Native Seattle : histories from the crossing-over place

by Coll-Peter Thrush

Hardcover, 2007




Seattle : University of Washington Press, c2007.

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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
I found this book to be pretty disappointing. Some of that is because it wasn't quite what I was expecting, and some of that is because it doesn't do what it promises in its opening pages.

First of all, it is very clear that this was written as graduate student work. I'm a graduate student in history myself, so that isn't a criticism. But it does mean that it is geared more towards professors and towards certain academic goals than towards a popular audience. As a Seattle resident with only a vague idea of Seattle's history, I was hoping for something designed for a popular audience. The book tends to assume that you know the major stories of Seattle's history, such as the Denny Party landing, the importance of the AYP Exhibitions, the Indian "attack" on Fort Lawton. It assumes that you know who all of the big names in Seattle history are. Most frustratingly, there is a lot of discussion of Chief Seattle's famous speech, with some reference to the fact that Seattle probable didn't say most of what is in the speech as we know it, but there was absolutely no discussion of what parts of the speech came from him, and only a few lines of the speech are quoted in the book. Since I'm not well-versed in Seattle history, it was really hard for me to see how this native history is distinct from Seattle's master narrative, and I was often confused about the events Thrush was discussing. So don't pick this up expecting it to be a good book to learn Seattle's history. It's a good book to supplement your knowledge, but assumes that you already know Seattle's history pretty well.

The introduction discusses at great length how most people think that Indian history and urban history are mutually exclusive: that is, Indians exist in the wilderness, then white people come in and build cities and push Indians out. Thrush claims that the book will debunk this myth and show that Indians do have an urban history. He also claims that he will use evidence from Native Americans and let their voices tell this Indian urban history. The book doesn't do these things at all. Actually, it is very much a story of marginalization, imperialism, and appropriation of native imagery by whites. The book does talk about some Indians who live in Seattle, but the vast majority of the evidence is anecdotal, and mostly seems to reinforce the master narrative. The Indians he does describe in Seattle have lowly service jobs, or live on the notorious Skid Road (although he assumes that you know why Skid Road is notorious, and does very little to describe it).

Really, instead of an Indian urban history, this is a history of white attitudes to Indians and white appropriation of Indian traditions, art, and imagery for their own political and imperialist needs. I did not feel that Indians had a voice in this book at all, and other than a few place-names, I learned basically nothing about Indian culture.

The anecdotal nature of the evidence was especially distressing. Nowhere are there any statistics about numbers of Indians living in Seattle, or where they lived, or what their economic status has been. Thrush will make some statement along the lines of "Lots of Indians lived south of downtown and worked in local businesses," and then he'll name two Indians and where they worked. Or he'll say that Indian memories of certain places remained intact for generations, and then he'll quote one sentence from an oral history interview of one Indian. I feel like Thrush is trying to investigate Indian history, but the only tools he has at his disposal are the tools we use to study white history - government records, newspapers, and documents. Even the nature of the evidence could have become an interesting discussion, but Thrush never discusses it.

Wow, this review has turned out to be a lot more scathing than I meant it to be. Some of my negativity is because I was hoping this would be more of a general history, and I wasn't expecting the book to have prerequisites. But the book also has some pretty big flaws as a work of history.
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inscribed to David Brewster by author



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