Acre of land finds its way home to the Suquamish Tribe
It was more than 100 years in coming. But with cedar boughs to sweep it clean, and a fire to help the spirit find its way back yesterday...
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLD MAN HOUSE PARK, Kitsap County — It was more than 100 years in coming.
But with cedar boughs to sweep it clean, and a fire to help the spirit find its way back yesterday, this land became home to the Suquamish people once more.
Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, wiped away tears of joy as he received a deed from state Parks and Recreation Commission officials on behalf of his elders and his people at a beachfront ceremony to commemorate the return of an acre of land after a century in the hands of others.
"Today I felt the dream was realized," Forsman said. "Not only of the house site, getting that back, but the songs, the dances, the feeling of being a tribe again.
"That is what overwhelmed me. The pride, all the people that withstood what they did, to see the recovery of our people despite all the odds. To see all the people here today, including the nontribal people that did this because it was something in their hearts. It was just the right thing to do."
This spot was home to the Suquamish people for at least 1,700 years. By about 1790, the cedar-plank longhouse called Old Man House was built here. It was as wide as 60 feet, and as it was added to over the years, it stretched for as long as 600 feet down the beach of Agate Passage.
The site was dug out with clamshells and the house posts raised with help from neighboring tribes.
Families, each with their own fire, lived and gathered here, including Chief Seattle, for whom Seattle is named, who was born to a Suquamish father and Duwamish mother. The tribe's principal village, called D'Suq'Wub ("clear salt water"), was here, with as many as 1,000 people living under one roof at Old Man House.
Chief Seattle died in 1866, and Old Man House was ordered destroyed by the U.S. government in 1870 to discourage communal life. So Suquamish families lived in a village of cabins around the former site of the longhouse. All of about 890 members of the modern Suquamish Tribe trace their roots to that village site, Forsman said.
The U.S. War Department acquired Old Man House village in 1904 for an artillery station, and the Suquamish agreed to move, believing they could return if the department didn't need the land. The department never used the property, and in 1937 it sold the 70 acres where Old Man House once stood to a construction firm, which later sold it to a developer.
The state Parks Commission acquired one acre of the former 70-acre parcel in 1950, establishing Old Man House Park to preserve part of the longhouse site.
Informal discussions with the tribe about returning the land began in 1983, and later the tribe worked with neighbors to develop a management plan that would continue to allow public access.
The idea prompted controversy. Tribal member Shayna Bagley, now 18, said she remembers trying to address a crowd of opponents and being shouted down for speaking her native language.
"I was expecting a normal gathering, with hospitality like we always show," Bagley said. "I didn't know those people were going to be angry, I didn't know they hated us."
The transfer, though, was approved by the state Parks Commission last summer. And yesterday, people from all walks of life gathered to wish the tribe well and celebrate the return of the land.
"With all the heart I've got, welcome home," said Mickey Fearn, chairman of the Parks Commission, and the crowd broke into applause.
Elders kept time with rattles, eagle-feather fans, or patted their bare palms as Suquamish singers, and a drum group belted out a celebration song.
The landscape itself seemed to cheer, with a sullen morning chill and fog giving way to sun, lighting the clear, tumbling salt water that is this tribe's namesake.
Kirk Knighton, who lives near the park, said he was relieved.
"I am so glad it worked out this way; it's just one acre, but it's very symbolic," he said.
"This is an evolutionary step, where people understand it is not about land ownership, it's about everyone belonging," Knighton said. "A lot of people in the neighborhood have had their eyes opened by this. It's the start of something."
With red ochre painted on his cheeks and a red bandanna around his forehead, Delbert Miller, a spiritual leader of the Skokomish Tribe, blessed the ground.
As he sang, Suquamish tribal members brushed cedar boughs over the land to cleanse it, circling a fire on the beach "so the spirit will come home to the Suquamish people, it will know where to come home to," Miller said.
After the deed was officially handed over, tribal members struck up a paddling song. Along with tribal elders and Rex Derr, the state parks director, paddlers slipped off in canoes to the tribal center to feast and celebrate.
"It is just so good to see everyone come together, everyone is celebrating, no matter what color or religion," said Dolores Mills, a Suquamish tribal elder. "There is so much love, just the feeling of it, it is like the sun shining, it's warming our hearts."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com
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