Suquamish Shows Up

As protests sweep the U.S., Suquamish Tribal Council calls for justice for Stonechild Chiefstick and other victims of police violence

Suquamish Tribal Council members, elders, and youth joined hundreds who stood with signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Native Lives Matter” along Highway 305 in Poulsbo on June 2. Emotions were raw because of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Manny Ellis, and others, and because here in Kitsap County, prosecutors recently announced there would be no charges against Officer Craig Keller, the Poulsbo police officer who shot and killed Stonechild Chiefstick on July 3, 2019.

The protest was peaceful, passionate, and well attended with many drivers honking in support.

But when three Tribal Elders left the protest and went to downtown Poulsbo to have a quiet dinner, they encountered two men carrying military assault rifles patrolling an empty Front Street. The contrast between the peaceful protest on Highway 305 and the intimidating armed presence in downtown Poulsbo was striking.

Calls to a Poulsbo city council member revealed that the Poulsbo police knew there were armed individuals at several locations in town, and that, with the exception of one conversation with one of them, the police chose to do nothing – not question them, nor ask for identification and their purpose in being on the street near the protest. There was no check for warrants or criminal records or for extremist affiliations or for statements advocating violence. It was a stunning contrast to the treatment of Stonechild Chiefstick, who walked alone in Poulsbo’s waterfront park on July 3, was reported to police for acting strangely, and then shot and killed by Officer Keller.

The Second Amendment does not trump the First Amendment right to free expression and assembly, nor is open carry allowed in Washington State when used to intimidate others or when it creates alarm for the safety of others (RCW 9.14.270).

A Long History of Racism

This experience with an armed patrol in Poulsbo was a first for these Elders, but it was not the first time members of our community have experienced hostility and racial profiling in Poulsbo and North Kitsap County. Community members and visitors with darker skin report being followed in stores, bullied in local schools, and subjected to hostile comments on the street. Traffic signs leading into the reservation were riddled with bullet holes until they were replaced just recently. Anti-Indian graffiti was a constant reminder of the hostility aimed at Native people growing up in North Kitsap.

While the forms of racism have changed over the decades, it has never fully ceased.

The killing of George Floyd has lifted the veil on the brutality experienced by Black people across the nation. But the only thing that is new is the widespread use of phone cameras to document the brutality. African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color have been subjected to white supremacist violence since European settlers first arrived on these shores bringing people captured and enslaved in Africa.

When settlers first arrived in 1851, Chief Seattle and his people greeted them and helped them during their first difficult winters here on the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle believed his people could benefit from the inevitable arrival of the Americans by engaging in the increased trade and commerce created by the new economy. He and other tribal leaders envisioned success in a new society built on relationships of equality and mutual respect.

Those hopes were dashed when promises made in the treaties went unfulfilled, when lands were stolen from tribal peoples, when Native people were banned from the city of Seattle and longhouses burned, including Old Man House, home of Chief Seattle, here in Suquamish.

Many were killed, including Chief Leschi, leader of the Nisqually people, who was hanged by a citizen government in 1858.

Chief Seattle signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. The Treaty established the Port Madison Indian Reservation as our permanent home in exchange for the Tribe giving title to most of the Kitsap Peninsula to the U.S. government. But the federally appointed Indian agents sold much of our reserved land through the use of discriminatory federal laws. The U.S. military condemned 74 acres of our waterfront, inclusive of Old Man House, to build a military base. They never built the base, instead selling the land to a developer who subdivided into lots for vacation homes for visitors from Seattle.

Perhaps the most devastating of all was the taking of our children by force and coercion to attend distant boarding schools, where speaking our language or practicing our traditions was cruelly punished. This experience has created generational trauma that we are still addressing today.

Our ways of life are built on fishing, hunting, and gathering shellfish, and here, too, simply making a living required us to confront law enforcement and armed vigilantes attempting to prevent us from exercising our treaty rights. Tribal members were arrested, fired upon, and jailed for casting a net or digging shellfish on the beach. We have made progress since those days of conflict here in Kitsap County, as demonstrated by many of our elected leaders who recognize our Treaty rights and engage in government-to-government consultation and negotiations with us on a regular basis. Our hands go up to those elected officials. We have more work to do.

Black and Native Lives Matter

Like African-Americans, Native people have the highest rates of killing by police. So, as a group of us stood on Highway 305 last week, we were thinking about Black Lives lost and also Native Lives. We were thinking about George Floyd and also about Stonechild Chiefstick. We were thinking about Breonna Taylor, shot while she slept in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, and also about Suquamish Tribe descendant Jeanetta Riley, a mother of four, shot by police in 2014 in Sandpoint, Idaho, and about John T. Williams, a Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarver, shot by Seattle police in 2010. We were thinking about Manny Ellis, an African American man shot by police in Tacoma, and about Suquamish Tribal member Daniel Covarrubias, who reached for his cell phone and was shot by Tacoma police in 2015.

The brutality and inequities experienced by our people and by other communities of color divide and weaken our country.

We can do better. But real changes require more than “thoughts and prayers” for those killed and vague promises of reforms.

Real change means taking action to end the racial bias that infuses law enforcement at all levels in the United States and re-conceptualizing policing at a time when mental health challenges and domestic violence make up a large portion of the calls police are asked to respond to.

It means reforming school curriculum so the history of Native people, Black people, and other people of color is neither erased nor told only through the lens of European-Americans.

We call on all leaders – especially right here in North Kitsap — to embrace Chief Seattle’s vision that we live side-by-side, with equity, full participation, and rights for all the people of all the many cultures that make up our region.

— The Suquamish Tribal Council
Published in the Kitsap Sun