From the Archives: Filmmaker Shares Untold Tale of the Duwamish

Sandra Osawa
Sandra Osawa

This article originally appeared on the Emerald in 2014. We are reposting it now in advance of a screening of Princess Angeline on Nov. 1. Click here for details.

In a lifetime spent unearthing stories from history’s cellar as an award winning filmmaker, Sandra Osawa has discovered her fair share of untidy portions of the past that most would sooner forget. Osawa, however, has made it her mission to shed ample amounts of daylight on the travesties of yesterday and their lingering residue found in our present times.

The local documentarian brings her latest work Princess Angeline — which details the displacement and plight of the Duwamish tribe through the eyes of Chief Seattle’s daughter — to Robert Eagle Staff Middle School Thursday. Osawa, whose films primarily deal with Native American culture, is hoping the film will inform South Seattleites about the true origins of the land they now occupy.


Emerald: What was it about the saga of the Duwamish Tribe that intrigued you enough to make this film with Princess Angeline as the centerpiece?

Sandra Osawa: I had already been visiting a lot of Indian communities and doing a lot of Indian stories. Here in Seattle I started to think about the lack of visibility of the local tribe, and how no one really spoke about them. In fact you don’t see anything that identifies that this was once their land. On many reservations and tribes you visit, you will see immediate evidence of there being Indians nearby, or some facts of knowledge of who these people were, but not in Seattle. I was just talking about how funny it is that even the totem poles they have here in the city are from another tribe and another area. So with this film we thought we should do something local. The more we got into it, the more we found out that this was a very big story that had national implications because there are probably currently over 500 tribes that are unrecognized by the Federal Government.

The Duwamish is just one example of a tribe that has been legislated out of existence and ignored for who they are. That’s what got us in, and what made us stay was that the more we got into it the more we saw that this story had wide implications. Here this city is named after Chief Seattle but his tribe isn’t even recognized.

A Photo of Princess Angeline circa 1920. Courtesy of Sandra Osawa.
A Photo of Princess Angeline circa 1920. Courtesy of Sandra Osawa.

Emerald: What surprises did you encountered while making this documentary and what surprises do you think those who watch it- who may only have a cursory knowledge of Chief Seattle and the Duwamish- are in store for?

Osawa: I think there are a lot of surprises because the documentary covers a lot of early history. I think what surprised me most was that the City of Seattle actually had an ordinance-the fifth one the city ever passed- that banned all Indians from the city in 1865. This was just 10 years after the US Government signed a treaty with the Duwamish promising them a reservation of their own. I think people are really going to be jolted by that because we don’t really hear any mention of that today. How the early people were treated is not taught in our schools.

The other aspect was just how much the city was transformed and grew at the expense of the Duwamish people.You learn a lot about how the Black River was basically wiped out. The river was extremely important to the Duwamish for food and survival. So I think in looking over the early history, people will start to get a good idea of some of the truth of what really happened to the native people here. But, it’s not just the past, I think people are going to learn some interesting things about the present predicament of the Duwamish.


Emerald:  Displacement is one of the main currents that runs through this film. That’s a theme very familiar to people who live in the south end of Seattle in the form of gentrification. Obviously your story deals with more forceful and coercive means in which people were extracted from their homeland, but are there any similarities you gleaned from what transpired with the Duwamish and what is currently happening in Seattle’s south end?

Osawa: Yes, I think a lot of it is that we don’t have any political power at all. Certainly the poor and minorities don’t, similar to the Duwamish. They say you can tell a lot from watching how a society treats the least of those amongst it because that’s how they might end up treating you. You have to be careful of how society treats those without power because that’s the true test of a society, and  whether you’re going to be a great society or a great civilization or not.  So that’s the similarity I would see. It remains very difficult for those without power to obtain it, even if you have a great spokesperson like Chief Seattle.

One thing many people don’t know is that there is a another speech that Chief Seattle wrote, not the,“We are all brothers after all” speech, but one of the last speeches he gave before his death. It was a plea for land for the Duwamish people because they were starving and had actually been fighting for land that was rightfully theirs ever since they signed the treaty with the Federal Government.


Emerald: Do you think the history of how the city of Seattle came into being has fallen victim to revisionism?

Osawa: Yes, I think that this story has not been told. When we first decided to do this film, we were focused on the postcards of Princess Angeline. She became somewhat of a collector’s item on spoons, plates, etc, but we wanted to look beyond that. We wanted to look beyond those souvenir items and ask, “Well what is the story of this person?” and “Why didn’t she want to leave Seattle even though she was ordered to?” So, that really becomes the story along with presenting a story about people who are takers. They wanted to take the name of Chief Seattle but they didn’t have the decency to recognize his tribe as a people, or to treat them as human beings.

This story is never told. My kids went to school in Seattle and they didn’t learn anything about the local tribe or any Indian history in general. I think that this is a spotlight on it, and I think it’s better for us as a society to look at reality and see history as it was, not as we would wallpaper it over and want it to be because it makes us stronger people when we grapple with reality. If we know the past we’re better able to solve the problems of the present and the future.


Emerald: Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies’ intention is for people to actively engage in conversation around the ideas put forth by a film. What conversations are you hoping ensue after the screening?

Osawa: We actually showed the film at the Meaningful Movies in West Seattle and the organizers there had the idea of making postcards available to send to President Obama that asked him to recognize the tribe by Executive Order before he leaves office.  The Duwamish was actually recognized during the end of the Clinton years, but there was a political reversal when George W Bush came into office. There’s a legal challenge that is currently pending as the tribe has said there is no basis for the reversal. So, I’m hoping the  conversation will lead to direct action like that because the tribe has been tangled up in so much bureaucracy in general that they have had  a difficult struggle for decades- really since the treaty was signed.

The Duwamish have recently purchased their own land after not having any for so long- a few acres in West Seattle- and are attempting to forge ahead, but I think the question turns to what can local people do to support the tribe’s fight for federal recognition. I think that would be a good thing. We’ll try to have some possible answers on hand.