David Buerge, author of “Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name,” points out that Seattle is the largest city in the Americas named after a Native American, and yet very few people know why our city was named after Seattle and few people really knows that much about him.
Chief Seattle was a leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish Indians. The main Duwamish villages were located in what is now Seattle, Tukwila and Renton. The Suquamish were located across Puget Sound, on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. As White settlers came into the area, Chief Seattle decided to accept the newcomers, hoping that the two cultures could live side-by-side and learn from each other. He was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Point Elliott, where he may or may not have given the famous speech about Native-White relations that was not published until 30 years later and gratuitously amended several times in the following decades.
The treaty provided for the continuation of Indian fishing rights and for the relocation of the Duwamish and Suquamish to reservations. However, while the Suquamish accepted the chosen location for their reservation, the lands provided for the Duwamish were far away from their existing villages, and many of them refused to relocate. Those who moved became a part of the Tulalip tribes, north of Everett. Those who stayed in the Seattle area eventually regrouped as the Duwamish Tribe. The Duwamish Tribe has never been federally recognized, however, and continues to fight for that status.
Buerge’s biography is the first book-length adult biography of the chief, whose contribution to the founding of the city was so essential that settlers at the time decided to give their town his name. Real Change spoke with Buerge about his book, which follows the life of Chief Seattle from his childhood to his death. One chapter parses the famous speech, to evaluate what, if any of it, might have actually been Seattle’s own words and thoughts.
One very interesting thing in your book is how Chief Seattle’s lifetime spanned from the beginnings of contact to the point where most of his people had been isolated onto reservations.
[Seattle] was on the brink of the apocalypse. These people actually lived through an apocalypse and they survived, so the message they have for us is profound. We describe them anthropologically, sociologically, but through Seattle we get a sense of just how profound his message could be, because “we survived the end of the world and you need to know about this.”
It’s hard to get to know Seattle. He comes from such a different culture. It’s more a Homeric culture. It’s like they plunked down one of the heroes from the Iliad. What kind of stuff would you ask him and how would you understand his answers? Seattle comes from a world in which natural and supernatural are not divided. Of course I’m saying this, and I honestly don’t know. I’ve studied enough to suspect that something like that is taking place.
These people appear to have a profound ambivalence for the natural world and the human world. The natural world was savage. What you would do for an initiation was you would put a person back into the natural and they would come back and they weren’t human until you, through ritual, brought them back into the community. It validated human culture. At the same time, it accepted the fact that the non-human world is real and powerful and not always friendly. We can’t conquer it. You just have to deal with it on a daily basis.
You use some interesting images to explain how the settlers appeared to people who were already here.
The Puget Sound people described [the settlers] as birds, because they were always just coming in. They would migrate out and migrate in. No one knew where they came from, but there were these rivers of birds that would come during the fall and the spring, and where they came from nobody knows. The Americans were just like that, except they had really powerful spirits.
Seattle compared them to the Changer, the character in their folklore who transformed the mythological world into the world in which humans live.
He’s trying to describe to his people what these people are like. Are they divine beings? Can they be human? How do we incorporate them into our lives? They look like they want to settle, so what do we do?
Even though Seattle started as a fairly ferocious war leader, he became an advocate for peace with the settlers.
Seattle became an advocate of cooperation. I wouldn’t say of peace, because he was a war leader and remained a war leader, but he was also a very wise fellow.
He appears in Olympia around 1849, 1850, and what’s he doing there? He’s getting Americans to go north [to the Duwamish area] and settle among his people.
You seem to imply that he had a vision that Whites and Natives would live next to each other, mix with each other and create a new society.
That was basically how Puget Sound Salish people operated. If you had S’Klallam come in from the Peninsula, well, you intermarry with them. You’ve got raiders from the north, you fight them, but then you intermarry with them, you make them your relatives.
Was it a vision? He’s operating from cultural norms that his people had always practiced. But the vision is that he can create these hybrid communities. He was actually successful in doing that. But it only succeeded for a couple of years and then they moved them out to reservations. That’s the last thing the Indians wanted.
It really was such a cruel thing. When [Territorial Governor Isaac] Stevens came to Olympia, one of the first decisions is “let’s stick all the Central Sound people someplace on the east shore of Hood Canal.” They were going to take the S’Klallam, the Suquamish, the Duwamish and stick them on a reservation where there’d not even been any villages. There’s no rivers, no fish.
Then you understand [why] the Duwamish say they’re not going to meet, they’re not going to go to Point Elliott [to sign the treaty], and Seattle says he’s not going either! Because the word had gotten out, we’re going to move you out, because coal has been discovered. They were selling coal for $30 a ton that summer in San Francisco.
I hadn’t realized how much armed conflict there was after the treaties in Washington were signed.
It was a near thing. People cannot imagine that. The U.S. Army was defeated by Native Americans in Eastern Washington not once but twice. And then they attacked a major city on Puget Sound and very nearly pulled it off — they were about two weeks too late. They didn’t seize the city but they burned down every other building in King County and Stevens said, “If we lose Seattle, 10,000 troops aren’t going to save us.”
The lower Duwamish, who never got a reservation, didn’t turn against the settlers, and the groups upstream, on the Green and White Rivers, did.
The Duwamish, who put their lives on the line, literally, for the Americans, get nothing. They get less than nothing. Every major group that lived on a river got a reservation except the Duwamish. It’s perfectly obvious what happened. The [White] people in Seattle said, “Uh uh, no reservation, this land is too valuable. We don’t want to lose out.”
Seattle, the city, is still doing that. We don’t talk with them. It’s just dreadful. We talk to the recognized tribes. The recognized tribes don’t appreciate the unrecognized tribes because they’re subdividing that economic pie. And the city is too chicken to say, “No, this is a wrong we’ve done.”
Yet Native labor was so important to Seattle’s early economy.
It was absolutely crucial. In the earliest years there were simply not enough male Americans to do that. Especially not when they realized that we could expand industrially. So they had the sawmill, but then they had the coal mine and then they got these crypto-railroads and boats.
They played a real significant role and yet culturally the Americans kept them apart. “This is OUR show and you guys are spear-carriers” in the drama, literally, and “we don’t really want to deal with you, because, frankly, you scare us.”
It was actually, initially, an Indian village with a few Whites, but then as more Americans came in and as they forced Indians onto the reservations, by 1865 the balance was pretty even. Fifteen years after the founding, the White population balances the Native population, and in those 15 years cooperation with the [Native] people was essential.
You spend some effort analyzing Chief Seattle’s famous speech.
Americans are haunted by his speech. I make a stab at trying to figure out, well, what’s the authentic part? And not even what [was] authentic — what would Seattle have said?
I was really disappointed to read that the line in the speech as it’s come down to us, “There is no death, only a change of worlds” was from some Latin poet.
That was quite a discovery. I just happened to get this book on subterranean Rome, and the author quotes Decimus. There it is.
[The city of] Seattle has these bouts of amnesia. It’s good and bad. You had this small faction of people who didn’t want to lose the Indians, even to the point of defying territorial authority and even the Navy. Ultimately, bureaucracy is only so strong and settlers’ mean-spirited obstructionism won out, so they kept the Native people here.
And they stayed, a certain number, and were always a part. And as Sarah Yesler said, “at least they paid cash for their goods.” They meant to prosper with the Americans.
What’s the lesson for us now?
Well, the lesson for us now, especially in the face of that idiot in the White House, is — and I think most people in Seattle already understand — the whole White thing never was.
White people did not build this country by themselves.
They built it with other people, not only with the help, but with the goodwill of other people, especially the Native people. These people have a profound lesson to teach, not just in what they say, but in how they lived.
If it weren’t for them, the salmon fishery would have disappeared long ago.
The fishery was a managed resource, so well managed that when the settlers came there were 10 million fish that would come back annually. The Native people had the capacity to fish out every river, but they didn’t do it, because that didn’t make any sense.
There’s the lesson of stewardship of the land, and that’s easily romanticized, but the greater lesson is, what does it mean to be human? What are humans good for?
The only thing they’re good for, it seems to me, is each other. The fact that we’re the largest city in the world named after a Native American is a fact that enables us to start a conversation about that.
Seattle just loves being smug. They were looking for nicknames for this city, so what did they get? “The Emerald City.” Do you know what that means? Do you grasp the irony of that? “But it’s green, it’s a city, it’s like a fairy tale.”
But there’s somebody behind the curtain.
Yes, is there ever!
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