Chief Si’ahl, or more commonly Chief Seattle, was the most famous Duwamish/Suquamish leader of all time. His skills as a strong and diplomatic leader were clear from a very young age. He would later go on in life to be the Chief of two major Salish tribes, and leave a legacy greater than any other.
It is not clear where exactly Si’ahl was born, but it was sometime during the 1780’s. Some say Si’ahl was born on near Suquamish lands on what is present day Port Madison Reservation. Others say Si’ahl was born in his mother’s village on the Black River, located in the present day City of Kent. What is known, is that he was of noble descent from both Duwamish and Suquamish ancestry. His father, Shweabe, was the Chief of the Suquamish. His mother, Sho’lee`tsah, was the daughter of a Duwamish Chief, and was the family from which Si’ahl was named. He had strong ties to both native groups. During his younger years, Si’ahl went on a spirit quest where he obtained his supernatural connection to Thunder. His guiding spirit was said to be Skhwúqwub, a large and powerful supernatural bird of prey. His demeanor and personality certainly would support the Skhwúqwub being his personal spirit guide. Si’ahl’s childhood was spent mostly on Duwamish lands with his mother’s family, while much of his adult life was spent traveling and on Suquamish lands. The famous “Old Man house” which Si’ahl’s father built, was his home and served as a spiritual and communal gathering place for many potlatches. One childhood memory that Si’ahl carried with him throughout life was when in 1792, the H.M.S. Discovery, commanded by George Vancouver, arrived on the Puget Sound shores near Duwamish territory. Si’ahl recalled his father Schweabe greeting the white explorers and later establishing peaceful trade with them. Si’ahl is greatly known for his peaceful interaction with and protection of the British explorers. By his early twenties, Si’ahl demonstrated his ability as a warrior and leader. Upon gaining knowledge of pending attacks on his tribe, Si’ahl led other Duwamish warriors in a defense mission to sabotage the attacking parties, and he was successful. His goal was to work together with other families and bring them together to gain strength in numbers and form an alliance. He successfully brought at least six families together to live in “Old Man house” where he served as leader. Although the timing is unknown, Si’ahl first married a high powered Duwamish woman whom he was very much in love with, her traditional name is unknown but she is called Ladaila. She died very young after giving birth to their daughter Kikisoblu, who was later given the now commonly known name, “Princess Angeline.” It is said that his second marriage was to a high status woman named Owiyahl. Owiyahl gave Si’ahl five more children, two boys and three girls. While there is no record of the daughter’s names, the boys were known as Jim and George Seattle. Chief Si’ahl was well known amongst the white men. Near and after 1833, Si’ahl and his son would frequent the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Nisqually and many stories were told of their altercations with other men. He was described as an intelligent leader with a large stature and large personality. It is said that Si’ahl and his son at times had confrontations with White settlers at the Fort, as well as other tribes that rivaled the Duwamish. However, more is spoken of his stoic and composed nature than that of his aggressive altercations. At this time more and more white settlers were moving into the Puget Sound region and nearer to the lands inhabited by indigenous people. In 1851, settlers arrived and Alki Point, and were greeted openly by Si’ahl and his people. Si’ahl was cordial to the newcomers and helped them and compelled his people to do the same. Labor and transportation were provided to the white’s as well as education and introduction to the resources provided by the land and sea. The Duwamish traded their valuable resources to the white settlers in their times of need, as they knew not how to rely on the lands themselves. However, when the time of the treaties came in 1855, the white people did not return the kindness that was shown to them. Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens, presented to a number of tribes in the area the Treaty of Point Elliott. Unlike most leaders, Si’ahl would not negotiate the treaty in Chinook Jargon as he never spoke it and had Walak of the Suquamish translate for him. The treaty promised fishing and hunting rights as well as reservations to all tribes represented by a signature in exchange for over 54,000 acres of traditional native homelands. Si’ahl’s importance and was further demonstrated by his name being placed at the top of the list of treaty signers and representing the Duwamish tribe. Shortly after the 1855 treaties, the settlers began violating them, which threw into motion the well-known “Indian War.” It was also around this time that Si’ahl officially became leader of the Suquamish people. Even after being betrayed by the white men, Si’ahl and his people protected the settlers in their area from attacks by other native groups. It was during this time that Si’ahl saved a white man known as Doc Maynard from death by the hands of a native man, and he and Doc became good friends. Doc Maynard is the man responsible for convincing the settlers to name the City Seattle, in honor of Chief Si’ahl (Seattle is the anglicized form of Si’ahl). Even with the City being named after him, in 1856 the City of Seattle officials passed a law which banned the Duwamish and all other native people from living within City of Seattle limits. The reservation that was promised by the Point Elliott treaty was still not in place, so US Indiand Agent, Thomas Paige made a recommendation to the Government to establish a reservation new the City of Seattle, their traditional homeland. White settlers protested the recommendation and quickly gathered signatures on a petition which prevented a reservation from being established for the Duwamish. With no place to go home to for the Duwamish people, Chief Si’ahl moved to the reservation that was established for the Suquamish people, near present day Bainbridge Island. Chief Seattle could not even live in the City that bore his name. Three years after the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty, Si’ahl met with Government representative, Michael Simmons, to address the lack of follow through on the promises made in the Treaty. As Si’ahl did not speak English, the translations of his speech are debated. It is said that he addressed the fact that “his people were good people and have befriended the white’s since their arrival. The Duwamish were promised a reservation and monies for their land as well as rights, but the papers were not coming back to them.” Si’ahl expressed his “fear that they had been forgotten and were being cheated”. At this point he was growing older and weaker. Chief Si’ahl spent his later years living out his life on the Port Madison Reservation and visiting and caring for his friends and family. Si’ahl did not like his name being used by the City and did not accept it as being an intention of honor until his last days. By 1866 Chief Si’ahl had grown sick and weary, he contracted a fever and soon after passed away. His funeral was attended by many people both of native and white descent. He had made many friends and was a well-known and well-liked leader. Chief Si’ahl’s grave is marked by a stone monument on the Suquamish Reservation. Statutes depicting the great Chief stand tall in present day downtown Seattle. For the first time in well over a century, Puget Sound Salish Natives sang the powerful Thunder Song, the song of Si’ahl. Chief Si’ahl is a man that will forever be remembered and honored.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” – Chief Si’ahl
The Life of Si’ahl, ‘Chief Seattle’ (Thomas R. Speer), Treasurer, Duwamish Tribal Services Board of Directors, for the Duwamish Tribe, July 22, 2004