In 1896 a frail elderly woman posed for a portrait in a photographic studio in the city of Seattle, Washington. The last direct descendant of one of the most significant Native American chiefs in the history of the continent, she was a “princess” who had witnessed – and survived – unprecedented social transformations. She died not long after the photo was taken, but her story is still remembered today.
The Lushootseed-speaking Duwamish tribe – from which the woman was descended – had inhabited the bays and lakeshores of what is today western Washington since the end of the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago. Before European contact, they consisted of at least two groups known as the “People of the Large Lake” (i.e. Lake Washington) and the “People of the Inside” (Elliott Bay and around).
The woman’s name was Kikisoblu, although most know her today as “Princess Angeline.” And her father was the most famous Duwamish leader of all time – Chief Si’ahl, otherwise known as Chief Seattle, after whom the west coast metropolis was named. Like many indigenous people of the era, Chief Seattle and his tribe lived through staggering historic changes due to the arrival of large groups of European-descendant settlers.
In fact, European settlement in the region reached a tipping point in the 1800s. In 1851 and 1852 white settlers – sustained by the local maritime trade in fur – established communities in the present-day area of Downtown Seattle. And within a few years, they had dominated the region’s indigenous inhabitants, outlawed important aspects of their traditional culture and driven them from their lands.
“For 500 generations they flourished until newcomers came,” wrote David Buerge of the Duwamish people in “Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest: An Introduction.” “… much was lost; much was devalued, but much was also hidden away in the hearts of the dispossessed. Their voices insist upon a hearing and the cumulative wisdom of their long residence in this land offers rich insights to those willing to listen…”
In fact, before European contact, Duwamish society consisted of a network of waterfront villages with riverine transport links (navigable by canoe), shared religious beliefs and kinship bonds, extensive trade relations and a common language. The primary Duwamish dwelling was the cedar-built longhouse, which was typically home to dozens of people and several extended families. The Duwamish were not a nation state in the modern sense. However, the tribe was cultured, political and socially stratified.
The annual salmon run, which began each summer, was the mainstay of the local economy. Indeed, salmon was not only a vital dietary staple – eaten fresh in the summer, it was also dried and stored for the scarce winter months – but an essential part of Duwamish spiritual life. The year-round gathering of tidal species such as clams supplemented salmon fishing, and other seasonal resources included game, berries, roots and barks.
Born in 1784, Chief Seattle was descended from the People of the Inside on his mother’s side and the Suquamish tribe on his father’s side. A formidable warrior who stood six feet tall, he was nicknamed Le Gros (“The Big Guy”). And he was a powerful orator too. His words, it was said, could carry great distances when he spoke.
When large numbers of white settlers began arriving in Duwamish lands in the mid-19th century, Chief Seattle found his people run off their traditional clam-gathering grounds. Consequently, he established diplomatic contact with the settlers via David Swinson “Doc” Maynard. The latter was an American doctor and entrepreneur who appeared to be relatively sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans. Their friendly relations would prove critically important to the future of the region.
In fact, it was Maynard’s wife, Catherine, who anointed Seattle’s first daughter, Kikisoblu with a European name. “You are too good-looking a woman to carry around such a name as that,” she is reported to have said, apparently unsatisfied with her original Duwamish appellation. “… I now christen you Angeline.”
Meanwhile, Doc Maynard proved to be a skilled political operator. He not only influenced the government of Oregon Territory to back the separation and formation of Washington Territory, but he won the loyalty Chief Seattle with numerous payoffs, which included naming his settlers’ community after him. And when Native American forces attacked the settlement of Seattle in 1856, Chief Seattle did not participate.
Relations between the United States, the Duwamish and several other regional Native American tribes were formalized by the Treaty of Point Elliott (1855). In part, the treaty was the outcome of complex and apparently dubious maneuvers by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. Without familiar political institutions on the Native American side (such as the nation state, for example), Stevens is said to have simply chosen and assigned sympathetic chiefs as negotiators and signatories.
The content of the treaty included provisions that the Native Americans be “concentrated” on reservations and encouraged to “cultivate the soil and adopt settled and civilized habits.” They would be permitted to hunt and fish on traditional land “as long as it remained vacant” and payment for their lands would be in “blankets, clothing, and useful articles” rather than money. These provisions differed substantially from the verbal agreements reached during negotiations.
Importantly, the U.S. did not provide the Duwamish with their own reservation. And in 1866 approximately 170 white settlers (including Doc Maynard and other inhabitants of Seattle) petitioned against a Bureau of Indian Affairs proposal for such a provision. The proposal for a Duwamish reservation was duly shelved and the Duwamish – now legally prohibited from living in the city – were forced to move. A handful of them, however, refused to leave.
Among them, Kikisoblu lived in a cabin on Western Avenue by the waterfront near where Pike Place Market is today. Although she continued to be affectionately referred to as “Princess Angeline,” she made her living washing laundry for white settlers. And like her father, she converted to Christianity.
In 1896 Kikisoblu posed for Edward S. Curtis, a Seattle photographer who went on to forge a notable interest in Native American subjects. He paid her one dollar for each image and described her as a “digger and dealer of clams.” Kikisoblu probably featured in his interesting landscape images of a clam gatherer, but the figure is too distant to make out any detail.
On May 29, 1896, Kikisoblu died. She was buried in Lake View Cemetery close to pioneer Henry Yesler, her friend. “With the death of Angeline Seattle died the last of the direct descendants of the great Chief Seattle for whom this city was named,” wrote the Chronicle of Holy Names Academy. “Angeline—Princess Angeline—as she was generally called, was famous all over the world…”
“Angeline was a familiar figure of the streets… it was no infrequent sight to see this poor old Indian woman seated on the sidewalk devoutly reciting her beads. The kindness and generosity of Seattle’s people toward the daughter of the chief… was shown in her funeral obsequies which took place from the Church of Our Lady of Good Help,” wrote the academy. Furthermore, it described her casket as “somber draped” and “in the form of a canoe.”
“Princess Angeline” was subsequently commemorated with several city streets named after her, including S. Angeline Street on Beacon Hill. Meanwhile, her father went on to inspire books, films and songs. The environmental movement, particularly, drew inspiration from the chief thanks to a speech he is said to have made. The speech called for greater ecological respect and the strengthening of Native American rights.
It must be noted, however, that Kikisoblu was never actually a princess but the daughter of a chief. European-style monarchies did not exist in Native America and the title of “Princess” was a flourish by white settlers. This was perhaps to distract from the injustices they heaped on the region’s indigenous peoples. Today, flattering words are cold comfort – the Duwamish Tribe remains formally unrecognized by the United States government, despite many years of dedicated petitioning.