SUQUAMISH — Land belonging to the Suquamish Tribe is now back under tribal control, following a half-century-long lease which saw the construction of an isolated neighborhood and prevented tribal development and use.
At midnight on June 1, control of the 36-acre property on the Port Madison Indian Reservation was returned to the tribe. The property, known as Suquamish Shores, was initially leased in 1968 to Chief Seattle Properties. The expiration of the lease marked the end to what many tribal members regarded as a bad deal.
The return of the land is a personal matter for Suquamish Tribal Council Chairman Leonard Forsman, whose father was one of the council members that originally approved the lease agreement in 1967.
“It means a lot to me to be chairman when it comes back. [My dad] was on the council when it was signed over and to be able to definitely demonstrate that we were able to endure the impacts of it, and thrive despite of it, it makes me feel a lot more freedom. Before it felt like a feeling of exclusion,” Forsman said. “It was difficult for a lot of families and there were some people that questioned the decision for good reason. There were others that said we did it as a matter of survival.”
At the time, Forsman explained, the tribe lacked the necessary resources and revenue streams to establish a working tribal government. Because of this, the annual payment of $7,250 promised by the lease — while a pittance by today’s standards — seemed to be a lifeline for the tribe in 1967.
“They felt that it was the only way that they could provide the resources that they needed to have a government that functioned,” the chairman said.
In addition to losing control of their lands, Forsman said Chief Seattle Properties also failed to deliver on promises to retain the tribe’s beloved baseball field.
“That was a real hard pill for the people to swallow because of the fact that it was such an important part of the tribe’s celebration grounds and gathering area and also baseball being so popular, there were a lot of memories associated with that field.”
After Chief Seattle Properties established itself on the reservation, Suquamish Shores became a community, separate from the rest of Suquamish.
“As a young person going through downtown and then seeing the sign ‘members and guests only,’ it was difficult to manage for us as young people in the community,” Forsman said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of real social connections between the residents that I noticed in my lifetime.”
The chairman made a point to note that he feels the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which approved the master lease, held some blame for the bad deal.
“I think the BIA failed us in those days because they facilitated it. They could’ve protected our interests better than they did.”
After leasing the land from the tribe, Chief Seattle Properties subleased lots within Suquamish Shores, upon which many of the sublessees constructed homes.
As per the conditions of the lease agreement, Chief Seattle Properties’ contract with the tribe lasted for 25 years and included an option to renew for another 25 after that. It was during renewal negotiations that Chief Seattle Properties owner Philip Malone walked away from the lease, leaving the tribe to manage the properties and decide what to do with the sublessees. Reluctantly, the tribe extended the lease, allowing the sublessees to stay another 25 years.
April Leigh, a spokesperson with the Suquamish Tribe explained that all of the sublessees were notified that their leases would not be renewed after the 25 years were up.
“By 1994 all of them had been notified, that’s the final date we can absolutely confirm that everyone was notified. Almost all of them were notified significantly earlier than that their leases would not be renewed.” Leigh said.
Given knowledge of the lease’s impending expiration, Leigh said many of the houses were not properly maintained.
“As you can imagine the sublessees were well aware that the leases would not be renewed. Speaking as a community member who walks through that area daily, many of the houses simply weren’t [kept up]. They might’ve been beautiful homes but haven’t had a new roof in 40 years,” she said. “It might’ve been a beautiful waterfront home the windows were never replaced, the plumbing, the electrical has not been upgraded, the foundations were not done correctly.”
When asked whether or not he saw the return of Suquamish Shores as a sort of retribution for past wrongs, Forsman paused for a moment, “Let’s just say it this way, we were seeking retribution by letting the lease run out.”
Now back under full-control of the tribe, Suquamish Shores is slated for redevelopment in three phases over the next 10 years. The first phase will include community spaces, a waterfront park, walking trails and a culturally-themed playground connecting the Suquamish Museum to the Veteran’s Monument near the House of Awakened Culture.
“It is an opportunity that the tribe has been waiting for for 50 years,” Forsman said. “We’ve endured, both politically and culturally and are in a place now that our ancestors who entered into that agreement, were hoping we’d be in when they did it.”
— Nick Twietmeyer is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. You can reach Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org.