Photo: Drummers at an honoring ceremony for Chief Seattle
Large white tents and cars with canoes on top came into view as we motored across gray seas toward the town of Suquamish and the Suquamish Indian Reservation.
It was Saturday, the second day of the three-day Chief Seattle Days, held at Suquamish every August. The event had intrigued me when I learned of it while visiting the Suquamish Museum several years ago, but this was the first time we had been in Puget Sound in August since then.
Steve and I have attended a number of Native festivals and other events in Southeast Alaska and had enjoyed and learned from them. Here was a similar event in our home territory. Anyone could attend and admission was free.
To be sure to arrive on time, we had spent the previous night anchored in Port Madison, just a short distance away. Our friends Joy and Jerry of the sailboat Drömen had joined us there at 7:15 that morning.
We anchored off the town and tied our dinghy to the town dock, surprised to see it was empty. Surely, there were other boaters attending, perhaps even a tour boat from Seattle.
I glanced at my watch, 8:15, plenty of time to make it to the Chief Seattle Honoring Ceremony at 9:00 am .
We climbed to the cemetery on a side road beyond a small white church. A sign at the entrance announced that Chief Seattle's gravesite had been renovated in 2000 by grants from the City of Seattle and the Suquamish Tribe.
We were early and only a few other attendees stood around the gravesite, which consisted of a gravestone with a cross on top flanked by two carved poles, all in a concrete enclosure. The words, "The soil is enriched with the life of our kindred" were carved in the base of the concrete enclosure in English and the Salish language of Lushotseed. (Note: Chief Seattle is also called Chief Sealth and that name appears on the gravestone below Seattle but throughout the ceremony, only the name "Seattle" was used.)
Photo: Chief Seattle's grave and memorial at Suquamish
More people came up the path, many of them wearing hats or T-shirts emblazoned "Suquamish." Shortly after 9:00am, a woman in a white wool shawl welcomed us. She introduced a line of drummers who stood just beyond the gravesite. They played and sang a spirited song in their language.
Next, the tribal chairman, Leonard Forsman, welcomed us. In his speech he talked about how important Chief Seattle had been to the Suquamish tribe. He had been a great leader. Before the white men came, Seattle led his warriors to defeat other tribes that threatened the villages in Suquamish and Duwamish, establishing his reputation. Seattle preached peace, tribal sovereignty and working together. Because of him, the Suquamish still live in their homeland, a beautiful place.
As Forsman talked, I looked around for officials from the City of Seattle. But I saw no one I recognized, or who looked like a Seattle official. It seemed to me they should be present at a ceremony honoring the man their city was named for.
The first Chief Seattle Days was held in 1911 to honor Chief Seattle. At the time, a foot ferry linked the town of Suquamish to Seattle, which allowed city residents to attend the ceremonies. Today's festivities include many activities from the 1911 celebration: a salmon bake, canoe races, baseball games, drumming and dancing and the Chief Seattle honoring service.
As speakers were introduced, a helicopter flew overhead, drowning out the sound of names and organizations. For the next few minutes, I felt as if I had walked into a conversation halfway through it. But the speeches that followed were interesting and in some cases moving. Speakers talked about finding their voices as Natives and learning to value themselves. One woman talked about leadership lessons she had recently learned. She said, leaders "should shut up and listen and watch." I could think of some leaders today who could benefit from that lesson.
The final speaker was an old man who leaned on his cane. Without prompts or notes, he recited Chief Seattle's famous speech to President Franklin Pierce including the famous question, "How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people."
A lump formed in my throat as the words rolled out of his mouth, spoken authoritatively and movingly. I thought about the criticism of the speech, about doubts of its authenticity because it included references to events that hadn't yet happened and to trees from other lands. But then I thought those might be mistakes by translators or embellishments by others later. The speech was heartfelt and his descendants believed in its truth and spirit.
(See http://www.childrenoftheearth.org/chief_seattle.htm for an excerpt and http://www.historynet.com/chief-seattle for a discussion about the speech).
Photo: reciting the Chief Seattle speech.
As the ceremony ended, the woman in the white shawl told us that by honoring the memories of ancestors we ourselves are blest. Two young men handed out red scarves and two quarters to each attendee, the traditional gift giving I had seen at ceremonies in SE Alaska. The four of us followed the lead of others in the group and tied our scarves around our necks.
The sky had cleared by the time the honoring ceremony was over. That afternoon we sat in the sun in a large circle on a grassy field facing Puget Sound and watched a Pow Wow. Drummers and dancers from tribes all over performed in colorful clothes adorned with beads, bells and feathers -- regalia like nothing I had seen in the northwest. Chief Seattle had had ties not only to the white people he had helped and to neighboring tribes but even to tribes east of the mountains.
Photo: Dancers at the Pow Wow
The aroma of barbecued salmon wafted over the field. We left the Pow Wow and purchased meals ($9 regular price, $6 for seniors) of salmon, corn, coleslaw and beans, then ate under the large white tent.
After our meal, we walked back to the dock that was now occupied by several other sailboats, latecomers to the festival. From the dock we looked south toward Agate Pass and the canoe races. A race with young men paddling had just started. We watched them paddle furiously, competing to round a mark but ending up in two, three and even four-way collisions. Next came a race with young girls, two to a canoe. An older woman standing next to Joy pointed to a canoe with two young girls that had come across the line first. "Those are my granddaughters," she told us proudly.
Photo: Canoes rounding the mark
That evening as I thought about everything we had seen and heard that day, I came back to my earlier question of why no officials from the city of Seattle had attended. Then, suddenly I "got it." I had been looking at the festival from the perspective of a white resident from the city of Seattle. But Chief Seattle Days weren't about Seattle, the City; they were about Chief Seattle, the leader, and most of all, they were about his descendants who live at Suquamish today.