years ago, David M. Buerge had a brilliant idea: write a
biography of Chief Seattle, the city’s Native American
namesake. Then the second thoughts came flooding in.
historian and teacher, Buerge had written a series of
articles for the Seattle Weekly about Seattle and King
County’s deep history, including the story of the
native people who call our area home. At that point just
one biography of the chief, a children’s book, had
been published. But written accounts of Chief Seattle
were almost nonexistent, as far as Buerge knew. Still,
"there were a few clues to how articulate and
poetic he was," he remembers.
literary agent shopped the idea to eastern publishers.
No one bit, but like most inspired notions, the idea
wouldn’t go away. Buerge, a genial imp of a man with a
bottomless love of history, made a pact with himself,
that he would keep working on the book as long as it
didn’t interfere with earning a paycheck. He went on
the hunt, mining explorers’ journals, Catholic priests’
diaries, Indian agents’ records, pioneer reminiscences
and the memories of Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe, one of
two local tribes (along with the Suquamish) that calls
Seattle its own.
result, "Chief Seattle and the Town that Took his
Name" (Sasquatch, 325 pp., $25.95) is a thoroughly
researched, insightful and at times heartbreaking book
that transforms the chief’s image as a gloomy
prophesier, an impression largely based on a rewrite of
his most famous speech by white pioneer Henry Allen
grew to know the chief as "a survivor of cataclysm
… as a ruthless war leader, as a single-minded
impresario, as an influential head chief, and as a
Christian convert who successfully navigated the
transformation of his world," he writes. Seattle’s
first priority was the welfare of his people, but his
decision to work with the whites would help cement our
answered some questions about his book — here’s an
edited version of the conversation:
Seattle lived a full life for that era. How long did he
We don’t know exactly when he was born. On his
gravestone (at the Suquamish Indian reservation —
Seattle was the leader of both the Suquamish and
Duwamish tribes during the pioneer era, and both tribes
claim him) it says he lived about 80 years. He told
Americans he remembered (British naval officer George)
Vancouver’s visit in 1792. He would have been 6 years
old … he said he was born on Blake Island — it was a
contemporary camping spot.
Paint a picture of him as you have come to know him.
Tolmie (William Fraser Tolmie, a doctor who worked for
the Hudson’s Bay Company) called him the
"handsomest Indian" he had ever seen. …
Tolmie said he had an aquiline nose, fine features,
expressive eyes, a commanding presence.
people said he was tall. He was not fat. He was
immensely strong. He had this incredible temper and this
powerful voice. One contemporary said: "When
Seattle spoke, it was the other person that shook."
What made him a leader?
He was impressive for his good sense, (though) he was
very belligerent early on. He made an impression because
of his open attitude, and also his sense of humor.
a long time, he was also a war leader. When he was
supposed to confess his sins he said, yes, he killed a
great chief. That was what war leaders did. He was
tactical and strategic, but he was fearless.
also had a way with words. His ability to come up with
vivid analogies and similes and metaphors was really
Seattle actually recruited Doc (David) Maynard, one of
the city’s first pioneers, to move from Olympia to
Seattle to start a fishery business with him. What were
his motives in partnering with the pioneers?
Seattle was nothing if not single-minded. He realized
that being a war leader with the Americans was not a
good choice. He decided he would side with the
Americans, come what may. It was a strategic choice.
I was surprised to learn that when the pioneers decided
to name their settlement after Seattle, he felt
ambivalent about it!
This was his name; it was like a copyright. He seems to
have been not amused. According to Ezra Meeker, he
charged a sort of tribute payment. They gave him an
unnamed sum. It was an interesting arrangement.
Why did the pioneers name the town for him?
The settlers owed their lives to Seattle. The Duwamish
made sure they survived that first winter. In 1851-1852,
there were 14 whites among at least 100 Indians, and
sometimes many hundreds more at the winter dances. He
ensured that the Indian attack on Seattle (the 1856
Battle of Seattle, when some tribes attacked the city
out of anger at white incursion and the terms of the
Treaty of Point Elliott) was not fatal. I think the
settlers recognized that he was crucial to the city.
How do you think Chief Seattle’s flexibility, and his
people’s willingness to live and work with white
people despite many sacrifices, shaped the city?
Without it I don’t think the city or town would have
evolved the way it did. Certainly he had a role to play
as positive as any of the pioneers. I think he has to be
regarded as a co-founder and protector — the
impresario of the town.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about
His vision (of the town) was that of a racially hybrid
community. That was what he strove to create and for the
first two years or so, it worked. Most of the whites in
town were young unmarried males. They married with the
Indians, and many had families and descendants. (The
city’s history) has been riven with class disputes,
but it has never lost its cosmopolitan nature … the
treaty of Point Elliott at Mukilteo, he said, pay
attention to these Changers (white people), follow what
they do, and learn from them.
It’s shocking to me that, as you write, no Seattle
mayor has ever met with the Duwamish. In your opinion,
what political considerations have kept that from
The (federally) recognized tribes are no more
sympathetic to the Duwamish than the whites. The
recognized tribes depend on their political and economic
relationships with the federal government. … There’s
only so much in the federal pie, and the city fathers
don’t want to run afoul of the recognized tribes.
Duwamish are an unrecognized people, thanks to the city
of Seattle. (Buerge has worked with the Duwamish
researching their applications for recognition.)
federal government provided the Duwamish with a
sub-agency in West Seattle and was amenable to the
Duwamish having a full reservation. However, on at least
three occasions, the white residents of Seattle lobbied
successfully to kill the idea of a reservation, because
the land was too valuable. … They actively lobbied
against it, and they succeeded.
me it’s a moral question. It’s genuinely