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How Indigenous Kayactivists Protest Against Shell

Why Descendants of Chief Seattle Led the Protest Against Shell on Saturday

The Lummi Youth Canoe leads kayaktivists to shores the Duwamish people used to inhabit for thousands of years. ALEX GARLAND

It was hard to miss. Draped over the boardwalk at Jack Block Park on Saturday, a 300-square-foot cutout of a solemn face looked out over the water-based protest against the Polar Pioneer, the Arctic drilling rig floating in Elliott Bay. “Chief Seattle is watching,” it read.

Looking at the sign probably made some people uncomfortable. Seattle is named after the Duwamish-Suquamish Chief Seattle, and his profile is plastered all over official letterheads and various pieces of Northwest kitsch. Still, sloganizing the face of a man who helped “Seattle” exist—in that he signed a treaty in 1855 giving over 54,000 acres of land to the federal government in exchange for an unfulfilled promise of treaty rights and a reservation for his descendants—can feel like a grotesque kind of tokenism when, often, there are no native people present to explain what it means.

But Saturday’s action against the towering Arctic drilling rig now squatting in the port’s Terminal 5—originally Duwamish waters—was different, for lots of reasons.

It began early in the morning at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, where Duwamish chairwoman and elder Cecile Hansen prepped starchy biscuit mix to feed more than 50 mouths for the protest, her glasses soon flecked with flour. Native leaders and participants had traveled from all over to lead kayaktivists in native canoes that day, some coming in from Alaska. And Hansen, who can’t be much more than five feet tall, has been fighting for federal recognition of the Duwamish people for much of her life.

“Yeah, we gave up 54,000 acres, and we own two-thirds of [an] acre,” Hansen said. “I hope this story goes back to the president, because we need to have acknowledgement.” She looked over at Jolene Haas, her daughter, who was slicing potatoes a few feet away. “You want to jump in here?” Hansen asked.

“I think the underlying reason that we are out protesting too is because we don’t like the Port of Seattle, and they don’t like us,” Haas said. “And they have never been supportive of our longhouse. They gave away our artifacts. And one thing we can do to make their life miserable, we’re going to do. Because they don’t give a shit about us.”

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Haas was referring to how the port, while building Terminal 107 in the ’70s on a former ancestral Duwamish village site, came across artifacts that were later repatriated to the Suquamish and Muckleshoot. Hansen and her daughter said that the port never consulted the Duwamish. (The Suquamish and Muckleshoot are federally recognized, whereas the Duwamish are not.) The Duwamish were once briefly recognized in 2001, a decision that was later reversed by the Bush administration.

(Representatives of the Port of Seattle were not able to respond to a request for comment in time for publication. This post will be updated when they do.)

The Port of Seattle has also been squirming in controversy ever since it decided to allow an Arctic drilling fleet in Terminal 5, which sits in the Duwamish Waterway. The Duwamish, a canoe people, fished and traveled in the waterway for thousands of years. The last five miles that empty into Elliott Bay are so industrially polluted that they’re now collectively considered a superfund site, a designation given to the most contaminated areas in the United States.

It’s a fate that the Duwamish see as imminent for indigenous people on Alaska’s North Slope, who, thanks to the blessing of the Obama administration, will likely soon see Shell drill off their coastlines. That’s one of the reasons why Jonnica Royal, 17, who is Lummi, Quinault, and Duwamish, was one of the first “pullers” (people in the canoes) out on the water when the Polar Pioneer rig arrived in Elliott Bay.

“Us kids were told never to touch the water because it’s so polluted,” she said. “We can’t get clams or fish or anything that the tribe used to be able to get on the waters. If other tribes [in Alaska] have to deal with that, I would feel really bad that we didn’t help support them in stopping this.”

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The oil industry’s impact on indigenous people extends much deeper, too. Carl Wassilie, a Yupiaq biologist and former fisherman, traveled down from Alaska to be at the Duwamish Longhouse and protest Shell’s rig in Elliott Bay. He’s been fighting offshore drilling for years, he said, in part because of a consciousness that developed after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaskan waters in 1989.

“On that spring day in March in the North Pacific, it’s a beautiful day, and still water for a few days,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought promises that Exxon and the government were saying—we’re going to clean it up and it’ll be fine. That’s what they said over and over again. So as a young man, as a young boy, I believed that. And then, over the next few months, started getting words of people, native people killing themselves, because it was the death water. Major media was covering the birds and the animals, but those are the relatives of our people.”

A painting of Chief Seattle’s niece, Hansen’s grandmother, hangs in Hansen’s office at the longhouse. So does a list of obstacles to Duwamish recognition dating back to 1855. But Hansen’s still fighting. “I pray,” she said. At that point, a Duwamish board member came into the office and Hansen excused herself. “I have to go check the biscuits.”

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