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Suquamish Tribe celebrates return of ancestral objects
SUQUAMISH — The natural order of things was being restored, and creation could sense it.
A ferry carrying boxes of objects — some of them thousands of years old — taken from the Old Man House village site in the 1950s and 1970s sailed from Seattle to Bainbridge on Tuesday, bringing the objects home.
“On the way over from Seattle, a pod of orcas surrounded the ferry — stopped the ferry for I don’t know how long,” said David Sigo, Suquamish. “It was a powerful thing. They were welcoming the ancestors back home.”
The objects were delivered Tuesday to the Suquamish Museum. Suquamish Tribe members, officials and museum staff members looked at the objects, the first time they had been viewed since they were removed from the Old Man House village site. It was an emotional moment.
Laura Phillips, collections manager of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, said the 19 boxes contain 496 objects and associated records and photographs. The objects date from at least 2,000 years old to the treaty period.
The objects “follow the stories people have today,” Phillips said. “They remember the stories of Old Man House, and certainly the objects reinforce that. It’s their material, their culture. There are people here, they have some of those objects in their houses that were passed down by their families. They know what these things are and it’s wonderful to be able to return them.”
The Suquamish Tribe celebrated the objects’ return that evening in the House of Awakened Culture, with a traditional dinner and cultural presentations. Among those in attendance: Former state senator Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge, State Parks Director Don Hoch, and a delegation of indigenous people from the Philippines visiting Suquamish to study cultural preservation and museum exhibitry.
At the dinner, two large pieces of beams from Old Man House were gently displayed on a bed of cedar boughs, still wrapped as they were after being excavated by the University of Washington. A slideshow presentation showed a few of the other returned objects: harpoon points, needles and hide-working tools made of bone and antler; an adz blade made of basalt; an awl made from the ulna of a deer; an elegant comb and a pendant carved of bone. Later items, such as a thimble and pieces of glass, showed the incorporation of items from the settler period in Suquamish culture.
Dennis Lewarch, the Suquamish Tribe’s historic preservation officer, said Old Man House village was “the mother village of the Suquamish people,” and archaeology indicates people lived there for thousands of years.
Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman, an anthropologist and member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, said Old Man House was the largest winter house in the Salish Sea. To get an idea of the size of the multi-family house, walk to the beach at Old Man House Park at the end of McKinstry Street. Now walk along the beach 266 yards. That’s two and a half football fields, 3.2 times bigger than the House of Awakened Culture. Among those who lived there: Chief Si’ahl, or Seattle, and Chief Kitsap.
Si’ahl was the first signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, which established the Port Madison Indian Reservation. In 1870, after Si’ahl’s death, however, the U.S. government burned down Old Man House to encourage the Suquamish to spread out across the reservation and take up farming.
The U.S. Army acquired the site in 1904, then sold it to a private developer in 1937. Washington State Parks bought a small lot in the middle portion of the longhouse in 1950. UW archeologists excavated the site in 1950, 1951 and 1971, and the collection was stored at the Burke Museum.
In 2004, State Parks returned the site — and ownership of everything removed from the site — to the Suquamish Tribe. In 2010, the remains of ancestors were returned and interred at the Suquamish Cemetery. The Burke Museum continued to care for the objects from Old Man House village on behalf of the Suquamish Tribe while the Tribe planned and built its new museum.
“The Burke Museum is honored to have cared for the collections during the building of the new Suquamish Museum,” said Dr. Peter Lape, Burke Museum curator of archaeology. “We knew these objects belonged here, so it’s a joyful day to see them come home.” Suquamish Tribe spokeswoman April Leigh said the new museum was designed with the latest climate-control system for storage and exhibition.
The Suquamish Tribe is in discussions with the Port of Seattle for more than 150 boxes of objects from an ancient Duwamish village site on what is now port-owned land.
Peter McGraw, spokesman for the Port of Seattle, said Tuesday that the port is “still in discussions” with the Suquamish Tribe and the Muckleshoot Tribe — both are home to Duwamish descendants — and has not decided whether it will transfer ownership of the artifacts to one or both.
Photos: This bone pendant is one of 496 objects delivered to the Suquamish Museum on Oct. 29. / Burke Museum
This computer reconstruction of Old Man House, on Agate Pass, is based on archeology. The house is believed to have been longer than two football fields. It was the largest winter house in the Salish Sea. / Suquamish Tribe