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July 23, 2015

Meet Native America: Chairman Leonard Forsman, Suquamish Tribe

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

I'm Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

It's ˇGvύí (GwoWee). It means Raven.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman
Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. 

Where is your tribe located?

The Suquamish Tribe is located on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Kitsap County, Washington. We are located in the central Puget Sound region and are approximately a half-hour away from the city of Seattle by water.

Where was your tribe originally from?

The Suquamish Tribe’s traditional areas encompass much of the Puget Sound region.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share? 

Chief Seattle, for whom the city of Seattle is named, is a hereditary leader of the Suquamish People. Seattle signed the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855 on behalf of the Suquamish and Duwamish People. His father’s village of Old Man House was probably the largest winter house in the Northwest Coast, reaching nearly 800 by 40 feet (32,000 square feet).

Today, the Suquamish Tribe continues to be a leader in government-to-government relations. The Suquamish Tribe is one of the first tribes in Washington to collaborate with state government in order to create a new Tribal-Compact schools system. Suquamish was also instrumental in the implementation of a Native American curriculum in schools across Washington State.

How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?

The Suquamish Tribe is led by a seven-member Tribal Council. Members are elected each March by the tribe’s voting body, known as the General Council. The Tribal Council consists of four officers—chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer, secretary—and three at-large council members. The chairman only votes in case of a tie. Tribal Council officers and members serve three-year staggered terms.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

No, but we have an Elder Council and a Youth Council that advise us on a variety of cultural and social issues.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Suquamish Tribal Council meets twice each month. Suquamish General Council—the community—meets annually.

Suquamish Tribal Council 2015
The Suquamish Tribal Council, 2015. Left to right: Council Member Rich Purser, Council Member Sammy Mabe, Treasurer Robin Sigo, Chairman Leonard Forsman, Secretary Nigel Lawrence, Vice-Chairman Wayne George, and Council Member Luther "Jay" Mills.


How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

Members of my family, especially my father and older siblings, were very active in tribal government, setting a great example. I was a student-athlete at public school, as well as a member of our tribal baseball, softball, and basketball teams. My oldest sister and brother were involved in education and national politics, which inspired me to get involved in both. I also was exposed to some of our cultural values and teachings at a young age, which led me into my work as a cultural researcher and anthropologist.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My first responsibility is to organize and lead our Tribal Council meetings and our annual General Council meeting. My second responsibility, in my opinion, is to represent the Suquamish Tribe and its interests within our tribal community, with other tribal governments, and with outside governments on the local, state, and national level. I also serve on many boards and commissions within and outside the tribe, which work to meet the interests of our people and the greater community, including serving as a member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation since being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My parents, who lived through the Depression, met and married during World War II, and raised their family here on the reservation. Also my oldest brother, Jim, who inspired me to go to school and get active in politics, and my late sister, Marion, who taught me to work hard and to learn my culture.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

I am a descendant of the family of Chief Seattle, signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? What are the criteria to become a member? 

There are approximately 1150 Suquamish tribal members. Automatic adoption requires descendancy from a Suquamish tribal member and one-eighth total Indian blood.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

The Suquamish people traditionally speak a Salishan language called Lushootseed.

Several years ago, the Suquamish Tribe had very few Lushootseed speakers. The language was in real danger of becoming extinct. However, a group of dedicated tribal members worked to create a language program. At first the program was volunteer. Now it is a fully funded division of our Education Department, where we have Lushootseed classes for students at our schools and family classes for our community members.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Over the past 25 years, the Suquamish tribal government has diligently worked to ensure economic opportunities for tribal members. In 1987, the Suquamish Tribe established Port Madison Enterprises (PME) as an agency of the Suquamish Tribe. PME’s operations are aimed at developing community resources while promoting the economic and social welfare of the Suquamish Tribe through commercial activities. What began as a modest retail endeavor has grown exponentially over the last quarter century. PME now encompasses several businesses including Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, the historic Kiana Lodge, three retail outletsWhite Horse Golf Course, and a property management division.

PME operations are conducted at the direction of a Board of Directors comprised of seven tribal members who are appointed by the Suquamish Tribal Council. With more than 800 employees in fields ranging from information technology to hospitality, the Suquamish-owned company is fast becoming one of the largest employers in the greater Kitsap area.

In addition to PME, the Suquamish Tribe also operates a growing seafood business. Established in 1996 by tribal charter, Suquamish Seafoods Enterprise (SSE) was formed to develop seafood markets for tribal fishermen, as well as market the bountiful harvests of geoduck clams that populate the tribe’s surrounding waters. SSE benefits tribal members by supporting seafood sustainability, subsistence living—the traditional conservation and perpetuation of resources—and the tribal economy as a whole.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

The Suquamish Tribe is one of several tribal governments in the Salish Sea who coordinate the Tribal Canoe Journey. The annual event, where tribes and First Nations travel the waterways of their ancestors in dug-out cedar canoes to share traditional ways with one another, has become a vehicle for cultural resurgence throughout the region.

Chief Seattle Days is a three-day public festival established in 1911 to honor Chief Seattle. The first event was held on the current Celebration Grounds in downtown Suquamish by local tribal members, community residents, and civic leaders from the city of Seattle. At the time, the new town of Suquamish was linked to Seattle by foot-passenger ferries, which allowed city residents to travel across Puget Sound and enjoy the celebration.

Many of the same activities from the 1911 celebration are still featured today, including the traditional salmon bake, canoe races, baseball tournaments, drumming and dancing, and a memorial service for Chief Seattle at his gravesite in Suquamish. 

Throughout the years other events have been added to the celebration. These include a Coastal Jam that brings tribes together from throughout the region, a powwow, and a fun run, craft and food vendors, and the Chief Seattle Days Youth Royalty Pageant. This year's Chief Seattle Days takes place in Suquamish August 14 through 16.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Our location along the shores of Kitsap County in the Puget Sound region provides an abundance of tourism activities. People visit our area for recreational fishing, kayaking, hiking, and camping. Many of our businesses, including the White Horse Golf CourseKiana Lodge, and Clearwater Casino Resort, have been developed to grow tourist activities in the region.

In 2013, the Suquamish Tribe completed a decade-long capital campaign to create a network of structures in culturally significant areas on the Port Madison Indian Reservation. The network includes the Suquamish Museum, Chief Seattle’s gravesite, the House of Awakened Culture, the Suquamish Community Dock, and the Veteran’s Monument.

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

The Suquamish Tribe is a sovereign nation. As such, we have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, as outlined in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot. We see the U.S. as our trustee, responsible for defending our treaty rights and resources.

What message would you like to share with Suquamish youth?

Know and respect your culture. Listen to your elders and know your family tree. Work hard and get an education and training so you can support yourself. As you go through your life, honor the seven generations that preceded you and leave something for the seven generations that will follow you.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The last ten years of my life as chairman of the Suquamish Tribe have been very rewarding, and I am blessed. I was lucky to be here to oversee completion of our capital campaign to support Suquamish Dock, the House of Awakened Culture, and the Suquamish Museum, and to witness the election of President Obama, resulting in the most progressive administration in the history of U.S.–tribal relations.

Thank you.

Thank you.


Photos courtesy of the Suquamish Tribe; used with permission.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

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