Suquamish Olalla Neighbors celebrate 10 years of bridge building

The tribe honored the folks who helped win the transfer of Old Man House Park back to Suquamish, in 2004. - Sarah van Gelder / Contributed
The tribe honored the folks who helped win the transfer of Old Man House Park back to Suquamish, in 2004.
— image credit: Sarah van Gelder / Contributed

SUQUAMISH — When the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors first came together in 2001, it was to address a specific issue — the desecration of Chief Seattle’s grave.

They soon realized they had a deeper problem on their hands, issues that needed to be addressed by tribal and non-tribal members, to confront what led to the crime in the first place.

“Ten years ago, our community was quite divided, there was mistrust on all sides,” said Sarah Van Gelder, co-founder of the organization. “Now people are quite friendly. People who work together make better...”

The Suquamish Olalla Neighbors is a one-of-a-kind community organization that have not only turned their own community around, but have participated in mediation on other tribal reservations.

Olalla, which means “the place where the fresh water and salt water meet,” is an allusion to neighbors of different backgrounds and cultures co-existing together.

The group hosts Canoe Journey participants every summer, and hold an annual potluck to honor members for their work that year. This year’s 10th anniversary potluck is Saturday, where Suquamish Chairman Leonard Folsom will speak and members will be honored.

Van Gelder, executive editor of Yes! magazine on Bainbridge Island, moved from Bainbridge to Suquamish in 2000. Soon after, she heard some of her neighbor’s opposition to a planned tribal housing project.

“My response was that in a reservation the tribe had the right to build housing; the rest of us were on reservation land that they got for ceding large [tracts] of land,” she said. A few weeks later, when the grave was vandalized, she “expected” human rights leaders to step up. “At that point, I realized if no one else is doing it, I [will],” she said. The initial group gathered at the United Church of Christ in Suquamish, asking themselves what had gone wrong.

Now, Van Gelder said 10 years on, “communication channels are much more open, people feel much more part of a larger community.”

She credits a large part of their success to cultural sensitivity, guided by local tribal leaders and elder Ted George. She said George taught the group about the history and issues facing the tribe, which was then passed on to the community through the Neighbor’s message. He also shared what ways the group could communicate that would be helpful, as well as what they should not do.

“It’s very important that a non-native group not come on too strong,” she said.

George, who is Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish and lives on his mother’s land in Suquamish, is retired as the regional director of the Administration for Native Americans, working with tribes in eight western states. He said his main task was to help tribes “recognize self-determination arise in the minds of locals,” and assist in education and technical training.

He said this is the first non-Native organization with tribal influence he’s ever worked with. The group’s success in returning Old Man House State Park solidified the organization’s positive intentions and influence.

In 1904, the U.S. government acquired the land where Old Man House once stood, having been burned down in 1870, to use for fortifications. In 2005, the Neighbors worked to return the waterfront where Old Man House once stood to the Suquamish Tribe.

“The state park was the center of the Suquamish Tribe, village and nation...there’s evidence of people living there for 2,000 years,” Van Gelder said.

“What this means is they burned our capital,” George said. “The very moment the [state Parks and Recreation Commission] made their decision, it was one of the most joyous, spontaneous celebrations ... it was an extraordinary moment for Olalla” as well as the tribe.

George said organizations like this can help heal anti-Native American sentiments in reservation communities — over treaty rights, fishing rights and tidelands ownership.

“Energy, synergy, leadership and full responsibility had to some from people who lived there,” he said. “We could talk about the ugliness, the mistakes, and abuses that happen. Now we’re witnessing tribes getting their own visions restored ... grasping the significance of self-determination and self-government.”

The Neighbors have been an example of a positive partnership between tribal and non-tribal communities. When a multimillion dollar bridge project in Port Angeles uncovered an ancient Klallam village site, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe asked Suquamish Olalla Neighbors how they would resolve issues between people.

“They were flabbergasted at the notion ... that interested tribal members [and non] would come together and look for collective commonalities,” George said.

Van Gelder said George once reminded her that too often, all one hears is the weaknesses in your community.

“Every once and a while we need to hear about our strengths,” she said. “I’ve learned so much [from the tribe]. I’m honored to get involved in some of the tribe’s events.”


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