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Ken Workman

Descendants Project logo
Ken Workman

Kikusolbu (Princess Anegline), photographed by Edward S. Curtis (left) and Ken Workman,
photographed by John Graybill for The Descendants Project (right)

Descendants photo © Curtis Legacy Foundation 2019

Just one glance at the photo of Ken Workman (b. 1954) and his life's story begins to unfold before your eyes. Off in the distance is Seattle, which was named for his 4th great-grandfather, Chief Seattle (Si'ahl). Like his famous ancestor, Ken is a member of the Duwamish tribe. Although Edward Curtis did not photograph Chief Seattle, he did create pictures of Ken’s famous 3rd great-aunt, Princess Angeline (Kick-is-om-lo) – the first-born daughter of Chief Seattle.


It is no coincidence that Ken is leaning against a tree in his photograph. Trees symbolize a powerful connection to the past as they contain the molecular DNA of deceased Duwamish ancestors. Ken explained: “material that was grandma and grandpa goes back down into the ground, all that soft material and bones....and then when the springtime comes, that stuff that's in the ground that used to be Grandma and Grandpa, it gets sucked back up into the trees....When we look at our trees, we say, ‘Oh, that's grandma and grandpa because there’s a burial ground right over there’.” Looking out upon Seattle, Ken is reminded of the ancestral DNA treasure that lies hidden due to economic expansion. When we’re sitting out here in Duwamish land, we’re sitting literally on the bones of our ancestors. We are buried underneath the streets. We are buried underneath the parking lots.... My people are in the wood that built the core of downtown.”


Ken believes that “in all things we are connected.” He connects to trees by talking to them in his native language. “My impetus for learning Lushootseed was to talk to trees.” To stay connected to his cousin, Mary Lou Slaughter (3rd great-granddaughter of Princess Angeline), Ken wore the cedar vest she made for him in his photograph. “Her DNA is in these strands right here [pointing to the vest]. So, we are all connected.”


Even though Ken’s photograph emanates pride (and rightly so,) he was the first in his family to embrace his heritage. He learned from early on that it was preferred to hide his Native American side,  which was

possible given his German ancestral blend. “I think to hide yourself... was better because if you were Indian, a dog would be treated better. The verbal abuse, the physical abuse, societal abuse by being Native American was off the charts.” As a result, Ken learned of his relationship to Chief Seattle from a co-worker. Despite all of this, Ken is optimistic about the future. “We are not out of the woods yet. We are getting a whole lot better because we are learning how to talk, we are learning how to be proud to stand up in society.”

Text by Dr. Shawn Pohlman

Your donation for this project will go to the Curtis Legacy Foundation.

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