On a trip to Washington state earlier this fall, I visited Chief Sealth’s (c.1780-1866) final resting place on the Kitsap Peninsula. Chief Sealth (also referred to as Si’ahl or Seattle) was a Suquamish and Duwamish leader who is the namesake for the city of Seattle. Although he inherited the position of Chief of the Duwamish Tribe, a council of six tribes eventually selected him to be the leader of a tribal confederation in central Puget Sound. In this role, Chief Sealth maintained friendly relations with European-American immigrants that his father began in 1792. His diplomacy and friendship eventually led to the Treaty of Point Elliott, which was signed by the United States and several tribes in 1855; the treaty was ratified in 1859.
Under the treaty, the tribes agreed to cede their lands to the United States (art. 1), although they retained specific tracts that would become reservations (arts. 2-4) and maintained the right to fish at “usual and accustomed grounds” (art. 5). The article related to fishing rights was a common provision in treaties between the government and American Indian tribes in the Puget Sound region, and became a focal point in United States v. Washington (the Boldt decision), a seminal court case in the field of American Indian law.
Words attributed to a speech Chief Sealth gave in 1854 are carved in English and Lushootseed into a concrete ring around the gravesite. “Even the rocks thrill with memories of past events. The very dust beneath your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps, because it is the ashes of our ancestors. The soil is rich with the life of our kindred.”
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, we recommend visiting the resources below.
- Suquamish Tribe History & Culture (Suquamish Tribe)
- History of the Duwamish People (Duwamish Tribe)
- Treaty and Fishing Rights Activist Billy Frank: The Fish Wars (In Custodia Legis)
- Native American Constitutions and Legal Materials (Law Library of Congress)
- American Indian Law: A Beginner’s Guide (Law Library of Congress)
- Indigenous Law Portal (LLMC Digital)
- Treaty of Point Elliott (National Archives)
- Boldt Decision: United States v. Washington State (History Link)
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