Book summary: Native Seattle by Coll Thrush

A white woman buying a basket from a Native basket vendor, likely Makah or Nuu-chah-nulth (1911)
(Source)

The idea that Indians and cities are mutually exclusive– or, more to the point, that Native people do not ‘belong’ in urban places– is, in addition to being an outgrowth of broader American ideas about progress, also a result of the simple fact that Indian people can be very hard to find in cities. (Introduction)

Note: Now that I am back in school, I am finding that I have pretty much no time to blog anymore. I wanted to try to post the occasional book review of whatever I am currently reading for comps, but I don’t even have time for that, really. However, it’s not like I have a shortage of stuff that I am writing; because this blog is my study tool and a place of learning (or so I would like to think), I am going to go ahead and post rough drafts of things that I am writing for class. Therefore, here is where I have to include a disclaimer: While I am more than happy to share my thoughts on whatever scholarship I may be reading, these are my thoughts. Therefore, I highly recommend that you use these reviews/summaries/whatever as a starting point for deeper research, and do not copy what I am posting. That is plagiarism, and plagiarism is very frowned upon in academia.

Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush is an in-depth analysis of the complex relationship between American Indians and white settlers/inhabitants in Seattle since the landing of the first settlers, the Denny Party, in 1851 to the present. Thrush seeks to dispel the widely-accepted assumption that is particularly pervasive in Seattle itself of the “Myth of the Vanishing Race,” a complex (yet false) belief that Native Americans—frequently represented as the “noble savage” or the angry warrior—disappeared after the arrival of white settlers. His main argument is that the many tribes that comprise(d) what is now known as Seattle were crucial and integral participants in the development of the modern city, moving well beyond the 1930’s, which is when history begins to essentially exclude them due to pervasive stereotypes and discrimination. 

Thrush utilizes different types of histories—environmental, cultural, and urban—to illustrate his work. He predominantly relies on multitudes of stories of individuals, groups, or tribes to illustrate the ideas of each chapter, which are mostly chronological explications of the history of Seattle since 1851. He also uses a variety of other sources, such as the U.S. Census, field notes, and archaeological sources, and integrates indigenous jargon and terminology as well as racist rhetoric that was long rampant in Seattle, all of which put the reader “into Seattle” across the decades. Two of the largest ideas that Thrush examines are Seattle’s treatment of American Indian imagery and folklore, which are both tied into the idea of “nature” (much of the forestry and landscape was removed or drastically altered with the building of the city), and both of which the city is very fond of promoting and displaying. All of these notions reinforce the idea of the “myth” of the Native American while quashing their reality. This reinforcement of the myth perpetuates the idea that the American Indian (as most people understand him/her) is no longer a part of the city, since people cannot grapple with picturing Native Americans in an urban setting. However, while they have been undoubtedly marginalized, they have been—and still are—an active presence in Seattle. He also discusses how Seattle was not only home to just indigenous tribes, but also to many other Native Americans from all along the Pacific Coast, as it was a major draw for work and food resources in the decades leading up to the early-mid twentieth century.

Chapter 1 serves as an overview of Seattle’s current “place-story” and how its Native Americans are currently treated by scholarship and contemporary culture, which both have essentially rendered them as metaphors. Chapter two commences the chronological retelling of Seattle from 1851 to the present, which each subsequent chapter delving into specific time ranges and the issues encountered in those eras: the “village period,” which spanned from about 1852 to 1883 and was filled with stories of the Illahee (a brothel comprised of almost all Native women) and Indian labor, which helped turn Seattle into a major town on the West Coast; 1900 Seattle, which was in the process of becoming a major metropolis that was attracting Native Americans all the way from Alaska for seasonal work and fishing; the activism of the Native American communities in the 1970’s, which brought attention to the destruction of a major Indian neighborhood, Indian Skid Road. Native Seattle also includes an excellent forward by fellow historian William Cronon, who highlights the major contributions Thrush made with his book; the end of the book features an “atlas” of indigenous terms, which he comprised with the assistance of linguist Nile Thompson, and some excellent maps by graduate student Amir Sheikh, which illustrate the many areas Thrush mentions throughout his work.

Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place may be largely about the history of a specific urban location and the evolving relationship between Native Americans and non-Natives, but this book makes a bigger contribution to the historical field outside of just Seattle. Thrush demonstrates that we need to take our gaze away from isolated, (stereo)typical locations to find Native American history, such as reservations and the “frontier,” and instead look at all around us to consider the interwoven relationship of different peoples in the building of modern-day America. This lends itself to postmodernism, allowing us to look past the easy metaphors and modernist perspectives and look at history through eyes that take into account issues of multiculturalism, race, gender, ethnicity, and class.

This first-draft summary was written for HIST 6317: Readings in the American West at CU Boulder
(c) Stefani at Florence and the Historian

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2 thoughts on “Book summary: Native Seattle by Coll Thrush

  1. Nice review. The also lends itself perfectly to “ethnohistory” where the process of writing the book and the author’s experiences are necessary to understand the book more holistically. “History in the round” as someone has said.

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