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Friday, March 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist

Schools of thought collide

Indian activist Bob Satiacum, who died in 1991

Is it appropriate to name a school for a man who was an international fugitive from justice?

How about a man found guilty of hiring a hit man to snuff out a rival? A man convicted of molesting a 10-year-old girl? Surprisingly, the people who run Federal Way schools are considering naming their new middle school after the man whose life included all these story lines.

That's because Bob Satiacum was also a genuine American hero.

It all started a few weeks ago, when Auburn's Jon McIntyre heard the School Board had a policy of naming all middle schools after Native American people, places or events.

Instead of giving the new school an over-exposed Indian name such as "Klahanie," why not honor a local Indian legend? A "chief of all chiefs" who led the local tribes to finally assert their sovereignty.

The suggestion has unleashed a flood of memories, and old bitterness, some of it dished in public at packed School Board meetings.

"You'd think it would be a simple task, naming a school, but it's gotten completely out of hand," said board member Earl VanDorien.

Emotions about Satiacum, who died in a Canadian jail in 1991, have long been raw. He led Tacoma's Puyallup Indian Tribe during the '50s, '60s and '70s. It was his arrest for defying state fishing rules that touched off the great fish wars, ending when tribes were granted half the state's salmon catch.

He became a celebrity for fighting the government, helping the tribe seize back its land and resisting state and federal efforts to regulate tribal businesses. He got arrested with Marlon Brando. He once tried to tow the battleship Missouri away with his canoe.

Some say it is Satiacum, as much as anyone, who symbolizes the rebirth of Indian pride over the last half-century.

"He didn't believe in social programs, in us being dependent on anyone," says Daniel Satiacum, his son and the tribe's current chief. "His dream was that we would be self-sustaining, and today we are almost there."

Out of the spotlight, though, he was getting rich off gambling and selling cigarettes, sparking inner-tribal resentments and the interest of the FBI. In 1982, Satiacum was convicted of racketeering, selling contraband cigarettes, illegal gambling and the murder-for-hire plot.

Claiming he was being punished for his activism, he fled to Canada.

There he was accused of fondling a girl and convicted by a Canadian court. He died of heart failure waiting to be sent back to the U.S. to face possible life in prison.

Some Puyallups, once angry enough to boot Satiacum from tribal leadership, today are campaigning to clear his name. They have a letter in which the girl, now a 28-year-old woman, says she lied years ago and Satiacum never touched her. The murder-for-hire is disputed by the fellow Puyallup whom Satiacum allegedly tried to kill.

VanDorien says the charges look "trumped up." In hindsight, they seem like reminders of the persecution Satiacum and other Indians had to overcome.

Not so, says the man who prosecuted Satiacum for racketeering in 1982. That case was sound and had nothing to do with anti-Indian sentiment, says Gene Wilson, former assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle. He stressed he is not talking about the molestation charge, which was tried in Canada.

"It isn't true we were out to get him," Wilson said. "If he was innocent he could have tried clearing his name by staying around and appealing, but he chose to skip bail and flee to Canada."

Even that isn't so simple. A Canadian court later ruled Satiacum was justified in fleeing because he wasn't getting a fair shake in the U.S.

The board is expected to choose a name at its next meeting Tuesday, April 12.

I honestly don't know what they should do.

One backer said Satiacum's place in the history of Puget Sound Indians puts him in the same league as Chiefs Leschi and Seattle.

Some of his crimes only add to his allure, because they were committed in defiance of white government control. Others are obviously more troubling. If he's guilty of fondling a girl or hiring a contract killer, then by all means study him in class but don't put his name on the front of the building.

But what if he's innocent?

In the end you have to ask: Does someone whose contributions were matched or even exceeded by his flaws deserve to be honored on a public building?

VanDorien says it's not unusual to honor imperfect people, even those with a criminal past. Malcolm X comes to mind — his name adorns schools and parks on the East Coast.

"We commemorate people for their contributions, not necessarily for who they are personally," he said. "I think the name Satiacum Middle School would be an honorable one."

What do you think?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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