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What’s in a namesake? The enigma of Chief Si’ahl

The first thing to know about Chief Seattle is how he pronounced his name.

Skagit elder Vi Hilbert pronounced it for HistoryLink (18 seconds):

Chief Seattle, our city’s namesake, is a bit of an enigma.

He was born in 1786, after native populations were decimated by small pox and other diseases brought in by white settlers.

But decimation is the wrong word, because that means that 10 percent of the people die off. This was more than that.

In the Willamette Valley, 80 or 90 percent of Native Americans were killed by these diseases. Chief Seattle’s family survived.

“He lived to be 80-years-old,” said David Buerge, a writer and historian who has steeped himself in the history of the people who thrived in this region before explorers and pioneers arrived.

“By the time Americans met up with him, he was an old man,” Buerge continued.

The first historical reference to Seattle is in 1834, when the chief was in his 40s or 50s. A Scottish fur trader described him as “the handsomest Indian I have ever seen, with a Roman countenance.”

His family members said that one of his spirit powers was thunder, and that his voice carried a great distance, according to Suquamish telling.

He saw that explorers were coming to Olympia, but he wanted them to come to the region that would later be named after him.

“He was down in Olympia for two years, advertising bringing Americans up to introduce them to this country,” Buerge said.

On one occasion, two white men showed up in long boat. They landed when a first salmon ceremony was underway.

“Hundreds of people celebrating, shooting rifles in the air,” Buerge said. “This is an electrifying welcome. The people rushed down to the shore; they pull up the long boat on to the beach.

“Seattle's steps out, stands on a log and says, ‘Don't be afraid.’ This is the kind of greeting we normally give to the first salmon of the season.”

It was scripted, of course. Seattle knew they were coming.

“It was a sales pitch,” Buerge said.  

Seattle told the men, “We're glad to welcome you here, because we need everything you can make. We want to trade with you we want you here.”

Seattle went on to have a close friendship with Doc Maynard, who named his store the “Seattle Exchange.” Maynard later convinced settlers to name their town after the chief.

Seattle died of a fever in 1866.

According to HistoryLink, he was dressed in European clothing provided by an Indian agent.

In later years, someone wrote, from notes, a speech that Seattle apparently made. Buerge believes it may be accurate, because it was written more directly and simply than the purple prose of the white settler.

The Suquamish tribe has a version of the speech on its website. In it, Seattle recalled another era:

There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.

David Buerge spoke with journalist and writer Knute Berger at Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum on August 3.

Web Exclusive: Listen to the full version of this talk below.

Year started with KUOW: 2006