain some of its old charm -- not to mention warm up the natives who are greeted with chilly mornings. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't rain here all the time; sunny skies and good times were bestowed upon me during my visit.


On the Net:

Suquamish Tribal Council

Washington State Tribes Page m

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