On #IndigenousPeoplesDay we present The Honorable Cecile Hansen, great-great-grandniece to Chief Si’ahl – known by most as Chief “Seattle”, the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, rebuilt after it and nearly 100 more were burned down by white settlers between 1855 and 1904, and the man himself, Chief Si’ahl.

By Carla Bell
October 9, 2017

Beautifully erected along a busy Seattle thoroughfare – amongst heavy machinery, semi-trucks, and railcars – is Chief Si’ahl Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, also known as Duwamish Lodge. It stands as a testament of industry and irony, all day long.

Duwamish Tribe Elder Cecile Hansen

This is not lost on Cecile Hansen, the great-great-grandniece of Chief Si’ahl (178X – 1866), from si’áb Si’ahl, meaning “high status man Si’ahl” (Wikipedia). “Chief Seattle” and “Chief Sealth” are reinforced anglicizations – many would call it bastardizations – of the man’s true Puget Sound Salish Lushootseed name and language. Vi Hilbert (1918 – 2008), an elder of the Upper Skagit and a safekeeper of the Lushootseed language and culture, helps us with proper pronunciation of a few names and places in Lushootseed.

Inside Duwamish Lodge in the presence of The Honorable Cecile Hansen, elected over forty years ago as Duwamish Tribe Chairperson, one is immersed in the history, craft, and rich tradition of this systematically exterminated people – First People inhabitants of the so-called North American landmass.

A definite sense of humility comes over one’s spirit in the place as witness to the creative expression of this incredible co-existence with an adversarial Government and its people. Any visitor’s perspectives on oppression, strife, dissonance, and belonging begin a quiet work of revision in a longhouse on Marginal Way.

Failed Government treaty promises to The First People who remained meant that Natives had been moved off the land that had sustained them as much as they had sustained it and relegated to the outskirts – similar to the displacement we see today in what’s called gentrification, though far more grave. “Fifty Duwamish longhouses along the waterways were burned. There’s documentation of this,” she said, as though promising something that no one could believe.

Conditions of the time for this struggling People meant compromise and sacrifice, and assimilation by force. A society of proud and royal people suddenly became servants for hire. Princess Angeline, daughter of the Chief, took up housekeeping and babysitting, because if she could be made of some use to whites, then perhaps she would survive.

“When they said we couldn’t fish anymore. Some enrolled in a tribe so they could fish. This Tribe has dealt with a lot of injustice, and endured. I don’t know why anybody in this country has to prove who they are. It’s disgusting.” – The Honorable Cecile Hansen, great-great-grandniece of Chief Si’ahl

“I got involved because of my brother…because they kept arresting him for fishing in the Duwamish,” she says defiantly before going further to explain that her brother, Manny Oliver, died by drowning while doing what he loved, fishing, in 1997. Manny was the middle child and the only boy of five children.

Cecile and the others began fighting for rights to fish in the early 70s, when whites said that Indians shouldn’t be authorized to fish in these Pacific Northwest waterways. The ongoing battle for Federal tribal recognition has brought “many years of traveling back and forth, many years of effort and frustration with the Bureau of Tribal Affairs,” Cecile laments.

Indigenous Peoples Day Duwamish Tribe Longhouse

Actually, she prefers the term “acknowledgement” rather than “recognition”, she says, because somehow, it feels less injurious to her. She’s worked with a local law firm that has provided pro bono representation in this effort for several years but admits she’s weary of it. She is ready for true advocacy that will bring the matter to resolution. This Federal “acknowledgement” is something that she and so many others long to see.

The Duwamish are a hearty, resilient, and compassionate people. They are First People, teaching us how to be good neighbors.

Make plans to visit Duwamish Longhouse, volunteer your time and skills – a skylight is in need of repair, as a matter of fact! If you’d like to make a financial contribution, contact Cindy at the Longhouse and look for the Real Rent link coming soon to their website.

Real Rent is a tool to collect donated funds. Cecile said that funds will be used to hire staff, make repairs, and to generally keep the Longhouse in operation.

Carla Bell is a Seattle-based writer and abolitionist engaged in restorative justice and civil rights advocacy, supporting community resilience and healing, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.