I used to say that upscale, whitebread Seattle’s favorite “minority groups” were (1) upscale white women, (2) upscale white gays, and (3) dead black musicians.
When I said that, I’d forgotten about a fourth ethnic fave–the mythical Native American Symbol-Person.
Nearly every Seattle Caucasian loves this fantasy figure, in one pose or another.
Athletes and corporate-motivation fans love the Warrior.
Stoners and ex-stoners love the Wise Philosopher attuned with the Earth.
New Agers love the Healing Shaman.
Art collectors and interior decorators love the Anonymous Artisan. (I once met a young white sculptor who griped that no local tribe would let him buy his way into membership.)
All these groups tend to be somewhat less fond of actual, living, flesh-n’-blood indigenous men and women; particularly those who fail to live up to the symbols.
All this is a prelude to a plug for Native Seattle, a new UW Press book by UBC historian Coll Thrush.
Mary Ann Gwinn’s
Seattle Times review covers Thrush’s basic plot points well. To summarize: Amerindians weren’t just icons and muses. They were real people. And they still are. And they’ve remained a vital part of the city’s life, whether whitey’s aware of this or not.
Native Seattle is an important book, despite its shortcomings. Thrush has a stilting, academic writing style; he repeats the same arguments over and over. He admits to gaps in his research, particularly in finding actual living native folk willing to talk with him. And in the introduction, he audaciously compares his own “outsider” existence as a gay man with that of the First Peoples. (In real life, there’s no comparison. Trust me on this.)
In one sense, Thrush also stereotypes the local native people, as Tragic Colonial Victims whose story requires a Brave White Liberal to tell it.
But if Thrush fails to fully grasp the human side of his tale, the research-wonk side still fascinates.
He vividly depicts the seasonal camps and full-time settlements in and near the present-day city. He’s particularly fond of discussing the topography of these places, before Seattle’s great regrades, landfills, canals, and drainage projects changed it all.
And he rightfully notes that natives didn’t just “go away,” peacably or otherwise. They were integrated (sort of) into the urban economy from the start, as mill workers, cannery workers, sailors, cooks, maids, hookers/mistresses, etc.
Even as the reservation system developed, local Amerindians continued to live and work here, full-time or seasonally, through all of Seattle’s 156-year history.
They intermarried with whites and Filipinos. They came here from outlying tribal communities. They worked for Boeing, for construction companies, and for fishing fleets.
And they’re still some of us. Not ghosts, not apparitions, but actual humans, who live and die and think and feel and love and try to muddle through somehow.