Published on March 1, 2011 by Amy
Chief Seattle (an Anglicization of Si’ahl), (c. 1780 – June 7, 1866) was a Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) chief, also known as Sealth, Seathle, Seathl, or See-ahth. A prominent figure among his people, he pursued a path of accommodation to white settlers, forming a personal relationship with David Swinson “Doc” Maynard. Seattle, Washington was named after him. A widely publicized speech arguing in favor of ecological responsibility and respect of native Americans’ land rights has been attributed to him; however there is controversy about what, if anything, he actually said.
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Si’ahl’s mother Sholeetsa was Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) and his father Shweabe was chief of the Dkhw’Suqw’Absh (the Suquamish tribe). Si’ahl was born around 1780 on or near Blake Island, Washington. One source cites his mother’s name as Wood-sho-lit-sa. The Duwamish tradition is that Si’ahl was born at his mother’s Dkhw’Duw’Absh village of Stukw on the Black River, in what is now the city of Kent, and that Si’ahl grew up speaking both the Dkhw’Duw’Absh and Dkhw’Suqw’Absh dialects of Lushootseed. Because Native descent among the Salish peoples was not solely patrilineal, Si’ahl inherited his position as chief of the Dkhw’Duw’Absh Tribe from his maternal uncle. In later years, Si’ahl claimed to have seen the ships of the Vancouver Expedition as they explored Puget Sound.
Si’ahl earned his reputation at a young age as a leader and a warrior, ambushing and defeating groups of enemy raiders coming up the Green River from the Cascade foothills, and attacking the Chimakum and the S’Klallam, tribes living on the Olympic Peninsula. Like many of his contemporaries, he owned slaves captured during his raids. He was tall and broad for a Puget Sound native at nearly six feet; Hudson’s Bay Company traders gave him the nickname Le Gros (The Big One). He was also known as an orator; and when he addressed an audience, his voice is said to have carried from his camp to the Stevens Hotel at First and Marion, a distance of 3/4 of a mile.
He took wives from the village of Tola’ltu just southeast of Duwamish Head on Elliott Bay (now part of West Seattle). His first wife La-Dalia died after bearing a daughter. He had three sons and four daughters with his second wife, Olahl. The most famous of his children was his first, Kikisoblu or Princess Angeline. Si’ahl was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, and given the baptismal name Noah, probably in 1848 near Olympia, Washington. The meaning of this ceremony may be called into question by his references to his people’s gods in his most famous Talk.
For all his skill, Si’ahl was gradually losing ground to the more powerful Patkanim of the Snohomish when white settlers started showing up in force. When his people were driven from their traditional clamming grounds, Si’ahl met Maynard in Olympia; they formed a friendly relationship useful to both. Persuading the settlers at Duwamps to rename the town Seattle, Maynard established their support for Si’ahl’s people and negotiated relatively peaceful relations among the tribes.
Si’ahl kept his people out of the Battle of Seattle (1856). Afterwards, he was unwilling to lead his tribe to the reservation established, since mixing Duwamish and Snohomish was likely to lead to bloodshed. Maynard persuaded the government of the necessity of allowing Si’ahl to remove to his father’s longhouse on Agate Passage, ‘Old Man House’ or Tsu-suc-cub. Si’ahl frequented the town named after him, and had his photograph taken by E. M. Sammis in 1865. He died June 7, 1866, on the Suquamish reservation at Port Madison, Washington.
There is a controversy about a speech by Si’ahl concerning the concession of native lands to the settlers.
Even the date and location of the speech has been disputed, but the most common version is that on March 11, 1854, Si’ahl gave a speech at a large outdoor gathering in Seattle. The meeting had been called by Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens to discuss the surrender or sale of native land to white settlers. Doc Maynard introduced Stevens, who then briefly explained his mission, which was already well understood by all present.
Si’ahl then rose to speak. He rested his hand upon the head of the much smaller Stevens, and declaimed with great dignity for an extended period. No one alive today knows what he said; he spoke in the Lushootseed language, and someone translated his words into Chinook jargon, and a third person translated that into English.
Some years later, Dr. Henry A. Smith wrote down an English version of the speech, based on Smith’s notes. It was a flowery text in which Si’ahl purportedly thanked the white people for their generosity, demanded that any treaty guarantee access to Native burial grounds, and made a contrast between the God of the white people and that of his own. Smith noted that he had recorded “…but a fragment of his [Sealth's] speech”. Recent scholarship questions the authenticity of Smith’s supposed translation.
In 1891, Frederick James Grant’s History of Seattle, Washington reprinted Smith’s version. In 1929, Clarence B. Bagley’s History of King County, Washington reprinted Grant’s version with some additions. In 1931, John M. Rich reprinted the Bagley version in Chief Seattle’s Unanswered Challenge. In the 1960s, articles by William Arrowsmith and the growth of environmentalism revived interest in Si’ahl’s speech. Ted Perry introduced anachronistic material, such as shooting buffalo from trains, into a new version for a movie called Home, produced for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. The movie sank without a trace, but this newest and most fictional version is the most widely known. Albert Furtwangler analyzes the evolution of Si’ahl’s speech in Answering Chief Seattle (1997).
The speech attributed to Si’ahl, as re-written by others, has been widely cited as “powerful, bittersweet plea for respect of Native American rights and environmental values”. A similar controversy surrounds a purported 1855 letter from Si’ahl to President Franklin Pierce, which has never been located and, based on internal evidence, is considered by some historians as “an unhistorical artifact of someone’s fertile literary imagination”.