KP Reads

Whatever History Has Forgotten, Seattle Put His People First

'Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name' by David M. Buerge


A year ago in September, I wrote about a few books in these pages that I thought our community might read and asked for suggestions for those many titles I certainly missed.

One that came in over the transom was David Buerge’s “Chief Seattle,” the result of 20 years of research. My first thought was, “Really? What could be left to reveal about this mythic figure?” However, I was familiar with the author's work and suspected there was more going on here than I realized.

“You folks observe the changers who have come to this land,” Seattle said to his people during negotiations for a treaty on the shores of Port Elliott (sic), later Point Elliot and now called Mukilteo, in 1855. 

“And our progeny will watch and learn from them now, those who will come after us, our children. And they will become just the same as the changers who have come here to us on this land. You folks observe them well.”

The “changers” referred to Dukeiba’l, the creator, according to Buerge. Seattle compared the American settlers to that mythic being so his people might “grasp the cataclysmic changes they faced.”

His name is an Anglicized approximation of the Lushootseed siʔaɫ, also spelled as Sealth, Seathl, or See-ahth, later called a chief by the Americans for their convenience. He is thought to have been born in the 1780s on Blake Island and lived, astoundingly, until 1866. His parents were high-born among their peoples, the Suquamish and Duwamish, but it was rumored that his paternal grandmother had been captured in war and enslaved, which was considered a stain on Seattle’s reputation that, Buerge argues, honed his ambition.

Seattle was a big man, nearly six feet tall, and strong. French traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Nisqually called him “Le Gros,” the big guy. He tolerated no insults, exacted unambiguous revenge on anyone who crossed him, and early on became a feared fighter by both defending against and attacking rival groups, capturing slaves of his own. 

At the same time, Seattle reinforced his standing by arranging marriages with those rivals, and he did the same thing when white people began to appear in numbers (including at least one Black man). The warrior chose accommodation over resistance to the newcomers.

This was exactly what the territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, and the United States government did not want. As the U.S. Army and settlers fought against Indigenous people in the East, “the racial script written in violence defined white-native relations throughout the West,” Buerge writes. “On Puget Sound, the looming chaos shocked those who had hoped for better.”

In 1854, Stevens began work on treaties with the peoples living around the Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific coast to open the territory to more colonization. There were no tribes as we understand them before 1855 when Stevens combined villages by river drainage to create them for expediency. 

“Congress expected Indians to be placed on few reservations far from white settlements,” he said. The pressure to create treaties came from the federal Donation Land Claim Act and the rush of settlers to Oregon Territory, creating clashes between Indians and new settlers. 

But his agents who negotiated the treaties warned him it was a mistake because, even then, at least some white people perceived the gap between culture and language was too vast for such a simplistic bridge. Stevens negotiated with help from George Gibbs, a lawyer and ethnologist who had visited as many of the Native people as he could before the treaties, and had a better understanding of the culture than Stevens. Stevens initially wanted to establish one reservation at Tulalip for all Native groups west of the Cascades, but the Indians were so alarmed he scuttled the idea. He also heard from many settlers who were dependent on Indians and wanted to ensure they would still be available to provide labor and goods.

But on Christmas Eve that year Stevens met with South Sound groups at Medicine Creek, “a haunt of supernatural powers associated with death in the Nisqually estuary,” Buerge writes, and three days later a treaty was signed giving up 2 1/2 million acres for $150,000 and — crucially — “access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds.”

The Nisqually Chief Leschi said the proposed reservations were too small and poor to support the people. He was an upriver Indian with horse herds and fruit trees and did not want to live near salt water. Later at Point Elliot, the Snohomish refused to live anywhere near the Suquamish. In yet another negotiation, the Makah said they had no intention of becoming farmers or reorganizing their society to accommodate the American legal system.

Seattle was not present and did not sign the Medicine Creek Treaty. He did sign the Treaty of Point Elliot Jan. 22, 1855, at Mukilteo on Port Gardner Bay, where Stevens treated with the “Duwamish and allied tribes,” including the Suquamish, and other groups from modern Lake Washington, Sammamish Lake, Lake Union, downtown Seattle, and the Black, Green, and White Rivers. 

But Seattle interrupted the public recitation of the treaty to say, “The Great Chief above who made the country made it for all and perhaps he would not be pleased at their taking pay for it.”

Buerge argues there were conflicting interpretations about what these ceremonies and treaties meant. “Some argue that the terms were not explicable in the (Chinook) Jargon, leaving native leaders unsure of details.” Words written or spoken in English had to be translated into Chinook and then into Lushootseed, a necessity wholly unsuited for such complex documents.

Many leaders thought signing treaties was the beginning of negotiations, not the end; some signatories were enraged because “they had given their names but not their land.”

Violence followed. By September, the war had spread from the Yakima Valley to Puget Sound and raged until March 1856. The U.S. Army and local militias fought the Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Yakama, and Klickitat, among others, while northern Haida and Tlingit raiders took advantage of the mayhem to conduct raids in their enormous seagoing canoes and grappled with the U.S. Navy. 

Seattle kept his people out of the fighting. 

He’d made his mark on the Point Elliot treaty, securing land for the Suquamish but holding out for more for the Duwamish. He did not want to give up their ancestral home at “the crossing over place,” among other places, buried now beneath the modern Seattle waterfront somewhere north of the Duwamish River. He was an ally of local booster David Swinson “Doc” Maynard; he protected settlers from ambush and attack; and whenever there was a serious issue he took his canoe upsound to meet the governor face to face.

In August 1856, Stevens agreed to larger reservations for the more bellicose tribes. East of the Cascades, the war continued long after Stevens enlarged the Puyallup Reservation and created reservations for the Nisqually and what later became known as the Muckleshoot (the Green and White River Indians, Upper Puyallup and Duwamish). Their descendants remain proud to this day, considering their forbears to be warriors in a just cause.

In 1858, a broken and destitute Leschi was hanged after two trials in what was later found to be an act of judicial murder. In 1974, the Boldt decision affirmed Indigenous rights “to traditional fishing grounds” for the first time since the treaty recognizing them was signed 120 years earlier. In 1994, Judge Edward Rafeedie affirmed shellfish treaty rights but, as with “traditional hunting,” there have been no gathering rights cases. Rafeedie wrote: “A treaty is not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them.”

Unlike almost everyone else at the time, Seattle left little of what he said or thought on paper, except for the famous speech he delivered at Point Elliot in 1855 that has since been co-opted as a call to action by environmentalists. But it wasn’t written down at the time and what was later remembered by Seattle and others, particularly his contemporary Henry Smith, was embellished over decades into something else.

Buerge writes that Seattle’s actual speech ended with a warning: “Be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not altogether powerless.”

Seattle was saying that all action has consequences, if not in this life, then in the next.

“In Seattle’s vivid and compelling image, the native living and the dead are one,” Buerge writes. “Americans might think they could buy and sell the land, he argues, but it could only be shared, not possessed; at death, the land would possess them as it has untold generations of native people.”

Seattle’s old friend Maynard persuaded his neighbors to rename their settlement from Duwamps to Seattle, and convinced the territorial government to let Seattle take over his father’s longhouse on Agate Pass, known as “Old Man House.” Many villages had an “Old Man House,” because there was a long line of headmen associated with the house or village.

But despite Seattle’s diplomacy, his Duwamish do not have federal recognition to this day or a right to their traditional fishing grounds, among other things. The Duwamish Tribal Organization does not meet the criteria for a “tribe,” according to the U.S. government, as over 500 recognized tribes do. There are hundreds of Duwamish descendants at Muckleshoot, Suquamish, and Tulalip. 

They know who they are.