Deed of Trust: Two Cultures Overcome Prejudices to Improve Community Relations

On August 12, 2004, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to return one acre of land called Old Man House Park in the Port Madison Reservation–located across Puget Sound from Seattle–to descendants of the land’s original inhabitants, members of the Suquamish tribe. Among the hundreds of witnesses to this historic event were tribal and non-native residents of the town of Suquamish who banded together in a group called Suquamish Olalla Neighbors (SON). (Olalla means “where fresh and salt water meet and blend.”) The organization’s purpose is to help people from two cultures overcome prejudices and improve community relations.

“This is the first time the state of Washington has given a park to a tribe,” says Rob Purser, former Suquamish Tribal Council treasurer and current director of fisheries.

Native peoples have lived along Puget Sound for thousands of years. The park, named for Old Man House–the region’s largest native longhouse–lies in the center of what was the Suquamish people’s mother village. An 1855 treaty gave the Suquamish the right to 8,000 acres including Old Man House, but a government Indian agent burned the longhouse in 1870. Then in 1904, the U.S. military took 70 acres, including Old Man House village, to build strategic fortifications. The fort never materialized, however, and the land was sold to developers in 1937. Interested in preserving a bit of history, the Washington Parks and Recreation Department bought one acre in 1950; that small parcel became Old Man House Park.

“This place has special meaning and tribal and historical significance to the Suquamish people,” says Ted George, a Suquamish and S’Klallam tribal elder and honorary co-chair of SON. Adds Purser, “When you place this back historically, it was our capital that was taken.”

Disagreements about Old Man House Park have continued into the twenty-first century. At a public hearing in 2001, non-native residents argued against putting a tribal housing project near the park. Soon after that, the nearby grave of Chief Seattle–a nineteenth-century Suquamish and Duwamish leader–was desecrated, possibly as a threat against the project. In response to these disturbing events, tribal people and non-native community members such as neighborhood resident Sarah Ruth van Gelder, formed SON. In 2003, the Suquamish tribe invited SON–co-chaired by van Gelder and George–to participate in efforts to return Old Man House Park to the Suquamish people. “SON members and the tribe wanted to listen to the real concerns of the residents,” van Gelder says. “The tribe was wise in creating meetings where anyone with opinions or questions could be heard,” George adds.

Drawing on more than 400 public comments, a joint committee of the tribe and community residents drafted a comprehensive park-management plan and began a letter-writing campaign and a petition drive. They enlisted support from park commissioners, politicians, tribal leaders, and church and civic groups. “This was the right thing to do,” says van Gelder. “The Suquamish people have taken their future into their own hands.”

By working together, Suquamish tribal members and the non-tribal community developed mutual respect and created hope for the future. Says George, “This land represents the beginning of the restoration and ownership of the Indian Red Road [Native American spiritual path and practice]–those things that allowed Indians to be vital.

Visit the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors’ website to learn more about SON’s efforts.

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