Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place By Coll Thrush, University of Washington Press, 2007, Hardcover, 376 pages, $28.95
“Stories matter.” A simple enough statement. When considering the history of a city, stories do matter. So do dates, geography, battles, taxes, laws, population, statistics, deaths, births, flora, and fauna, all of which have been carefully documented in attempts to historicizing this place we call Seattle. But stories, often the most controversial and misrepresented parts of history, are what make telling that history important – they give this place meaning.
In Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, Coll Thrush retells much of Seattle’s mainstream history, from the landing of the Denny party in 1851 up through the modern environmental movement, adding in the previously overlooked Native stories. His work complicates Seattle’s history by changing the connotations of Seattle’s nickname, “the crossing-over place,” from a transitional point– a hinge between the edge of civilization and the start of the wild, where one race was removed while another was imported – to a muddled back and forth, confused migration of canoes, Bostonians, and Alaskan totem poles.
In doing this, Thrush makes an overly ambitious attempt to refute the idea “that Indians and cities are mutually exclusive,” and ends up merely proving that they’re not entirely incompatible. His provocative statements, such as “without the labor of Indians, Seattle would have been stillborn,” create a desire for substance that the book doesn’t provide. He shows some evidence of the importance of early Natives as laborers, but not enough to be convincing. The tales Thrush recounts of Indians lingering in Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods as the rest of the Native population moves to reservations, create sympathy, but fail to transform these Natives from passive victims to active participants in that time in Seattle’s history.
He is ambitious to a fault, but what he fails to do in execution he almost makes up for in principle. By retelling Seattle’s history, Thrush works to re-open Indian history. When Frederick Jackson Turner closed the American West in his 1893 speech at the World’s Fair, he metaphorically closed Native American history. While this assumption shouldn’t need to be refuted, the novelty of Thrush’s subject matter proves that it does.
The greatest achievement in his book is that he names those history has overlooked, whose stories are not told. He artfully, if not clearly, highlights that “Indian history can, and does, happen in urban places;” there’s no straight line from first contact to the reservation.
Through intensive and in-depth research he has unearthed remnants, often consisting of merely a name and a place, of native stories. By including those names linked to this place he challenges the picturesque landscape of Seattle’s history by making the pictures look back. Just a name and a place, that’s how most good stories begin anyway.