The Mayor makes it to Chief Seattle Days

Hizzoner stepped out of his chauffeured, black SUV and squinted into the sunshine of an August morning.

No city pavement greeted Greg Nickels' feet. Just the earth. And no high-powered business types or foreign dignitaries grabbed his hand. Nickels' welcome came from members of the Suquamish tribe on the slope below Chief Seattle's grave.

On Saturday the mayor and his wife Sharon made an early morning trek across the water for the 96th Chief Seattle Days, the Suquamish tribe's annual weekend celebration of dancing, canoe races, food and arts and crafts.

Those proceedings take place in downtown Suquamish, the little town at the head of Agate Pass, "the place of clear water." From there you can look across the water and see the green shoulder of Magnolia and Discovery Park. The top of the Space Needle sticks out from behind Magnolia, as does the cubed, vertical shimmer of downtown's steel and glass towers.

With your feet planted in Suquamish, burial place of the chief who gave the city its name, the view is stunningly surreal.

Chief Seattle's burial site is a few hundred yards above town.

At 9 a.m. tribal elders led the way through the cemetery gate up to the maple-shaded grave. The white, marble monument, surmounted by a cross, rises beneath two dugout canoes aimed toward sunrise. The tiny, white-painted, St. Peter's mission church stands down slope.

A gathering song was performed. Maybe 150 people were there, many of them white, who formed a semi-circle around the grave. The song was as simple, hauntingly beautiful and visceral as "Amazing Grace."

There were speeches from elders, an introduction of the princess and a recitation by memory of part of Chief Seattle's famous speech. Elder Bob George's rendition was all the more eloquent for his modest delivery.

When he ended with, "The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless," all was silence except for the rustling of the old maple.

Whatever the provenance of the speech, it is one of the world's great documents of the human heart. Abroad, wherever Seattle is thought of, that speech-not Starbucks, Microsoft or WTO-is the dominant symbol of this city for some answering souls.

Nickels was aware, and proud, of that fact.

"You will be relieved that I don't have a prepared speech," he joked after being introduced.

He spoke sincerely and well, noting that he had been told he was the first sitting Seattle mayor to visit the chief's resting place: "I believe his spirit lives in our city today as well as in this place. It's an incredibly humbling experience to be here at Chief Seattle's grave."

Nickels talked about his city's efforts on global warming, how he had attended a conference of like-minded cities in San Francisco and found Chief Seattle's words on the program cover.

"Two-hundred and eighty-five cities are committed to try to change global warming in the spirit of Chief Seattle," he said.

Nickels and his wife were given an honorary blanket.

"Winter's coming before you know it," tribal member Leonard Foreseman joked as he wrapped the couple in their gift. He glanced at the sky. "But not today."

The Suquamish tribe has been through a great deal lately.

A couple of years ago, with the help of white neighbors, they won back state land where Old Man House, site of the tribe's historic gathering, once stood on Agate Pass. Plans call for Old Man House to be rebuilt. They won out over litigious neighbors and a few garden-variety racists. The struggle flushed out the best and worst humanity has to offer.

There were more gifts given, followed by expressions of gratitude. Some voices were barely audible. That was OK. Above all, people were allowed to be themselves.

It's great sport, of course, for self-styled Seattle cynics to puncture the Seattle bubble-its liberal orthodoxy, its marshmallow jungle temperament. And of course there's enough of a hypocritical veneer covering Seattle life to give them their meat.

But the tragically hip cynics might have learned something if they had been at the graveside ceremony Saturday morning. They might have drawn something from the well of Chief Seattle's spirit. They might even have been provoked to wonder to themselves: Am I a giver, or a taker?

After an hour it was over.

"We came and honored our chief and did it in a good way," an elder concluded. "Everyone here is a witness and must tell others you were here and this happened."

Tribal members handed out scarves to the crowd.

The closing song, with drums, was performed by a circle of young and old beneath the rustling maple.

Many in the crowd lingered, as if reluctant to walk out of the story they had just been in.[[In-content Ad]]