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Suquamish breaks ground on new museum Friday, rededicates Chief Seattle's grave Saturday

Improvements to Chief Seattle’s gravesite will be dedicated June 4, 10:30 a.m., at the St. Peter Catholic Mission Cemetery, 910 South St., Suquamish.  - Richard Walker
Improvements to Chief Seattle’s gravesite will be dedicated June 4, 10:30 a.m., at the St. Peter Catholic Mission Cemetery, 910 South St., Suquamish.
— image credit: Richard Walker

SUQUAMISH — One hundred and fifty six years after he signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, Chief Seattle’s voice is still powerful, testifying to the inseparable ties between his people and the land that has been their home since time immemorial.

“Even the rocks thrill with memories of past events,” his words say, engraved in a low concrete wall that encircles his gravesite. The words are in Lushootseed and in English. “The very dust beneath your feet respond(s) more lovingly to our footsteps, because it is the ashes of our ancestors. The soil is rich with the life of our kindred.”

Chief Seattle’s gravesite, at St. Peter Catholic Mission Cemetery, will be rededicated Saturday, capping two days of commemorations that include the groundbreaking for a 9,000-square-foot museum and cultural center nearby.

Seattle (or Si’ahl) was born in about 1780, and died June 7, 1866. As a child, he witnessed the first European exploration of what is now Puget Sound. In his senior years, he and 81 other indigenous leaders from the region signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, opening the region to non-Native settlement. While the settlement period brought changes that threatened indigenous culture and life, Chief Seattle’s words still assert Suquamish’s sovereignty — a right to self-government that was never relinquished and which has led to a resurgence in Suquamish cultural, economic, political and social life.

“We feel an obligation to try to preserve the values and the relationships that our people established and sacrificed for, and hand those down to the next generation,” Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said. “Seattle and other leaders made some hard decisions — giving up their land in exchange for a reservation — to preserve what they could for future generations. It’s something we continue to think about here and continue to work for by investing in our cultural resurgence, investing in cultural activities and making sure our children are educated in a culturally relevant way.”

Suquamish officials break ground Friday, 10:30 a.m., on a 9,000-square-foot museum at South and Division streets, near the Suquamish Administration Offices in Suquamish Village.

On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., improvements to Chief Seattle’s gravesite will be dedicated at the St. Peter Catholic Mission Cemetery, 910 South St., Suquamish. The dedication marks the 155th anniversary of the Suquamish leader’s passing.

Both events are open to the public.

The new museum will have an exterior that resembles a traditional longhouse. Museum Curator Janet Smoak said the new museum will have three times the space of the current museum, with improved environmental controls for artifact protection.

“We’ve grown in our collections and need more room,” she said. “The new museum will put us in a central location, across the street from Suquamish administration offices, and will provide a greater presence in Suquamish Village.”

When it opens in June 2012, the current museum on Sandy Hook Road will be used by the Suquamish Education Department. The current museum was opened June 1, 1983, Forsman said.

“It will improve our collections capacity,” he said of the new museum. “It will be state of the art. There will be more technology in our exhibit design. Our archives will be more accessible to tribal members. We will be able to engage and attract visitors in more assertive way.” He said it also contributes to the evolution of the Suquamish Cultural District; the museum site is near the House of Awakened Culture, the Suquamish Veterans Memorial and Chief Seattle’s gravesite.

Chief Seattle’s gravesite was formerly distinguished by cedar house posts holding two canoes. That monument, erected in 1976, was decaying, Forsman said, and “we wanted to replace it something permanent.” It has been replaced by a low concrete wall onto which are inscribed Chief Seattle’s words, as well as two carved painted panels that tell Chief Seattle’s story. The panels were carved by Squaxin artists Andrea and Steve Sigo; they also carved the posts at the Veterans Memorial.

The City of Seattle donated funding for the gravesite project.

Chief Seattle is interred next to his granddaughter, Mary DeShaw, and near other immediate relatives, His most well-known child, Angeline, is interred in the city that bears her father's name.

Forsman said the ceremony will begin with a gravesite blessing, followed by an opening song, remarks by Suquamish elders and by Forsman, and recognition of the project team and donors. Lunch will follow in downtown Suquamish at 7235 NE Parkway.

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