Righteous Indignation—Leslie Meyer
“The Cheshiahud Trail is now complete. The loop around Lake Union, named for John Cheshiahud, a Duwamish chief who lived and worked on the lakeshore until 1905, is now ready for Seattle’s outdoors enthusiasts to walk run and ride around. Back to you, Chet“
The television newscaster’s cheery voice was irritating. More than irritating. The false sugary enthusiasm that make Candace Carpenter such a popular newscaster, made Riley angry. Naming a trail after a man who had seen the usurpation of his homeland, the decimation of his people, and the near-total destruction of his way of life was an empty gesture. A stupid trail, she thought. That was so Seattle. Don’t create housing, don’t feed the living Indians, don’t support schools or educate the living Indians, just make a path around a lake that will only benefit the yuppies in South Lake Union and Fremont.
Turning off the TV, Riley grabbed her coat and locked up the apartment and went to work. She continued to think about the Cheshiahud Trail on her bus ride downtown to the Public Safety Building, where she worked as a research assistant at the Seattle Police Department. Her job was to work with a group of detectives assigned to the missing person detail. She had been hired on three years ago as a non-police assistant, part of a pilot project set up to allow more community involvement with SPD. The grant funding was running out but she hoped that the city could kind a way to keep her.
Every day on her way to and from the office she saw Indians drinking at the remains of an old fountain on 3rd and Yesler. Every day at least one of them was laid out on the sidewalk, maybe alive, maybe dead, she couldn’t know. The more she thought about the plight of Seattle’s Indians, whether it was on the street, in the drunk tank at work, or the families lined up outside the Indian Health Service office, waiting for it to open, she more outraged she became.
“Want some coffee, Riley?” Her officemate Jack held out a pot and motioned toward her half full cup.
“No!” she spun around and faced Jack, “I don’t want any… oh, Jack, I am so sorry.” Jack stood, coffeepot help protectively inform of his chest with a look of surprise on his round face. He was an amiable young man, with a good sense of humor and he and Riley got on well, despite her tendency to be somewhat sharp. But this was different. Her face when she turned to, or rather, on him, was enraged, her teeth were actually barred and she was almost snarling.
“Okay, then,” he said. “Maybe some cocoa?”
Riley couldn’t work. Her head was full of injustice and anger. Her cousins at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming kept her informed about the troubles there with meth, gangs and 70% unemployment. It was almost inconceivable. But too real to deny. She sent a little cash to them every month, to help out with the school meal program, buy books, shoes, whatever they needed. The need was endless. Seattle was so fucking rich. How could there be such poverty here?
She decided to do a search on this Cheshiahud and see what he was all about. She found more than she expected, most of it had nothing to do with the trail. He had been in his late thirties when Seattle was “founded” by the Denny party. Cheshiahud had become friends with David Denny, who had learned to speak Lushootseed, Cheshiahud’s language. For over 30 years, Cheshiahud had lived on the east side of the lake, in Mercer Slough, with his wife Lucy Annie and daughter Jennie. He hired out as a lake guide to the new settlers who wanted to fish for trout and salmon. After Lucy Annie’s death, he moved to land on what is now called Portage Bay. It is said that he bought from David Denny, despite laws on the books that Indians were not allowed to live in the city limits unless they lived at the home of their employer.
She located some photos in the special collections online from the UW that showed a couple sitting in front of a wooden house, the woman in a dress with a velvet bodice and velvet down the front, he in dark trousers and a long coat. He wore a flat-topped sailor hat with a dark ribbon. His wife was called Madeline. When she died, Cheshiahud threw a three day-long potlatch in her honor. She found a photograph that showed the cabin, located at the foot of what is now Shelby Street, with tables outside and a faint outline of what must be Denny Hall at the UW campus.
And then she saw the video.
A woman was narrating a film made up of clips of the lake around Portage Bay, and included the same photos Riley had found in her own research. She was talking about Cheshiahud, her ancestor and as she talked, the story fleshed out and he became as real as her own grandparents. The woman was talking and was describing how her family had seen Cheshiahud as a man who saw the writing on the wall and “approached things from a survival standpoint, that they could see into the future and, yes, they could go down fighting, but at the same time, there wouldn’t be any people to follow them.”
By the time Riley finished watching the video, her righteous anger had subsided. The narrator’s voice had calmed her as she heard the story of a real man whose life was every bit a part of the founding of Seattle as any settler.
She went to back to the library archives ad did one last newspaper search, this time on Indian John. And found this:
“Poor Old Indian John died a few weeks ago. How few people know that he was the last survivor of the Lake Union tribe of Indians, or that he once owned nearly all of Denny-Furman Hill. Where his old cabin stood up to a year and a half ago, you’ll now find a graded street. Where but recently trickled a delightful sparkling rivulet from a spring above his cabin now sluggishly flows a gutter stream bordered by cement curb and walk. Why no, at least, erect a monument to Old Indian John at the end of that street, the actual spot of his old homesite for so many years?”
~Harry S. Stuff, Seattle Times May 22, 1910
On Saturday, Riley took the number 25 bus to East Shelby and got off. She walked down the little dead-end street and down a small flight of stairs to one of the tiny waterfront parks along the shoreline. A plaque embedded in the cement retaining wall commemorated the site as being the homestead of Cheshiahud. Stylized canoes done in bas-relief decorated the cement. Riley went to the waters edge and offered some tobacco and then burnt some sweet grass in his honor. She saw a fresh water clamshell in the gravel at the shoreline and picked it up. She smiled, put it in her pocket and went home.