Coll Thrush starts his book Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place: “Every American city is built on Indian land, but few advertise it like Seattle.” To wit, Seattle hasn’t so much developed an ethos of its own as mastered the avoidance of doing so. In lieu, we nominally borrow one from the Duwamish—now Muckleshoot and Suquamish, if you know your treaties (99 percent of Seattleites don’t)—and inappropriately celebrate it with imagery from Northwest Coastal Peoples from farther north. (I acknowledge there is effort to remedy this in some spheres, but it remains marginal.)
Indigenous Seattleites blinked and trees became buildings, gathering places became airfields, and plentiful salmon became slicks of oil and car wash runoff. “Longtime” and recent Seattleites wave their Native history and progressive flags with characteristically tepid exuberance, as if endogenous to their own personal stories and sense of place. Yet, a gentle cat’s scratch of the surface and it’s clear such notions of local pride are not just unmoored but contradictory to the primary values that actually govern most Seattleites’ lives: American exceptionalism, independence, and unchecked capitalism.
The socialist leanings of this area’s Scandinavian immigrants have certainly left their mark on the city’s political face and cultural attitudes. However, we lack the national social safety-nets and labor unions that underpin the strong markets and private ownership in modern Nordic countries. So, Seattleites spin their wheels in reiterative ideation so as to create the former, without desire to relinquish any part of the latter, in ahistorical, hyperlocal flair. This is a long way of describing our characteristic NIMBYism, and we thus could have skipped the history. But it is, in fact, important to understand the trails of Manifest Destiny and settler colonialism that got us here.
Seattleites mean well. More than any place I’ve lived, Seattle is paved with purported good intention. But the road does, in fact, lead to hell, as is apparent in Magnuson Park. It is part of an area originally known in Whulshootseet as “Digging in the Water”: 4,000 acres of wetlands teeming with nutritious wapato. Now a former naval station, it is home to housing projects disproportionately lived in by people of color, particularly Native people. Denizens of expensive homes, with mountain- and lake-view windows gleaming in the sun, sit apart and reflect on the housing integration experiment below and wonder how such good intentions resulted in isolation, segregation, and ultimately the recent death of a Black pregnant mother at the hands of police.
It’s a tragic story heard the country over, and yet it happened in progressive Seattle in one of the wealthiest, whitest ZIP codes. How does one explain that this happened because Seattle doesn’t know its own story? That in a progressive city, a pregnant Black mother died at the hands of police because we don’t know her story, or the story of the people who have been here for millennia from whom we’ve borrowed a bastard of a story to fashion an identity?
Seattle’s ethos is really none other than that of wild westward expansion with a tech boom to highlight it. And while there is a vestige of social policy living under the earth as Indigenous knowledge or in the hearts of our Nordic immigrants, the city is so quickly changing it’s unlikely that those notions will ever really be put to the test. Can a city evolve from established NIMBYism to one of truth and reconciliation with its colonial past to create an equitable future? Or will we once again be advertising a cool notion that we barely understand but call our identity?