WHAT A PEACEFUL place is Kah Tai Lagoon in Port Townsend. Songbirds sing, herons swoop. I’ve walked the trail many times unaware of its history and namesake community.
Fortunately we have David Brownell, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribal historic preservation officer, revealing an oft-missing piece of the past. This Friday evening, Brownell will deliver a well-illustrated talk about qatay, the village that came before.
The S’Klallam people didn’t capitalize proper nouns, Brownell explained. That’s one fact amidst the multitude in which he swims.
In a Jefferson County Historical Society First Friday lecture, Brownell will distill some 10,000 years of S’Klallam and Chemakum tribal life.
S’Klallam chief Chetzemoka, who gives his name to Port Townsend’s beloved park and to the interpretive trail expected to open next month, called qatay home. The village was a S’Klallam capital.
Then came European contact and waves of white settlers who wanted this place for their own.
In 1871, the Indian agent, aka the man charged with representing the U.S. government in dealings with Native American tribes, ordered the burning of qatay.
“I have the original orders,” Brownell told me, in which the agent commands staff to tear the village down, set the remnants aflame and “remove” the humans living there.
In his work, Brownell uses such primary sources, along with maps, photographs and oral histories.
So yes, ethnic cleansing happened in Port Townsend.
The federal government codified racism into the law of the land, and the documentation is there in tribal and Jefferson County Historical Society archives.
“Some of it is going to be really tough to talk about,” Brownell acknowledged.
The people of qatay were the great-great-grandparents of today’s tribal citizens.
Yet this is also a story of human resilience; the kind of true story that gives me a shot of humility and hope.
The S’Klallam people were driven off their homelands. The Europeans moved onto the scorched ground.
Their descendants wrote the textbooks for youngsters to read and made the cowboys-and-Indians movies to watch, with their ridiculous and brutal characterizations of both sides. They portrayed the First Nations people as savages, if they portrayed them at all.
There is so much more to this, of course. Brownell will show us how the S’Klallam people returned to the land around Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to reconnect with neighboring tribal communities.
“I’ve got some really great photos of a potlatch that happened in 1891,” he said. Old Patsey, a S’Klallam leader, hosted 500 guests: members of the Makah, Skokomish, Skagit, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Quinault and Quileute tribes.
At this great gathering, Old Patsey gave out the equivalent of $2,000 in gifts, Brownell added.
Brownell is not a tribal member, by the way. The historian and scholar, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., earned two history degrees and worked for the Seminole tribe before coming west.
He seeks not only to show the sweep of time — how long native people have lived with this land — but also the multifaceted truth about interaction between white settlers and tribal people.
Brownell’s talk on qatay and Port Townsend will start at 7 p.m. Friday in the Maritime Room of the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St. For information, see JCHSmuseum.org.
For Clallam County folks, he’ll give another talk, this one focusing on a Jamestown village, as part of the History Tales series.
Set for Sunday at 2:30 p.m., it’ll be at the United Methodist Church, 110 E. Seventh St. in Port Angeles.
See ClallamHistoricalSociety.com for details.
All of this “is not for the faint of heart,” said Brownell. Yet he finds many people are “genuinely interested in the history of the place where they live,” and not just one side of it.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be May 15.
Reach her at [email protected]