SEATTLE - As Seattle prepares to commemorate its sesquicentennial, the city is famous for building jumbo jets and giving birth to Starbucks Coffee and grunge rock, symbols of today's pop culture. But the totem poles that pop up here and there suggest that the Emerald City has its roots in the culture of the continent's original settlers.
To find those roots, hop a ferry across Puget Sound to the Port Madison Indian Reservation on Bainbridge Island.
Founded in 1851 and incorporated in 1869, the city bears the name of Chief Seattle, a Suquamish leader who befriended European settlers. ("Seattle" is the settlers' corruption of the chief's birth name, Sealth.)
Seattle was born in 1786, the son of a Suquamish chief and grandson of a Duwamish chief. He displayed leadership traits at an early age and earned status by organizing his and other tribes to defend against attacks by rival tribes on their villages.
Chief Seattle was a skilled orator. Intrigued by the European settlers' arrival during the 19th century, his 1855 speech at the signing of the Treaty of Port Elliott yielded memorable quotes such as, "The white man's religion was written upon tablets of stone, but our religion is written in the hearts of our people." It also spawned controversy - some historians question its authenticity.
Chief Seattle is buried at the Port Madison Indian Reservation. A memorial telling of his role in the city's development greets visitors at the Suquamish Memorial Cemetery. Along the gravel trail leading to his grave are tombstones of more people from that era - some belonging to families, others remaining unknown. Totem poles are scattered about the tree-shaded grounds.
At the Suquamish Museum visitors can learn about the tribe's way of life - from communal living in longhouses to adjusting to the settlers' customs. Exhibit highlights include a cedar dugout canoe and a display of baskets that served various purposes.
Another major site is the Old Man House, Chief Seattle's former longhouse, now a state park. The largest house in the area - 700 feet long, 60 feet wide, and at least 10 feet high - it could house hundreds of people at a time. Many potlatches (ceremonies for tribes to gather, socialize and exchange gifts) were held there to mark occasions such as births, marriages and even deaths.
The chief and the Suquamish way of life are celebrated at an annual summer festival called Chief Seattle Days. Held during the third weekend of August, this three-day celebration, with events such as a beauty pageant and drumming contest, draws nearly 6,000 people from all over the state of Washington.
Life was simpler in Chief Seattle's time. Fishing was an integral part of the Suquamish culture. Not only was it a source of food, it also was their livelihood. One of Washington state's nicknames is the Chinook State, referring to the largest type of salmon found in the Pacific Northwest.
Today, fish can still be found in abundance at any seafood restaurant on Alaskan Way, along the bay. The Fisherman's Restaurant serves steamed clams and alder smoked salmon fettuccine. To indulge a craving for oysters, Elliott's Oyster House offers the delicacy in its many forms. And the Crab Pot serves the crustacean the old-fashioned way, providing the diner with a mallet and bib.
According to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, American Indians make up only 1 percent of the city's population today. While their numbers have decreased, their influence on Pacific Northwest culture is still felt. Totem poles can be found in places such as Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market and Occidental park in Pioneer Square. Their artwork draws the interest of enthusiasts at places like the Seattle Art Museum and Clarke & Clarke Tribal Arts Gallery.
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