Monday, December 5, 2016  

History & Culture

The Suquamish are a Lushootseed (Puget Salish) speaking people that traditionally lived along the Kitsap Peninsula, including Bainbridge and Blake Islands, across Puget Sound from present Seattle.  Many of the present Suquamish live on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in the reservation towns of Suquamish and Indianola. 

The ancestral Suquamish have lived in Central Puget Sound for approximately 10,000 years.  The major Suquamish winter village was at Old Man House on the shoreline of Agate Passage at d’suq’wub meaning “clear salt water.”  The Suquamish name translates into the “people of the clear salt water.”  The Suquamish depended on salmon, cod and other bottom fish, clams and other shellfish, berries, roots, ducks and other waterfowl, deer and other land game for food for family use, ceremonial feasts, and for trade.  The Suquamish, due to the absence of a major river with large salmon runs in their immediate territory, had to travel to neighboring marine areas and beyond to harvest salmon.

The Suquamish lived in shed-roofed, cedar plank houses during the winter months.  The Suquamish had winter villages at Suquamish (Old-Man-House), Point Bolin, Poulsbo, Silverdale, Chico, Colby, Olalla, Point White, Lynwood Center, Eagle Harbor, Port Madison and Battle Point.  The best known winter village was at Old Man House, the home of Chief Seattle and Chief Kitsap.  The Suquamish periodically left their winter residences in the spring, summer and early fall in family canoes to travel to temporary camps at fishing, hunting and berrying grounds.  The seasonal camps consisted of portable frames made of tree saplings covered with woven cattail mats.


The Suquamish produced a variety of ingenious tools and other devices to efficiently harvest fish and gather other foods.  The Suquamish are best known for their traditional basketry.  The “hard baskets” made from coiled cedar roots were used for gathering berries, but were also watertight, which made them ideal for carrying water and also for cooking.  The Suquamish would heat stones in a fire and drop them into the water-filled baskets to make soups from smoked salmon and wild potatoes.  The Suquamish decorated the berry baskets by imbricating them colored barks in a various designs.

The Suquamish mostly traveled by water in dugout cedar canoes.  The canoe maker fashioned the canoe from a single cedar log, which after carving required steaming and spreading to make the canoe wider for buoyancy and greater cargo space.  The Suquamish also had a large network of trails leading from their winter villages to important camping areas and neighboring tribal villages.

The Suquamish had their first recorded contact with non-natives in 1792 with the arrival of British explorer Captain George Vancouver.  Vancouver anchored off Bainbridge Island and traded with the Suquamish and surveyed Suquamish waters.  Over the next fifty years, the Suquamish adapted to a changes brought on by the entry of non-natives into the Puget Sound.  Fur traders and missionaries were the first and were then followed by permanent settlers traveling over the Oregon Trail.  Settlement intensified in the 1850s after Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act that opened Suquamish and other tribal lands to non-native settlement.  Entrepreneurs also began building sawmills to harvest the vast stands of virgin timber on Suquamish lands, including mills at Port Madison, Port Gamble and Port Blakely.  The Suquamish cut and delivered logs to the mills to support themselves. 

In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens arrived in Puget Sound intent on clearing the land for more intensive settlement.  Four years earlier, the City of Seattle, named for Chief Seattle, was established by Seattle pioneers, who were indebted to the Suquamish/Duwamish Chief for helping them during their early struggles to survive.  Governor Stevens needed to clear the aboriginal title to the land to claim the property ahead of his plans to bring the transcontinental railroad to Puget Sound.  On January 22, 1855, Suquamish leaders, led by Chief Seattle, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott at Mukilteo.  The Suquamish gave up title to their lands, which encompassed most of present Kitsap County, for acknowledgement and protection of their fishing and hunting rights, health care, education and a reservation at Port Madison.

The Suquamish continue to live on the Port Madison Indian Reservation.  The Suquamish Tribe has 950 enrolled members of which half live on the reservation.  The Suquamish have persevered despite attempts by the federal government to assimilate them through land policy; especially the allotment of the reservation into separate parcels assigned to family heads in 1886, the destruction of Old Man House village and scattering of the tribal settlement in 1904, and the mandatory attendance of Suquamish children at Indian Boarding Schools from 1900-1920.  The Suquamish presently are experiencing a cultural resurgence and are planning to begin construction of a new community house in the tradition of Old-Man-House.  We continue to exercise their treaty rights to fish and gather shellfish.  We are exercising our ancient right to self-governance and currently have 240 employees in a variety of government programs.  Relying on our ancestral traditions, the Suquamish look forward to a prosperous future.


Chief Seattle

Chief Seattle was an ancestral leader of the Suquamish Tribe born in 1786 at the Old-Man-House village in Suquamish.  His father was Schweabe, a Suquamish Chief, and his was mother Scholitza, a Duwamish from a village near present Kent.  Seattle was a six years old when Captain George Vancouver anchored in Suquamish waters off Bainbridge Island in 1792. 

Seattle achieved his status as chief of the Suquamish and a confederation of Duwamish bands after he planned and executed an attack strategy that saved the Central Puget Sound people from a sneak attack from upriver tribal forces from present King County.  Seattle, who was in his early twenties at the time, devised a plan calling for falling trees across the White (now Green) River above Renton that would capsize and disorient the raiding party allowing for Seattle’s forces to attack and capture them.  The plan worked and the people were so impressed that he was promoted to Chief and the former leaders became his sub-chiefs.

Chief Seattle witnessed the transition of his people from their ancient aboriginal life ways to a new one brought by the arrival on non-natives and imposed on them by the United States Government.  The Suquamish had to adapt their culture based on fishing, hunting, berry and root gathering and traveling by canoe to accept a new economy and lifestyle forced upon them by religious, social and political institutions.  Missionaries, fur traders and finally, permanent settlers brought new technology, a currency system, disease and the concept of private property to the Puget Sound.

The change was destructive and disruptive.  The United States had already freed land up for settlers by allowing non-natives to claim Indian lands under the Donation Land Claim Act, angering many of the Tribes.  The United States wanted to clear the land of Indian title to allow for settlement via a new transcontinental railroad.  The federal government accomplished this by signing Treaties with the Indian tribes.  Fearing a military conflict that could not be won in the long term, Chief Seattle signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott with the U.S., agreeing to live on the Port Madison Indian Reservation and give up title to the remainder of Suquamish lands.  The U.S., led by Governor Isaac Stevens, agreed to provide health care, education and recognize fishing and hunting rights.

Some of the Tribes, such as the Puyallup and Muckleshoot who signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek, were angered by the Treaty and their reservations, and took up arms against the settlers and the military.   The Indian forces eventually attacked the settlement on Elliott Bay.  Chief Seattle kept his forces out of the battle and remained at Suquamish.  For this action, other acts of kindness and long friendships with early Seattle residents, the founders of the city named the settlement after Chief Seattle.

Seattle remained on the reservation but continued to travel to the City he was named for intertribal meetings and other business.  It was in Seattle that he had his only known picture taken and he gave his famous speech.  Chief Seattle died in 1866 in Suquamish. 

Seattle died before the federal government enacted “Americanization” policies intended to assimilate the Suquamish into the larger society and eliminate tribal governance thereby relieving the U.S. of their treaty committments.  These policies included: 1) allotment of Indian reservationi lands to individual families to scatter the Tribe away from their concentrated winter villages 2) forced attendance of Suquamish children at off-reservation boarding schools where use of tribal language and culture was prohibited and punished and 3) the federally sponsored sale of reservation lands to non-natives that has resulted in the loss of 14 miles of reservation waterfront and over 5,000 acres of Suquamish landholdings.  The assimilation policy failed and Chief Seattle’s people, the Suquamish Tribe, continue to persevere by honoring their ancestral ways and preserving their culture.  

A group of Seattle pioneers placed a marble headstone on his grave in 1890 in recognition of his legacy.  The headstone has both of the popular spellings of Chief Seattle’s names; Seattle and Sealth.  Sealth is an approximation of the native pronunciation of the Chief’s name.  The Treaty of Point Elliott, recorded 35 years earlier, shows his name as Seattle.  The Suquamish Tribe does not object to the use of either name.

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