Interview conducted by Marcus Harrison Green
This morning’s Rainier Beach Art Walk festival will be a bittersweet “cultural homecoming” for Ken Workman. The great, great, great, great grandson of legendary Duwamish leader and Emerald City namesake Chief Seattle is – like most members of the storied tribe- still shaken by the June announcement the Federal Government would not bestow formal recognition upon them. This, despite other Washington based tribes including the Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Samish and Snoqualmie having received acknowledgement decades ago.
In light of all this it would be understandable for the descendant of the Duwamish’s most famous chief to be in no mood for celebration. However, as a member of a tribe whose land was forcefully stolen from them without restitution, Workman is used to going on valiantly in the face of misfortune. He is looking forward to warmly welcoming all those in attendance at Saturday’s Artwalk to the place he and his people simply call, home.
The Emerald spoke with Workman as he took a break from, “making much sweat” while digging up his septic tank.
Emerald: Being a descendant of Chief Seattle what was your reaction to the Bureau of Indian Affairs decision last June to once again deny tribal recognition to the Duwamish?
Ken Workman: It hit everyone hard when it got handed down. We’re still reeling from that. It’s very difficult to walk around when people say you’re extinct. When I talk to people and describe this pain I feel about it; it’s almost at a cellular level. It really sounds like a story book drama. Every cell aches. A good thing is we still have people who are very sympathetic to our cause.
Emerald: With such a history of struggles and hardship where do the Duwamish derive their enduring resiliency from?
Workman: Let me put it into context. I was born and raised in Puget Park. That was my childhood home right behind the Duwamish Longhouse. When my brother would say walk in the woods, they were our woods. It’s mine and my ancestors. They’re still out there, in the ground. I literally mean our ancestors are there. When you talk about the the resiliency of the Duwamish it comes from that same land. When you talk about this place we call Seattle, the Duwamish have been walking on it for more than 10,000 years, not just the 200 its been named Seattle.
Emerald: There’s been much made from local activist and organizers about the intersection of the Duwamish tribes struggles with the local Black Lives Matter movement. A notable example of this is Black Lives Matter organizers Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford’s interruption of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a rally in downtown Seattle. The two noted that everyone was standing on land that rightfully belonged to the Duwamish. What are your thoughts on that?
Workman: From 1865 to 1869 it was illegal for natives to be in Seattle. We couldn’t own land. We could only live here pretty much only if we agreed to be slaves. Our history in Seattle isn’t very pleasant. Imagine in 1792 when this huge ship comes sailing into Puget Sound. This was something no one had seen at the time. Then in 1851 you have one landing in Alki Beach. You have my people saying: “Welcome to this land my friends.” After that time everything turns upside down. You have my grandfather signing a treaty giving away all of Seattle.
My history is 10,000 years old. The City of Seattle’s is a blink of an eye. Earlier, when we talked about the resiliency of the Duwamish, that’s just what we do. When ancestors of mine are looking back, I want them to say that Ken did good with his life. I take a very long perspective and I keep working because it’s the right thing to do. When you talk Black Lives Matter, I think it’s a wonderful thing that they acknowledge our history and collective suffering. When I was at the torchlight parade with other members of the Duwamish I could hear people saying, “The Duwamish are here, the Duwamish are here.” There’s something to that. People know there’s a lot of pent up anger at one hundred years of colonization.
Emerald: Turning to how our city is constituted now, what do you think of diversity of the city especially found in the South End of it?
Workman: I’m very proud of it. It’s my Seattle. Even though I originally came from West Seattle, the people both from there and South Seattle make it feel like home for me. They are both fighting hard forces to make sure they stay put, though. We can not lose our diversity. It is what makes our city work.
Emerald: What do you have in store for those who attend ArtWalk Rainier Beach on Saturday?
Workman: I’m going to welcome everyone to the land in my native language. I want people to come from around the area so I can tell them these are our people. I can tell them our ancestors are here today. I want to show all of the diversity we are including as natives. It will be very different from Mr. Trump saying, “all you Mexicans go home” (laughter). I’m glad the world is full of diverse people, it’d be boring otherwise.
The Rainier Beach Art Walk will take place from 10:00am to 4:30pm today, September 5th, at the Rainier Beach Community Center: 8825 Rainier Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98118.