Seeing Past the Totem Poles: Seattle's Native Histories

Coll Thrush, October 2004

Every American city is built on Indian land, but few advertise it like Seattle. You will notice American Indian images throughout the city: totem poles, statues of Chief Seattle, Tlingit orca manhole covers, a Salish basket-weave pattern in the bricks of a plaza, and the ubiquitous, iconic salmon. In addition to the distinct Indian inflections of the city's civic vocabulary, the Seattle area is home to more than 20 thousand Native American people representing scores of tribes. The Emerald City has three rich types of native history: the story of the local indigenous peoples; the experiences of Native American migrants to the city; and the ways in which non-native people have used American Indian images to explain their city's past. Together, these three kinds of history continue to shape life in Seattle.

Seattle's First Peoples

Syayahub, the ancient stories of Seattle's indigenous people, the Duwamish, the Shilshole, and the Lakes, include memories of the end of the Ice Age, accounts of massive earthquakes and catastrophic mudflows, and even tales of gradual climate change. By the late 18th century, what is now Seattle had become home to a cosmopolitan society based in cedar-longhouse towns with names like Merganser Place, Emerging and Entering, and Canoe Passage. With trade networks reaching into British Columbia and Oregon, towns like Little Crossing-Over Place, now buried under the Pioneer Square neighborhood, were hubs of economic, political, and spiritual power.

When British and American explorers, fur traders, and settlers arrived in Puget Sound, indigenous people who had survived the epidemics those newcomers brought actively sought inclusion in the new economy. Indigenous men and women, many under the leadership of a man whose name sounded something like see-athl, made city-founding possible. They cleared land and washed laundry, worked as sawmill laborers and prostitutes, and ferried settlers (and the U.S. mail) around the sound. Despite the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott and the "Indian war" of 1855–56, many indigenous people remained in and around Seattle, often as members of mixed-race families. As late as the 1870s, it was not uncommon for visitors to comment that the town seemed "more Indian than white."

In the late 19th century, however, the demographic picture began to rapidly alter. Thanks to steamship routes to Asia, rail connections with the United States, and gold strikes in the far north, Seattle's exogenous population exploded. For indigenous people, this urban revolution was devastating. As planners and engineers filled tidelands, dredged and straightened the Duwamish River, and built the Lake Washington Ship Canal, indigenous subsistence patterns were destroyed. While many people with indigenous heritage would continue to call Seattle home, many others moved from the new urban landscape, were removed, or—in at least two cases—starved to death. By the 1920s, when anthropologists and others sought information about Seattle's indigenous past, they had to leave the city to find it, visiting descendants on the Muckleshoot and Suquamish reservations—many of whom continued to refer to the city as Little Crossing-Over Place rather than Seattle.

The Creation of an Indian Hinterland

Long before the term "Inside Passage" had ever been coined, the Northwest Coast was woven together by indigenous traditions of travel and migration that became even stronger with the creation of urban centers like Seattle and Victoria. As early as the 1870s, periodic influxes of Native American migrants had become part of the city's civic calendar. On their way to and from the hop fields of Puget Sound, native people from the Washington coast, British Columbia, and even Southeast Alaska routinely stopped in Seattle to purchase provisions, sell baskets and other trade items, and take in the urban sights. Far from eroding traditional cultural practices, urban sojourns often strengthened them; American Indian agents all along the Northwest Coast noted that the potlatch tradition had taken on new and more elaborate forms with the arrival of objects like phonographs and crown molding bought in Seattle.

As native people moved up and down the coast, native objects and images moved with them, becoming part of the urban cultural economy. Totem poles, baskets, ritual objects, and native-style art sold in places like Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (which still exists) found their way both to private tchotchke shelves and the halls of the Smithsonian and the Field Museums. Just as cities like Chicago transformed nature in their hinterlands, and were in turn transformed themselves, Seattle transformed, and was transformed by, its Indian hinterland. No event captured this new urban reality more than the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 and its overtones of empire. With its "Jap-Alaskan" architecture and displays of native objects and people, the exhibition illustrated Seattle's new imperial iconography. At the same time, some native people actively participated in the world's fair, seeing Seattle's "coming out party" as the ideal venue to pursue their own personal, political, economic, and cultural ambitions. In just a few short years, Seattle's encounter with its regional empire had remade both center and periphery, and had linked urban and Indian histories in new ways.

Urban Legends, Indian Stories

The use of stories about Native Americans to make sense of the urban past has also entwined local urban and Indian history. During Seattle's boom years in the early 20th century, for example, two competing narratives employed native imagery. Civic boosters, many of them made rich by Seattle's encounter with Alaska, used Northwest Coast native images to advertise their city. Civic groups known as the three "tribes" of the Tillikums of Elttaes (tillikum means "friend" in Chinook Jargon; Elttaes is Seattle spelled backwards) organized a series of civic festivals that they called potlatches, as if to bring back the memories of the traditional feasts. Sometimes dressed as totem poles, boosters used Indian images to highlight their city's modernity.

During the years of Seattle's most dramatic growth, many Seattleites turned to stories about Native Americans to express their anxieties about urban and environmental change. Their social and political power waning in metropolitan Seattle, descendants of pioneer families created a cottage industry out of writing memoirs lamenting the passing of a bucolic world of romantic Indians and unmarred nature. They equated the passing of the pioneers with the passing of the "vanishing red man." One even went so far as to recall the burning of indigenous longhouses and then mourning the loss of her own childhood home. The figure of Chief Seattle as both doomed indigenous prophet and the city's first environmentalist has resonated into the present day to assuage 21st-century anxieties, just as totem poles continue to dominate Seattle's urban iconography.

Legacies of the Native Past

In the American imagination, Indian history and urban history are often portrayed as mutually exclusive; one represents the past, the other, the future. In Seattle, however, those two kinds of history have always been entangled with each other. Even more important, Seattle's native pasts are far from over. While metaphorical Indians still tend to dominate civic consciousness, real native people are more central than ever to urban life. Since the 1950s, American Indians from diverse tribal backgrounds—many of them women—have struggled to claim space within the city, capitalizing on the rise of multicultural civic politics and postwar urban reinvestment to create institutions like the Daybreak Star Cultural Center that transcend tribal and territorial boundaries. Meanwhile, descendants of Seattle's indigenous people, as members of treaty tribes, have secured unprecedented legal authority over the city, from fisheries management to protection of archeological sites. Even the Duwamish, who lost tribal recognition in the 1970s, have claimed a powerful cultural authority in the city, particularly during historical observances. In these ways, Seattle's urban and Indian histories are still shaping each other, and it is through this complicated landscape that you will travel to the annual meeting.
To see elements of Seattle's native history for yourself, visit the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Discovery Park, the Museum of History and Industry near UW's campus, or the Suquamish Tribal Museum across Puget Sound from Seattle.

Coll Thrush is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee who teaches in the Program on the Environment at the University of Washington. His book The Crossing-Over Place: Unearthing Seattle's Native Pasts is forthcoming from the University of Washington Press.