Exactly 157 years after Chief Seattle joined 81 leaders of Puget Sound tribes surrendering their land to the Governor, the Washington State Legislature is considering a state holiday in honor of Native Americans.
On January 22, 1855 Tribes including the Duwamish and Suquamish signed a treaty with Governor Isaac Stevens to turn over their land, in exchange for cash and being able to relocate to reservations that had access to fishing and hunting grounds.
At the time, there were 9,712 Native Americans living west of the Cascades and only a few hundred white settlers in the Puget Sound area. The treaty didn’t ensure peace, but it was the beginning of pushing Native Americans off of the property they had first.
Senate Bill 5183 , being considered in Olympia today, attempts to recognize Native’s contributions by creating a state holiday called “Native American Heritage Day.”
The new holiday would be the day after Thanksgiving Day. Placing the holiday on that particular day is not a strong statement from the Senate sponsors, considering that day is already a state legal and school holiday, and it’s one many celebrate with black Friday shopping.
The legislation notes: “America’s journey has been marked by both bright times of progress and dark moments of injustice for Native Americans…The Native American population was disrupted and nearly destroyed through European colonization. Genocide, slavery, and political and cultural repression were consequential adversities Native Americans had to overcome. In the face of such hardships, Native Americans endured; their cultural beliefs flourished; and today we celebrate their importance to the United States and the state of Washington.”
By celebrating their importance, the state means renaming a date on the calendar – which was already a legal holiday for state workers, public schools, and local governments – Native American Heritage Day.
The state has a bunch of special days declared in honor of individuals and groups. January 13th was Korean-American day. January 26th is Washington Army and Air National Guard Day. April 16th is Mother Joseph day, while September 4th is set aside for Marcus Whitman. None of those days are legal holidays.
The state is trying to send a message that a day honoring tribes is unique because it’s a legal holiday. If they really wanted to make it special, why not give Native Americans their own holiday instead of plopping the day on a calendar day that was already a holiday for most?
Photo: Chief Seattle, 1864. The original photograph for this often reprinted image has been altered by painting Chief Seattle’s closed eyes to make them appear open and by blacking out the studio backdrop. Original Photo by E. M. Sammis, courtesy HistoryLink.org