Paying tribute to city namesake Chief Sealth’s grave in Suquamish

Jun 8, 2024, 12:09 PM

For this week’s edition of All Over The Map, KIRO Newsradio visited Chief Sealth’s grave at Suquamish Memorial Cemetery and spoke with Suquamish Tribal Chair Leonard Forsman live during “Seattle’s Morning News.”

Chief Sealth, namesake of the city of Seattle, died at home in Suquamish 158 years ago, June 7, 1866.

This is a lightly edited transcript of Forsman’s interview broadcast live from Suquamish Friday morning.

Feliks Banel: It is a gorgeous morning over here on the Kitsap Peninsula on the Port Madison Indian Reservation. St. Peter’s Church is just down the sloping hillside. There (are) all kinds of evergreen trees. We can see the saltwater, we can see Mount Rainier through the trees. And we’re standing at the grave of Seattle’s namesake Chief Sealth, who passed away on this very day, back in 1866, not far from here on the reservation. Joining me is Tribal Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, Leonard Forsman. I wanted to ask you, it’s kind of a dumb question, but if people are tuned in, maybe they’ve moved to Seattle recently, maybe they don’t know the mythology and stories that all of us were brought up on who grew up in the Northwest, how do you describe who Chief Seattle was?

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Leonard Forsman: We’re here in our tribal cemetery and, of course, (with our) great ancestral chief, Chief Seattle. We how would we describe him? He was a leader who spanned many different historical and cultural phases of our history. And we’re so very proud of the work he did in his life and so proud of his family that still lives here, including myself, here within our tribe on the Port Madison Reservation.

Banel: It’s a gorgeous setting. And I know the grave dates (back) to 1866. I think that taller headstone there was put in in 1890. Then there was some renovation worked done here about 15 years ago. As a member of the Suquamish Tribe, as the chair of the tribe, do you have personal feelings about the fact that Chief Seattle, this important individual, is buried here close by like this?

Forsman: Yes, of course. It’s so important that he’s here with us in his ancestral home. He was born and raised right here near Suquamish, born on Blake Island and then, of course, lived (in) his father’s home, Chief Kitsap’s home, Old Man House, only a mile from here. And he was a young boy when he met George Vancouver of the British Navy, who was one of the first explorers to anchor off of Bainbridge Island. And then he lived his life through many changes, became a war chief, then later became a diplomat between Hudson’s Bay Company, the American settlers, Catholic missionaries. And then of course, with the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. And the day he did pass away there is archival records that referenced the fact that he was taken from Old Man House and walked along the beach, up into the cemetery for a very important ceremony honoring his life.

Images: Images of Chief Seattle, include, from left to right, Edward Sammis' original circa 1865 photo, a colorized variation from sometime later and a version with hand-painted "open" eyes.

Images of Chief Seattle include, from left to right, Edward Sammis’ original circa 1865 photo, a colorized variation from sometime later and a version with hand-painted “open” eyes. (Photos at left and center courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry; photo at right courtesy of Wikipedia)

Banel: Now, he is the namesake of Seattle, and his likeness is on our city seal. There are statues of him around, but what do people who maybe don’t pay close attention to history or maybe they don’t understand the role of Indigenous people who have been here since time immemorial before non-natives arrived, are there things that people don’t understand or get wrong about or misunderstand about Chief Seattle 158 years after he passed away?

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Forsman: I just think a lot of people don’t know what challenges he faced with when he was born.  We talk about his life in a way that spans all these different phases of our history. He was born before contact, he had seen evidence of the diseases and then he had transformed and tried to adapt his leadership style to the people that were coming in and facing all these economic, social and cultural challenges to the way we’ve lived here for thousands of years. And the fact that during the treaty, he negotiated with the United States. He kept his warriors out of the Battle of Seattle, which he of course was criticized for some reasons by other tribes. And then was able to provide a reservation for his people that we still live on today as important testimony to his life and the fact that he took full advantage of the time where he was, as difficult as it was for him, he managed to stay remained committed to the future of his people.

Banel: It’s obviously a complex story. David Buerge’s book from a few years ago, “Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name” is a great place to start for people who don’t understand. It gets into a lot of great detail.  Maybe this is (another) dumb question: Is Chief Seattle, is his memory, his legacy, is it still relevant in 2024?

Forsman: Of course it is. We, of course, celebrate his life every year here in Squamish at Chief Seattle Days. And his contributions to United States tribal trust treaty relationship were very important, still are important (and) resonate today when we meet with whether it be the president or Congress or the federal agencies, our interactions with the courts federal court system. His words and his actions still live today are very important to us preserving our way of life, which I think everybody can adapt parts of, or most of, you know, we want to take care of the land and the water the air, we want to take care of our elders and our children. And just like he did a year after the Treaty was signed, he wanted a good education for his people.

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Banel: Tribal Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe Leonard Forsman, thanks for joining us here on this special anniversary at this incredible location. And I assume people are welcome to visit here year-round, right? This is a popular spot for people to come and see the city’s namesake?

Forsman: Yes, this is open to the public during the daytime, and we have Chief Sealth’s memorial that you mentioned, and the artwork that we put here during our cultural resurgence to honor his life that kind of tells his story through art. And then of course, the stone here which unfortunately was damaged in the vandalism around 2000, but was recently reconstructed by the family of people here at Suquamish. So it’s a great place to come and see his resting spot and then also see our beautiful land and water.

For those interested in going

Suquamish Memorial Cemetery is easily accessible from both the Seattle-Bainbridge and Edmonds-Kingston ferries.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X.

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Paying tribute to city namesake Chief Sealth’s grave in Suquamish