Chief Si?al, life and times
Chief Si?al, or as he is now called, Seattle, was one of the first of his people to actually see Europeans. While he has the honorary title of chief, the Native Americans of that area don’t actually have someone with that title.
His leadership was established as a young man. He is said to have subdued six other tribes of Native Americans in his youth, showing great courage and intelligence. Because he was si?ab, or of noble birth on both sides of his family, he was able to have a major leadership role in the tribes.
Chief Si?al’s father started the tradition of being friendly with the new European neighbors. This is something that Si?al continued when he, in turn, held a leadership role. In fact, one of his greatest friends was Doc Maynard.
While the exact date of this next incident isn’t known, it probably had a great deal to do with their friendship. While Chief Si?al promoted peace between the two groups of people, not all the Native Americans were thrilled at the invasion of their territory. One tried to assassinate Doc Maynard, and the chief saved his life.
Native Americans are known to have some difficulty with alcohol. This was also true of Doc Maynard, who was from most accounts a hard drinker. He would often spend time in the villages and enjoy the rotations being distributed among the people.
This didn’t please a lot of the Europeans who were settling in the area. There was also a feeling among them that the Native Americans didn’t make good neighbors. Both Chief Si?al and Doc Maynard worked on this problem the remainder of their lives.
Potlatches: There were many traditions of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest. From Washington up through British Columbia, they had lavish celebrations called Potlatches. In these celebrations, leaders such as Chief Si?al would give away large amounts of their wealth. It was both expected of the leaders and a requirement to show wealth.
Totem Poles: There are many ways to tell the stories of a people, and for the tribes in Chief Si?al’s area totem poles are used along with other art and music. Some of them tell myths but others are about events in the lives of the people.
Family life: While Chief Si?al had Si?ab blood on both sides of the family, it was the matrilineal side that decided matters. In his tribe, lineage descends through the mother, not the father. That doesn’t mean that women had major leadership roles.
The women stayed home, raised the children, cooked and did other womanly things. The men hunted, fished, built homes and canoes and decided matters. The children learned what their parents and other adults taught them, but along gender lines.
The society of our chief had multiple levels. Like many Native American tribes, conquered people provided slaves for the victors. These were at the lowest level, but they still could have a voice in what went on in the village, if they were trusted. However, they could only suggest.
Women and commoners could also make suggestions in council. However, the nobility had the final say. As they were often the ones who put their lives on the line for the good of the village or tribe, that showed the idea had some merit.
Housing: The best known village of the Suquamish people are called Old Man House. It is where Chief Si?al was allowed to go for his last days, rather than on the reservation. These houses were made of cedar and could be small or several hundred feet long.
The house opened towards the water, and they were always built on the shore. Inside the houses, there were usually several individual rooms. Each room also opened towards the shore, allowing easy access to the fishing grounds.
The long houses were permanent winter homes. During the spring, summer and early fall, the families would load up the canoes to gather the produce of field, forest and fish. Their homes for these trips were made of saplings and woven cattails.
Fishing: While they did hunt elk, deer and other land animals, fishing was the most important food gathering task. Salmon and cod were most common, but any type of shellfish and other varieties of fish would have been eaten.
Fur trade: When the Europeans finally arrived, they set up trading posts. Doc Maynard was one of those who worked in this area, though not the only one. Sea otter pelts were welcomed for trades along with many other animals.
Toward the end of his life, Chief Si?al converted to Catholicism. He became a devout believer and was given the baptismal name of Noah. He spent some time on the reservation established for his people, but was allowed to move to his home village for his last year.
Near the time of his death he gave a great speech. His voice could be heard a half mile away, and he was considered a great orator. However, what he said exactly is lost to history. Instead, there is a much augmented rendition that has quite a few fallacies.
As an example, he did not say anything about the buffalo slaughter on the plains. In fact, the event didn’t occur until nearly two decades after his death. While he may have had some curlicues in his speech, it probably wasn’t anywhere near as flowery as the prose penned in his name.
According to Suquamish tradition, using a dead person’s name disturbs his rest. Therefore, the people of Seattle paid a small, token tax on themselves because the city was named for the late chief. Seattle is as close as the Europeans could come to saying the chief’s name.
It should be noted that there isn’t a mark in the English alphabet or punctuation that is equivalent to the question mark used in his name. The mark is similar, but lacks the dot at the bottom. Some use an apostrophe, but that is also not the correct mark.