Alaska tribal members revisit horrific history in Coupeville

COUPEVILLE — Of all the phone calls that come into the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville, there probably will not be another that created the sort of buzz that rattled the front desk three weeks ago.

Michael Ferri, a museum volunteer and local history buff, picked up the phone, listened to the voice of a young woman and couldn’t believe his ears. She told him she was a member of a Native American tribe in Southeast Alaska known as the Kake, and she wanted to bring some of the tribe’s elders on a visit to Coupeville, a place that held historic significance to her people.

“She said, ‘I’m sure you haven’t heard of us,’” Ferri said, recalling the conversation. “I said, ‘Oh, yes, I have. Everybody in Coupeville knows about the Kake.’ I was exaggerating, of course.”

People familiar with the early history of Whidbey Island are likely to have heard about the gruesome demise of one of the island’s most prominent early figures.

Col. Isaac Ebey, the first permanent white settler to stake a claim on land that is now referred to as Ebey’s Prairie, was shot, killed, then beheaded in front of his home in 1857 in an act of vengeance by a Northern Indian tribe.

That tribe was a part of the Tlingit Indians known as the Kake.

When Rick Castellano, the museum’s executive director, got the message that Kake members wanted to visit that same prairie 157 years after the historic incident, he said he was so shocked and excited “I tried not to fall over.”

“I’ve been looking forward to this visit forever,” he said.

The historic return took place Aug. 11, when five Kake tribal members, including three elders, visited the former site of Ebey’s house that they, too, had only read about or remembered hearing stories as part of the oral tradition of their tribe’s culture.

The Kake tribe delegation arrived the evening of Aug. 10, when they came by ferry from Port Townsend and attended an informal reception dinner and gift exchange at the home of Ferri, where the ice was immediately broken by a tribal elder’s humorous remark.

“We come in peace,” Ruth Demmert said to her hosts, drawing laughter.

Castellano kept news of the Kake visit mostly quiet, not wanting to interfere with an experience that was emotionally moving to some of the members.

Coupeville was more of a side trip. The tribe had received a grant to engage in a cultural exchange with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and visited that tribe on the Kitsap Peninsula to re-establish connections, share information and learn more about a sad chapter of their tribal past.

In 1856, 27 members of the Kake tribe, including a chief, were killed in Port Gamble during a shelling by the USS Massachusetts.

That attack led to the act of revenge by a raiding party a year later against Ebey, who wasn’t a part of the Port Gamble attack, yet was a suitable target because of his stature among his people on Whidbey.

“In reality, it wasn’t just us suffering a murder of Col. Ebey,” Ferri said. “They lost 27 members of their tribe and a head chief over there at Port Gamble.

“This was sadness and sorrow on each side of the divide there.”

Lynn Hyde, education and outreach coordinator for the Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve, led the Kake members on a tour of the land where their tribal members took part in the midnight raid that led to Ebey’s death.

An Ebey historian, she shared what she knew of that fateful evening from diary entries and other sources and led the visitors into the historic Ferry House, which was built on the same property three years after Ebey’s death. She eventually took them to an adjacent field where Ebey’s home once stood and where he fell for the last time.

“This is where all of the drama took place,” she said.

Hyde spared few details of that night, pointing out that there were eight people in the house, including three children, when their dog’s barking woke them up. Hyde told about Ebey stepping outside to find out what disturbed his dog, then getting shot in the head and rushing back to the porch to warn others to flee. Silence fell over the guests from the Kake tribe and others who attended.

“We walked in two worlds back then where they had no law and order,” Demmert said. “They figured an eye for an eye. Revenge.”

Hyde would later recount vivid details of USS Massachusetts’ attacks on the Kake Indians at Port Gamble, pointing out that women also lost their lives.

“It’s a sad story, you know,” Demmert said.

“The whole era is a sad story,” Hyde said “We still have a lot to learn about why. We don’t have the other side. We only have our side.”

In time, the visitors and their hosts were able to engage in more light-hearted conversation about the past and the present.

Both parties reflected on the significance of Kake tribal members coming back to Ebey’s Prairie.

What added to the experience was that Aug. 11 marked the 157-year anniversary of Ebey’s death.

Dawn Jackson, a tribal member who organized the trip, said that was entirely coincidental.

“Its kind of eerie,” she said.

“My knees get weak just thinking about the date this happened,” Demmert said. “Just reliving history and coming here and hearing the way you people tell the happenings on that day, we can go back and talk about the way this happened.”

Near the end of the visit, Jackson wound up walking to the bluff, retracing in her mind the steps of past tribal members who had come by canoe more than 1,000 miles away 157 years ago.

She grew up learning bits and pieces about what happened in the Puget Sound area and even came to Whidbey Island on past trips, but she was unaware of a direct tribal connection at Ebey’s Landing.

“I’d always come through here when I was in graduate school,” said Jackson, who attended the University of British Columbia. “I got off the ferry and came through here and would see that bluff all the time and always wanted to go up there. Now I know why.”

Ron Newberry: 360-675-6611; rnewberry@whidbeynewsgroup.com

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