The Condo and the Longhouse

Last year, when I returned to the USA from overseas, I bought an urban condominium apartment in West Seattle. I chose the neighborhood for its ethnic diversity, its convenience, and its excellent access to swimming pools. (Yes, I am unusually passionate about swimming pools, but that is a different subject, for a different blog!)

I moved into my condo in February 2009, unaware that one month earlier the Duwamish Tribe had opened a new Longhouse about one mile to the east. The Duwamish are the tribe of Chief Seattle (Si’ahl), and the First People of the region that later became metro Seattle.  The Longhouse opening was a celebration of historic proportions, marking the first longhouse built since the previous structures were destroyed 100+ years ago in a wave of arson fires.

Inside the Duwamish Longhouse

I visited the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center a few days ago, at the suggestion of a friend who reads this blog. The Longhouse is a beautiful living testament to the strength and survival of Seattle’s First People. Many locals also feel that the Longhouse contributes to reconciliation, because the descendants of prominent white pioneers helped to raise funds for its construction. These events are indeed signs of hope! So will I now rest easier, knowing that a step has been taken towards restoration?

Well . . . No. I am not resting easier. I have learned that the Duwamish Tribe remains landless, except for the tiny lot on which the Longhouse sits. Chief Seattle signed the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty with the US government, exchanging over 50,000 acres of Duwamish homeland for a reservation and other benefits. However, the promised reservation of land was never granted. In fact, the US government does not even recognize the existence of the Duwamish Tribe, leaving them ineligible for native rights and benefits, and hidden from the public eye.  No doubt this is a controversial history, and there are complex legal issues involved in federal recognition. But, at a human level, how do we justify the history of broken treaties? How can one group of people deny the existence of another?

I hope to learn more about Duwamish history, from Duwamish people. Yet this journey can only proceed one day at a time. So, after lingering a few hours in the Longhouse, I got back in my car, drove a mile west to a condominium in a different cultural world, and began to write.


I am a learner, sharing my own experiences. For accurate information on the Duwamish Longhouse and the Tribe’s struggle for federal recognition, I suggest their official site at:


Photo by Joe Mabel.


Back to Basics

It’s me again, one week older, and still learning the basics of native history around the Puget Sound. I’m looking for information on land “reservations.” These lands are apparently allocated to the Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Suquamish, Tulalip and Squaxin Island Tribes. A jumble of unruly questions comes to mind . . .

What was the chain of events that led these tribes to accept the reserved lands? And how do tribal members feel about it now?

What about the other nearby tribes, such as the Skagit, Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattle, Duwamish, Sahewamish, Skykomish, Snoqualmie, and Stillaguamish?  If there is no reservation, do they have any land? Have they integrated with other population groups  . . . Or have they simply disappeared?

In years past, I’ve driven by some of these reservations, and peered in from the outside. A nation within a nation. What does life look like from the other side of the border?

And why didn’t I learn this stuff in my high school “Washington State History” class? Was this basic information not being taught? Or was I just not listening?

A Stupid Question?

My school teachers used to insist that “the only stupid question is the question that you do not ask.”  I sure hope they were right!  It pains me to admit that I am unclear on the names of native groups in my area. Yet this lack of awareness is widespread among ‘white folks’ like me . . . and the best time to get informed is NOW.

According to various web sites, the Puget Sound region that I call ‘home’ is also ‘home’ to the Salish cluster of people groups. These include the Skagit, Swinomish, Snohomish/Tulalip, Sauk-Suiattle, Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Sahewamish, Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Squaxin. They arrived here an estimated 11-12,000 years ago via land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. Their languages are variants of Lushootseed (or Whulshootseed).

Of course, web sites can mislead, and I’m eager to learn history from some living human beings. In the meantime, I can’t help but notice that most of the tribal names listed above are now used to refer to geographic places. For example, I recently drove across the Nisqually River bridge, and I shopped for cars at ‘Kia of Puyallup.’ Yet how much thought did I give to the destiny of the Nisqually and Puyallup peoples?

Atop the Rubble

Thankfully I am not the only one asking “whose feet” walked the Pacific Northwest of North America before the Europeans arrived. Next month’s winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada will be co-hosted by the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

BBC: Aboriginal Canadians divided over Vancouver Olympics

If the BBC has got it right, opinion in the aboriginal community is mixed, revealing both optimism and pain. Some see the Olympics as a great opportunity to educate the world about native culture. Others say that this massive celebration wastes resources and sugarcoats the history of a stolen land.  It’s not my place to take sides in that debate . . . But perhaps it is my place to acknowledge that the Olympics are not the only thing being built atop the rubble of a troubled past.

Justice gets Personal

Where have the Native American peoples gone?  Well, of course I know the answer to this question, too.  They have died in large numbers, been moved off their land, and had their way of life forever altered by their interaction with European migrants.  I have a passion for justice, and I find it pretty easy to stand at a distance from our national history and point out the wrongs that have been done.  As if the story of Native Americans were somehow unrelated to my own life.

But what happens when I draw myself closer to the issue? What happens when things get personal?  I discover that I am strangely ignorant of the historical events, the names, and the faces. I realize afresh that I have heard this story mainly from the white man’s point of view. And I begin to wonder what it means if the local lands where I live my life have been taken from the previous occupants against their will. This requires some deeper fact-finding and soul-searching, and there will be no easy answers.