Anthropology 211
Fall 2002

The Suquamish Tribe of Washington State, United States of America


          The Suquamish tribe of what is today the state of Washington has resided in that region since time immemorial.  Today, the tribe resides on a 7,486 acre reservation which, as of 1998, housed 4,834 people, not all of whom were Native Americans.  In fact, “less than 3,000 acres remain in trust or under Indian ownership” at the Suquamish reservation at Port Madison (Galler, 1998:495).  The land the tribe holds is on Puget Sound, near the city of Seattle, WA.  The land was granted to them as per the 1854 Point Elliott Treaty (Galler, 1998:495).

          The tribe is a member of the Southern Coast Salish culture group and speaks a language of the Lushootseed family.  The tribe is a small one, numbering just 180 members in 1909.  That number has increased in recent years, with 750 individuals on tribal roles  (Galler, 1998:495).  Part of the reason the numbers are so small is due to European diseases, which ravaged the region’s native peoples when George Vancouver and the Discovery arrived in 1792.  The impressive numbers – 200,000 native people in the region prior to contact – dropped by 80% after Vancouver’s visit to the area.  Diseases such as smallpox and measles took a terrible toll on the native peoples in the region (Galler, 1998:495).

          The Suquamish tribe began trading with members of the Hudson’s Bay Co. at Fort Nisqually, which was established in 1833.  Shortly thereafter, Catholic missionaries arrived and established mission churches and boarding schools.  During this same period, they became more dependent on European trade goods, they “lost access to natural resources of the region” (Galler, 1998:495).  Also, the language base and other cultural traditions eroded away during the mid-19TH century, due in large part to contact with Europeans.

          Following the organization of the Washington Territory under Isaac I. Stevens in 1853, the Suquamish and other area tribes were drawn into treaties, including the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854 and the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855.  These treaties were met with mixed feelings – the famous chief of the Suquamish, Seattle, met with opposition regarding his favoring of the Point Elliott Treaty, which he signed in order to promote positive Indian-white relations (Galler, 1998:495).  Despite being of mixed Duwamish (mother) and Suquamish (father) blood, Seattle was the recognized chief of both tribes and was capable to negotiate on the behalf of the tribe.  According to sources, Seattle “was responsible for continued good relations between Native Americans and the new white settlers” (Malinowski, 1995:390).  His signing of the treaty, however, did cause some problems for himself and the tribe itself, both with other Native American tribes and with the United States government.  Seattle’s signing of the treaty sparked several Native American uprisings, which ensued between 1855-1858, including the year-long Yakima War (1855-56), which took place east of the Cascade Range.  The Nisqually unsuccessfully attacked Seattle’s home village in 1856 during these Native American uprisings (Malinowski, 1995:390).  Also due to the treaty, some very unnatural boundaries were placed on the Suquamish tribe.  Federal interference in tribal affairs began to destroy the kinship system of the Suquamish, as well as destroying other aspects of the culture, including the potlatch ceremony and the physical and spiritual center of the Suquamish – the “Ole Man House” – the home of Seattle until his death in 1866 (Galler, 1998:496 and Malinowski, 1995:391).  In addition to this, during the 1880s-1920s, children 4-18 were taken and placed in a boarding school, where they were forbidden to speak their native language and did not have the opportunity to learn about the culture they were born to.  Many children also died of measles and whooping cough, among other diseases, because the schools were used as infirmaries during times of disease outbreaks (

          Traditionally, the Suquamish “were expert basketmakers, fishers, and canoe builders” descended from people who had lived in the region around Puget Sound for thousands of years (  The baskets were used for almost everything.  The tribe was a foraging group that subsisted mostly on fish, plants, and choice game.  They built canoes from logs and these were their primary forms of transportation (

          Some major points of contention for the Suquamish include many dealing with legal jurisdiction and economic self-determination.  After the Dawes Act, many Suquamish left the Port Madison Reservation in order to support themselves by working in the Puget Sound Mills.  Many still work off the reservation, even though things are better today, with more employment opportunities at Port Madison.  The tribe even hopes to open a casino soon.  The other major issue facing the Suquamish has to do with the denial of legal jurisdiction – the tribal courts cannot prosecute offenders of the law (Galler, 1998:496-497).  However, also on the docket for the Suquamish are environmental issues, including the pollution of the Duwamish River -- the river is a major salmon run, in which the Suquamish and Muckleshoot peoples have treaty rights to fish – the tribes “fish commercially for Chinook, harvesting as many as 26,000 salmon a year.” (Mapes, 2002).

          By far, though, the largest issue facing the Suquamish is the exploitation of their famous chief, Seattle.  The first issue regarding Seattle arose before he ever died.  Seattle was deeply admired by the white settlers in the Washington Territory even before his signing of the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855.  In 1852, the white settlers in the region decided they wanted to name their settlement “Seattle,” after the Suquamish chief.  “The Salishan Indians of the Pacific Northwest...[believe] that the frequent mention of a dead person’s name would disturb the person’s eternal rest.”  (Malinowski, 1995:390)  As a result, Seattle was compensated prior to his death by the people of what became the city of Seattle for the disruption of his future rest (Malinowski, 1995:390).

          In more recent years, the point of contention is a speech Seattle made at the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty signing in 1855.  His speech, which was recorded by Henry Smith, was not published until1887, thirty years after he made it.  According to Murray Morgan, a Pacific Northwest historian interviewed by Omni magazine, “what Smith wrote was probably a composite of comments the Chief made at two meetings with Governor [Isaac I.] Stevens, embellished with Smith’s trademark flourishes and warped by the memory lapses that come with time.”  (Marsa, 1992)

          Since the signing of the treaty, Seattle’s words in the time surrounding that historic event have made quite a journey and seen many revisions – and is quoted everywhere.  Today, because of all the changes his words have gone through, the original meaning of his speech has been all but lost.  He is seen as something of a patron saint to the ecology movement in today’s day and age, which is not something he set out to accomplish (Marsa, 1992).

          Seattle’s 1854 speech was actually “about his people and the inevitability of their displacement by the white settlers” (Marsa, 1992).  The meaning of the speech has changed dramatically over the century and a half since Seattle spoke them.  One version “has become a part of environmental lore” (Marsa, 1992).  That particular version was “actually penned by Ted Perry, a screenwriter inspired by some writings unwittingly attributed to the Chief, for Home, a 1972 ABC film about ecology.”  (Marsa, 1992)  Perry later told Omni, “I’m embarrassed now when I’m seen as someone who put words in Chief Seattle’s mouth...that was never my intention.” (Marsa, 1992)  Scholars have criticized Perry for his actions.

“Native American culture is constantly being exploited and appropriated as illustrations of whatever European theory is in fashion,” [said] Jack D. Forbes, professor of Native American studies at the University of California Davis These range from the extreme individualism of the 1983 novel Hanta Yo to the New Age spiritualism of Lynn Andrews.  “When,” [asked] Forbes, echoing the frustrations of other Native Americans, “will the thefts of our spiritual traditions end?” (Marsa, 1992)

          Beyond Ted Perry’s rewrite, a picture book based on Seattle’s words was published in 1991.  The book, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, which is illustrated by Susan Jeffers, has been featured on the popular PBS television series Reading Rainbow and has been in print now for over ten years.  Jeffers, too, seems to be under the wrong impression regarding Seattle’s words, saying at the end of the book,

...Chief Seattle’s words inspired – and continue to inspire – a most compelling truth: in our zeal to build and possess, we may lose all that we have.

We have come late to environmental awareness, but there was a thundering message delivered a century ago by many of the great Native American chiefs, among them Black Elk, Red Cloud, and Seattle.

To all of the Native American people, every creature and part of the earth was sacred...their words were not understood in their time.  Now they haunt us.  Now they have come true, and before it is too late we must listen. (Jeffers, 1991)

Apparently, not even Jeffers really understood what Seattle was talking about.  This children’s tale, among other sources, continues to mislead the public regarding Seattle’s words and his message to his people and the world.

          The Suquamish as a people do accept the words of Henry Smith, however, as about as close to Seattle’s actual words as it gets.  They have published the original version of that speech, as printed in the Seattle Sunday Star, on their web site at

          The theft of Seattle’s words from the people he spoke for, and the misuse of those words, has hurt the Suquamish deeply.  As if, as a people, they have not struggled enough, one more thing just seems to pop up out of the woodwork.


Galler, Robert W., Jr. (1998).  Suquamish.  In Sharon Malinowski et al. (Ed.). The Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes (pp. 495-497).  Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.

 Jeffers, Susan (illustrator).  (1991).  Brother Eagle, Sister Sky.  New York: Dial Books.

Mapes, Lynda V. (2002, August 6).  Cleanup Targets Industrial Waste in Seattle-Area River.  The Seattle Times.  Retrieved September 11, 2002 from ProQuest online database (Magazines and Newspapers) on the World Wide Web:

Marsa, Linda.  (1992).  Talk is Chief.  Omni.  Retrieved September 11, 2002 from ProQuest online database (Magazines and Newspapers) on the World Wide Web:

Suquamish Tribe.  Retrieved September 11, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

No author provided (1995).  Seattle.  In Sharon Malinowski (Ed.).  Notable Native Americans (pp. 390-391).  Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.