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Review

Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place

By Coll Thrush

November 4, 2013

Review By Jean Barman

Coll Thrush’s book lies at the intersection of two bodies of scholarship that usually run parallel to each other. Urban history and Indian history meet in Native Seattle with panache and authority. Thrush tracks the presence of Indians, his term of choice, both as persons and as symbols in the settlement history of the northwestern United States’ most prominent urban conglomeration.

Thrush’s main point is captured in the first sentence of Chapter 1: “Every American city is built on Indian land, but few advertise it like Seattle” (3). In ten linked chapters, some more essay-like than others, Thrush describes the much celebrated “founding of Seattle” at Alki Point in 1851, describes the next two decades during which newcomers relied on Indian people, details their marginalization to the periphery of the increasingly self-confident city, tracks the growing appeal of Indian imagery, and acknowledges the self-confidence that encouraged Indian peoples’ return to some aspects of Seattle life during the second half of the twentieth century.

The text operates on two levels. Thrush approaches Seattle not as a case study but, rather, as the emotional core of his inner self. Seattle is him, and he is of Seattle. He writes with a flourish, and the text is in turn evocative, reflective, and exhilarating. The enthusiasm obscures the book’s solidity. The breadth and intensity of primary research that girds each point in the text makes the footnotes exciting in and of themselves for scholarly readers. Thrush has plumbed an incredible array of sources, from governmental and family archives to contemporary newspapers and books to manuscript censuses (which, fortunately for historians of the United States, are available for research after seventy years, unlike the ninety years in Canada) to personal interviews. It is this combination of intimacy and deep scholarship that gives Native Seattle its power and authority. 

Thrush’s subtitle, Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, has another meaning, I expect, for British Columbian and Alaskan readers than for their Seattle counterparts. Indian peoples’ reliance on large canoes to travel up and down the coast meant that both British Columbians and Alaskans “crossed over” to Seattle and its environs. While Thrush seeks to focus on the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and other local peoples, their British Columbian and Alaskan counterparts repeatedly intrude into the text. Nuu-chah-nulth, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, and their neighbours lived and worked in Seattle as a matter of course. For Tsimshian diarist Arthur Wellington Clah, Seattle was the “great city” (111). It was Alaskan artistic creativity that formed the core of Seattle’s conception of itself as an Indian place. Thrush describes how visiting Seattle clergymen, land developers, and bankers blithely sawed down a coastal Alaskan totem pole honouring a Tlingit woman who had drowned and then reinstalled the Chief-of-All-Women pole in Pioneer Place Park as Seattle’s first piece of public art (113-14). At the same time, Washington differed in important ways from British Columbia, including with regard to miscegenation laws that, from 1855 onwards, banned interracial marriage, whereas Canada never formalized the everyday racism characterizing both places.

Well-chosen images enhance the text, which would have benefited from maps plotting the spatial dimension of the changing face of Seattle Thrush traces so eloquently in words. Readers may find it useful, as I did, to print out relevant maps from the web to plot Puget Sound and Seattle locations central to the flow of the text.

When maps do appear, it is for a different purpose. The last fifty pages contain a co-authored “Atlas of Indigenous Seattle.” Some 127 sites are mapped (although not with sufficient specificity actually to locate them), named in English and the local language, and described with regard to their most prominent natural features. Native Seattle is an important book both in and of itself and for the challenge it throws down to historians of other cities to rethink their pasts more honestly and creatively.