By K. R. Riordan
Prior to 1906, both the White and Green Rivers joined together with the Black River around Tukwila to form the Duwamish River; hence its Lushootseed name Dkhw’Duw’, which loosely translated means: many-colored river.
Supposedly, on March 11, 1854, Chief Si’ahl (Seattle) gave his famous, albeit disputed, speech at a large gathering in the pristine wilderness near the growing city of Seattle, Washington. The meeting was set up by Governor Isaac Stevens in order to discuss the sale of native land to the white settlers. When it came time for Si’ahl to speak, he orated with great dignity for an extended period of time.
No one alive today knows exactly what he said, seeing that he spoke in his native Lushootseed dialect. However, despite the fact a controversy exists regarding the various translations of this famous speech from arguably the greatest chief of the Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish or “The People of the Inside”) tribe, the message contained within his words remains as clear as an alpine stream flowing down from the Cascades:
“This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know: Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.
That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.”
Chief Si’ahl undertook the great journey on June 7, 1866 on the Suquamish reservation at Port Madison, Washington. A monument is erected at his gravesite.
The first mention of the Duwamish River (the lower twelve miles of the Green River that empties out into Elliott Bay) in the Seattle Room’s media archives was from the Sunday edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on May 7th, 1905 in section II, page.14. The article was titled: The Duwamish Valley as Future Factory Land: Interest in Dredging of River Directs Attention of Investors to Its Possibilities.
The next time the Duwamish River is mentioned was, once again, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, four months later, on September 5th, 1905, on page 8. This one was titled: Wants Duwamish to Be Made Straight: Chairman Bridges of King County Drainage Commission Speaks of Work in White River Valley. In 1906, construction completed on two flood control dams on both the Black and White Rivers, essentially cutting both tributaries off from the Green and Duwamish Rivers, forever.
Actual dredging of the Duwamish River to accommodate what would later become Seattle’s Industrial District began on October 14th, 1913 at the old Country Poor Farm. Twenty million cubic yards of earth were removed to use on the marshlands and tide flats, and two million five hundred cubic yards of sand was brought by the city from numerous sanitary fills. Dirt from Beacon, Yesler, and Denny Hills was used to fill in the path of the old Duwamish River; some was even shipped all the up from Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
And as I sit at the desk of my twenty story apartment complex rising up from the side of First Hill like a tombstone, gazing out my window at the sprawling metropolis before me, and think about the fact that none of this concrete graveyard has existed for more than one single century, I can’t help but hear Chief Si’ahl’s final questions echoing in my ears: Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.
And I can’t help but feel responsible…
K. R. Riordan is currently a student at Seattle University working towards a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature & Creative Writing. Riordan’s works have appeared in the Percival Review, a literary journal out of Olympia, Washington.