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Whatever History Has Forgotten, Seattle Put His People First

A year ago in September, I wrote about a few books in these pages that I thought our community might read and asked for suggestions for those many titles I certainly missed.

One that came in over the transom was David Buerge's "Chief Seattle," the result of 20 years of research. My first thought was, "Really? What could be left to reveal about this mythic figure?" But I was familiar with the work of the author and suspected there was more going on here than I realized.

"You folks observe the changers who have come to this land," Seattle said to his people during negotiations for a treaty on the shores of Port Elliott (sic), now called Mukilteo, in 1855.

"And our progeny will watch and learn from them now, those who will come after us, our children. And they will become just the same as the changers who have come here to us on this land. You folks observe them well."

The "changers" referred to Dukeiba'l, the creator, according to Buerge. Seattle compared the American settlers to that mythic being so his people might "grasp the cataclysmic changes they faced."

His name is an Anglicized approximation of the Lushootseed siʔaɫ, also spelled as Sealth, Seathl, or See-ahth, later called a chief by the Americans for their convenience. He is thought to have been born in the 1780s on Blake Island and lived, astoundingly, until 1866. His parents were high-born among their peoples, the Suquamish and Duwamish, but it was rumored that his paternal grandmother had been captured in war and enslaved, which was considered a stain on Seattle's reputation that, Buerge argues, honed his ambition.

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