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Going Home

A small group of people stands nervously outside the Vern Burton Center in Port Angeles, on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. A few reporters jot down notes. Several members of the Lower Elwha Tribe stand wrapped in blankets out of the warm morning sun, holding hand drums.

A large bus rolls up, and then a second one. Cars arrive in the parking lot. The drummers begin a song of greeting. People pour off the buses, tribal elders first, followed by a blend of people from various tribes of the Northwest, European-American church leaders, retired folks, moms and kids, politicians, and many others wearing buttons reading “Chief Seattle Days 2004” or “I'm Indian and I vote.” 

The circle by the drummers grows as all stand listening to the song. Then Ted George, an elder with the Suquamish and S'Klallam tribes, begins a blessing: Let this day bring healing, he asks.

The question that has brought all these people to Port Angeles is a simple one, but one steeped in conflict, grief, and now in hope. Should a one-acre park, once a part of the mother village of the Suquamish people and the site of one of the region's most renowned longhouses, and once the home of Chief Seattle and Chief Kitsap, now be returned to the Suquamish Tribe?

I first learned about Old Man House State Park when I came over the Agate Passage Bridge that connects Bainbridge Island to Suquamish to find a sandy beach where my children could play. When I visited the Suquamish Museum, I learned that people had lived on this waterfront land for at least 2,000 years, possibly as much as 10,000 years. The name Suquamish comes from the Lushootseed name for this site, which means the place of the clear salt waters.

During the summer months, the Suquamish people traditionally traveled throughout the Puget Sound region, including the land now called Seattle, gathering food, medicine, and materials for baskets and clothing, and visiting other tribes. In the winter, though, the families would return to the mother village where fires kept the longhouses warm and the long dark evenings could be spent teaching the young people the stories, songs, and practices that would strengthen their minds and hearts.

Treaties and losses

Under the treaty of Point Elliot, signed in 1855, the Suquamish people gave up about a quarter million acres to the newly arrived settlers, but they retained as their reservation about 8,000 acres across Puget Sound from Seattle. The center of the village was Old Man House, the largest longhouse in the region, a place where the tribes would gather for celebrations and where Chief Seattle and hundreds of others lived.

This state of affairs did not last long. The Indian agent ordered the longhouse burned in 1870, shortly after Chief Seattle died, believing that the longhouse way of life was un-Christian and that the Suquamish people should disperse across the reservation and take up farming. The people rebuilt their village on the same site. Soon, the mission church, the school, the cemetery, and homes were once again clustered in the area where the longhouse had once been. But this too was to be short lived.

In 1904, the U.S. military took 70 acres of the waterfront, including Old Man House village, to build fortifications to protect access to the Bremerton Navy shipyards. The houses, church, and cemetery were moved, and a people who had always lived on and near the water lost much of their water access.

The military never did build any fortifications. Instead, after some years, a developer bought the land and subdivided it into building lots for vacation homes. In the 1950s, the Washington Parks and Recreation Department bought an acre where part of the longhouse had been located to commemorate the historic importance of the site.

The Suquamish Museum's display on Old Man House Park doesn't end with that milestone, however. The written display makes explicit that the Suquamish people want the park returned.

I live just down the street from the park. I can find my lot on the subdivision map that shows the land the military had relinquished to developers. The street is Angeline Avenue, named after Chief Seattle's daughter, Princess Angeline.

There is a story that when the longhouse was burning, word got to Angeline, who was then living in Seattle. She rushed to the waterfront and paddled her canoe the nine miles across Puget Sound, arriving in time to find only embers left where the great longhouse had stood. She poured water from the Sound on the smoldering embers, weeping, “They're burning down Papa's home, they're burning down Papa's home.”

Many of these painful stories are well within the memory of people living today. The elders tell stories of the boarding schools where tribal children were taught the menial trades that would permit them to assimilate as second-class workers into European-American society. The children, who were accustomed to gentle up-bringings in extended families, found themselves beaten and tied up for speaking their language. Family life was shattered, leaving adults and children in despair. A legacy of alcoholism and drug abuse followed.

The tribe began getting back on its feet in 1974 with the Boldt decision of the U.S. District Court for western Washington, which set aside half the fish catch for tribes, based on treaty rights. Some Northwest tribes also opened bingo halls, casinos, and firework stands, and other means of making livelihoods.

A cultural renaissance began in 1989 when tribes from throughout the Puget Sound region carved cedar canoes and paddled to a state centennial celebration in Seattle. For the first time in years, tribes in the region were back on the water, traveling as they had for millennia. As they were celebrating the success of the event, a First Nations man from Bella Bella, 600 miles to the north in Canada, threw down a challenge: That was pretty good, he said. But I want to see you in Bella Bella in four years.

The challenge captured the imagination of the tribes, and the voyage to Bella Bella became the first of annual canoe journeys that continue to this day, now involving thousands of people. The voyages begin at one tribe's reservation. Each night, the paddlers and their support crews stop at a different reservation for celebration, and the offering of songs, prayers, and gifts before leaving the next day with additional canoes for the next reservation. It was right after the most recent three-week long canoe journey that the Washington state Parks Commission held its hearing on the return of Old Man House Park.

Old Man House

My involvement in this story began in late spring 2003, when Rob Purser and Rich Brooks from the Suquamish Tribe asked for help in getting back Old Man House Park. I am cofounder of a community organization, Suquamish Olalla Neighbors (SON), started in 2001 to respond to an incident in which Chief Seattle's grave was desecrated. Since then, we have been working to improve understanding and tolerance in a area where prejudices and divisions between the tribal and non-tribal communities flare into ugly confrontations in schools, community meetings, and election campaigns.

We knew that the return of the park to the tribe would be contentious. The tribe has often faced fierce opposition to its initiatives from a group of non-tribal residents of the reservation. The tribe had been trying to get the park returned since the early 1980s, but local opposition had always surfaced, and the issue became one of native versus non-native. A group called “The Friends of Old Man House Park” had already formed to offer volunteer assistance in maintaining the park in an effort to convince the state to hold on to the park.

It was not clear how SON members would respond to the tribe's request that we help build support for the transfer of the park. Several SON members are also neighbors of the park, and some had been part of the “Friends” group. But after hearing from both groups, SON members decided unanimously to support the tribe's request.

The tribal representatives wanted to hear the concerns of the entire community and to use that information to draft a management plan for the park. SON and the tribe worked together on eliciting public comment for that plan. We felt that if we could address concerns about tribal ownership, perhaps all could accept the transfer. And indeed, the park management plan—which drew on more than 400 comments and was drafted by a joint committee of SON and the Suquamish Tribe—attracted few complaints. Nonetheless, the opposition remained adamant.

Concerns were raised about whether the tribe would exclude people who were not tribal members (the tribe agreed to a legally binding agreement to keep the park open to all), and that the tribe would not maintain the park (the tribe set a maintenance schedule and budget in the management plan.)

We began a letter-writing campaign, and letters and e-mails came pouring in to the Parks Commission. Organizations ranging from the Washington Association of Churches to the state Democratic Party went on record in support of the tribe. SON members Mary Ann Dow and Arlis Stewart compiled letters of support and documentation of the public involvement process, along with historic photos and the management plan, for each park commissioner.

The “Friends” group launched a petition drive asking the state to retain ownership of the park, and asked the County Commission to step in and request ownership. A busload of us turned up at a county commission meeting to explain why they should not, and the county took no action.

Finally, after mobilizing dozens to turn out at two State Parks Commission public meetings, we thought we had nothing left to do but wait for the decision to be made at the August 12 Port Angeles meeting. Then Rich Brooks received a call from a parks staffer saying they could not recommend transfer but asking if the tribe would accept a long-term lease.

The next day, a delegation from the tribe, SON, and other supporters met in the state capital with key Parks staff, explaining that an offer to lease back the heart of the Suquamish nation to the people of Suquamish would be regarded as a sign of mistrust and a continued effort to maintain control by European-Americans and would not be accepted.

We contacted each park commissioner with the same story, traveling hundreds of miles to meet those commissioners who were willing to meet with us. Rob Purser and I also visited church and civic groups asking people to join us for the “Ride of a Century” to the Parks Commission hearing in Port Angeles.

The Ride of a Century

The day arrived for the “Ride of a Century,” named to highlight the 100-year anniversary of the year the land was taken from the tribe. Two Suquamish Clearwater Casino buses pulled up to the tribal center and quickly filled with people. Other people formed carpools. On the largest of the two buses, Leonard Forsman, tribal spokesperson and historian, spoke to the bus riders. “This park is where my ancestors lived,” he told us. “This land is sacred to our people.”

I spoke briefly about prospects for the day: “We think we have at least three votes out of a seven-member commission, but we need at least four.”

By the time all had entered the hall, there were  more than 300 people. The park commissioners took their seats at the front of the room. The Suquamish canoe paddlers, in cedar hats, carrying traditional painted paddles, lined three walls of the room, where they stood as a silent presence.

The testimony included statements from Suquamish tribal leaders and from other Northwest tribes, a surprise statement from the governor supporting the transfer, and endorsements of state and local faith groups, and neighbors.

Noel Purser, age 17, addressed the commission in Lushootseed translated by Kah-Ty-Ah Lawrence, age 13. Ted George quoted Chief Seattle: “Be just, and deal kindly with my people.”

I asked all who supported the transfer to stand, and over 200 people stood together, many holding canoe paddles aloft in clenched fists.

Those from the opposition spoke about how irresponsible the tribe is in a wide range of matters, and how they should not be trusted with this park, situated in the midst of a mostly non-Indian residential neighborhood. They threatened a lawsuit if the land was returned to the tribe.

Then it was the commission's turn. The unanimous decision for the transfer came so quickly, the room sat in stunned silence for a full second. Then the room filled with applause and the sound of drumming. The canoe paddlers formed a circle and began a song of thanks. Attempts to bring the room back to order dissolved as tribal elders lined up to thank parks commissioners and shake their hands. There were embraces and tears.

Back on the bus, Leonard had one more short speech to make. “We have to do this work as Indians, because it's our duty,” he told the riders. “You don't have to, but you did it anyway. For that we thank you."

Clear salt waters

That evening, I celebrated by taking my canoe out across Agate Passage and back toward Old Man House Park. There by the park, a narrow wooden racing canoe was skirting the shore. A party was in full swing. As I got closer, I saw someone waving, silhouetted against the late afternoon sun. It was the tribal chairman, Bennie Armstrong, who was wading out toward my canoe: “Hey, you can't come ashore here?—this land belongs to the Suquamish Tribe now!”

I know the canoe landing protocol, though, and after I asked permission to land, we laughed and sat on drift wood drinking soda and eating clams. We swapped stories of voyages by canoe across the salt waters of Washington and British Columbia, and voyages by land to visit parks commissioners. We tried out each other's canoes, only narrowly avoiding capsizing in the clear salt water of the Old Man House village site, now once again the land of the Suquamish people.


Sarah van Gelder mug

Sarah Ruth van Gelder is co-chair and co-founder of Suquamish Olalla Neighbors, as well as executive editor of YES! Magazine. More info and links can be found at http://www.soneighbors.org/

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