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Joint community group helps to transfer state lands to tribal ownership

Peninsula News Network


Port Angeles, WA - An historic Native American site under state ownership. Tribal members anxious to recover a location where they had dwelt for thousands of years. Some residents opposed to the tribe taking control, while others support the tribe’s claims. It sounds like a description of the debate that has swirled around the Port Angeles waterfront since the rediscovery of the Klallam village of Tse-whit-zen. But actually, those were the same factors effecting the future of a key piece of waterfront land that was once home for the Klallam’s cousins at Suquamish.

It was a dramatic scene recently as members of the Suquamish tribe, the surrounding community and state officials gathered at the site of Old Man House, a small but picturesque parcel on the edge of scenic Agate Pass west of Suquamish. It was here, at the village known as D’Suq’Wub, the “place of clear salt water”, that generations had lived, worked and played. The location of Chief Seattle’s legendary 600-foot long house, the “Old Man House” that was burned by whites trying to put a stop to tribal ways. It was here, a century ago, that the Suquamish saw their lands seized by the federal government to build a fortification to protect the Bremerton Navy yards… a gun post  that was never built. A parcel that was eventually transferred it state hands, and used for a national park for the past half century. A place where the tribal memories remain.

Twenty years ago, former Tribal Chair Bennie Armstrong and a few others began discussing how the lands might be restored to the tribe. But it wasn’t until the past couple of years that the plan began to come together, with the support of the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors and other religious and community groups. There was also organized opposition, from the Friends of Old Man House State Parks and others, who were worried about future management of the site. But eventually, a plan came together that preserved public access and yet gave ownership of this important cultural site back to the tribe. Last August, when the State Parks Commission met in Port Angeles, it finally approved the plan with the recent deed ceremony completing the transfer.

The occasion was marked with deep ceremony for the tribe, with special blessings to cleanse and heal the wounds left by more than a century of mistreatment. Mickey Feam, State Parks Commissioner said when it came down to deciding between a “place where people could play”, or someone’s home, “there was no compromise”.

With great emotion, state, tribe and community officials gathered in a circle to symbolically hand over the deed, which was then carried to waiting canoes. Jim Platt, the last surviving great-great grandson of Chief Seattle, said the ceremony completed a wish of the venerated chief to preserve the site for the people.

There are key differences between the resolution of ownership at Old Man House and Tse-whit-zen, not the least of which is the complication caused by the cemetery at Tse-whit-zen and the hundreds of remains uncovered in the Port Angeles site. And yet the agreement at Old Man House shows that differences can be resolved, when people decide to work together to honor the past, and the future.


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