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Bainbridge: Gateway to Suquamish

Artist renderings show some of the proposed tribal projects  that are slated for the Suquamish waterfront.  - Courtesy of the Suquamish Foundation
Artist renderings show some of the proposed tribal projects that are slated for the Suquamish waterfront.
— image credit: Courtesy of the Suquamish Foundation

Cultural projects will transform the tribal community just across the bridge.

At the Suquamish Tribe’s early learning center, the past is always within reach.

In the yard, toddlers play in a dugout canoe they helped build and had ceremonially blessed. They make traditional drums with their fathers and sing songs in the Lushootseed language.

The halls that connect the classrooms and quiet nurseries are lined with black and white portraits of ancestors and Suquamish families.

“These little children are learning to sing songs in our language, they are learning words in our language, and they are doing things that bring out the spirit of knowing who they are,” tribal elder Marilyn Wandrey said. “It’s important they have those things that belong to them. Our culture belongs to them.”

Opened in September, the Marion Forsman-Boushie Early Learning Center on the Port Madison Reservation is the first completed project of a $20 million capital program that will transform the look of Suquamish over the next three years.

Included in the tribe’s plans are a community house on the waterfront, a new home for the Suquamish Museum and a full-size baseball field.

Tribal leaders hope new cultural centers will help the tribe as a whole in the same way the learning center is already helping its children, by strengthening bonds to the past as a way of moving forward.

With new opportunities for participation and tourism, the projects can benefit the entire region, Tribal Council Chair Leonard Forsman said.

“We realized, these are not only good for the tribe, these are good for everyone,” he said. “The projects will have a holistic impact.”

Though some improvements won’t be finished until 2010, the tribe plans to have the new community house and museum done by the summer of 2009, when an armada of nearly 100 canoes will converge on Port Madison Bay between Suquamish and Bainbridge Island.

Suquamish has long been a stop for the Inter-tribal Canoe Journey, a summer event in which native canoe teams from across the Pacific Northwest join for a voyage through Puget Sound. In 2009 it will be the journey’s final destination, and the tribe will have a chance to display its heritage. At Suquamish, the paddlers will pass the weathered pier and haul their dugouts up the waterfront to a new common green.

They will be met by a long, cedar-sided building reminiscent of the Old Man longhouse, the historic cultural home of the Suquamish.

“The new community house is basically – with traditional and modern materials – the rebuilding of the Old Man House,” said Michael Felts, chief executive officer of the Suquamish Foundation, which coordinates fundraising for the project.

In 1870, after the death of Chief Sealth, the U.S. government razed the 600-foot longhouse and banned communal living.

Wandrey’s grandfather was the last traditional chief to live in the Old Man House. She remembers that when her father was on the Tribal Council, they gathered at the site of its ruins, just down the shore from where the new community house will be built.

“To finally see that we are going to have our community house again,” she said, “there aren’t words to describe what I feel inside.”

The new 13,000 square-foot community house will host gatherings, traditional song and dance performances and other community events.

The historic Suquamish dock will also be rebuilt, though because of permitting difficulties it may not be done in time for the canoe journey. Eventually, it will provide access from the water and allow the elderly and disabled a safe place to load into canoes.

Above the community house, near where the paddlers will set up camp, the new museum will give the tribe’s history a new home.

At the current museum on Sandy Hook Road, the tribe’s collection of Old Man House artifacts, historic photos and original treaty documents are stored in converted office space, which can’t provide the climate control needed for proper preservation.

The new museum will display tribal heirlooms in a high-ceilinged 3,010 square-foot modern display area, more than twice the size of the current museum’s display area. Outside will be space for carving and basket weaving demonstrations.

Ushering visitors from the land into Suquamish will be a new welcome pole, a monument to Chief Sealth and Chief Kitsap, carved in the Salish style. It will be erected on a bare concrete pad where the Lands in the Sky pole stood from 1962 to 2005.

Just up the road, the grave of Chief Sealth will be renovated and an information kiosk will be added to the site.

To the southwest on Totten Road, a full-size baseball park is planned near the already-bustling early learning center.

A ballpark nearer to town, dating from the late 1800s, was a popular weekend gathering place until 1962 when the tribe succumbed to financial pressure and leased the land to other interests. The new ballpark will be available for clubs around North Kitsap.

All of the sites will be woven together by a series of interpretive walking trails.

The improvements will require a hefty investment.

Of the roughly $20 million to be raised in a three year effort that began in 2006, $10 million will come directly from tribal revenue while the remainder will be raised by the foundation through grants and donations.

In 2007 the foundation was awarded $1.5 million in state grants, and $1 million was appropriated for the project in the state budget. In 2008 the Foundation will focus on finding federal funding as well as donations from individuals.

Felts said the Foundation has used shared history as a way of building interest and raising funds for the project in neighboring communities. Many of the surrounding Kitsap County communities rest on what was traditionally Suquamish territory.

After decades of economic dependence, the tribe began a push for new businesses in the 1990s and negotiated for electronic gambling on the reservation.

In 2003, a remodeled Clearwater Casino opened on Highway 305 and in 2006 reservation enterprises generated nearly $140 million, according to the tribe.

Soon after, the Suquamish community began discussing its needs and those of highest priority were bundled into the current capital program.

A new building for the learning center was the most urgent need. The tribe’s old facility was comprised of four small classrooms in a high traffic area next to the Suquamish police and courts building. Children had to troop across an busy parking lot to reach their playground.

At the new early learning center, located on a secluded campus on Totten Road, enrollment is already double what the capacity of the old center had been. There is a waiting list 100-long for its services, which range from prenatal counseling to head start programs and workshops for elementary students.

For Wandrey it is a long awaited first taste of a new era for the tribe.

“I have lived long enough to have been in this community when we had nothing,” Wandrey said. “This is probably the most exciting time in my whole life; to see that these things are coming, that they are real, not dreams anymore.”

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Tribal transformation

The Suquamish Tribe’s $20 million capital program includes:

• The $4.8 million, 12,000 square-foot Marion Forsman-Boushie Early Learning Center, which opened in last fall.

• A $6.5 million, 13,000 square-foot community house on the Suquamish waterfront is planned for completion in 2009.

• A $4.2 million, 9,000 square-foot tribal museum and arts center, also set to open in 2009.

• Renovations to the historic Suquamish dock will total $2.6 million. A full-size baseball field will be built for use by the tribe and surrounding communities. Renovations to Chief Seattle’s grave and an interpretive trail system will round out the project.

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