Nearly three years ago, Seattle’s literary reputation was solidified on the world stage with its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. On Sept. 15, “Seismic — Seattle, City of Literature,” a collection of essays from Seattle-area writers like Timothy Egan, Claudia Castro Luna, Charles Johnson and more will be released — a series of reflections on what this status means for Seattle, and how art, literature and stories can be forces for change.
Kristen Millares Young, former Hugo House prose writer-in-residence, author of “Subduction” and editor of the collection, says the essay from Ken Workman (Duwamish, great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Si’ahl) “is canonical.”
“Seismic” will debut with a virtual performance by the contributors this month, hosted by Seattle Public Library at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 15. Online registration is required.
The Seattle Times is publishing the entirety of Young’s introduction and Workman’s essay here, unedited.
Kristen Millares Young, editor of “Seismic”
As editor of “Seismic — Seattle, City of Literature,” I asked artists and storytellers to reflect on what it means for Seattle to be a City of Literature. While celebrating Seattle’s inclusion in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, this collection is not a commemoration. It is a call to action. How can literary culture influence social change? “Seismic” is a living portrait of a city we love too much to lose.
If I had to tell you why Seattle is a literary city, I would say it is because I was able to become myself here. I learned how to inhabit my mind in this place. To hold space for your own story can be a revolutionary act.
The kindness and cruelty I have encountered in our region and history have compelled me to claim my own responsibility. When I first moved here in 2004, I became a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, now gone. Hurrying around town to conduct interviews on deadline, worried about the game of chicken that we play on side roads, I learned to cope with the dark, wet chill of our winters. I was born in a state as hot and humid as a person’s mouth. Freed from hurricanes, I am haunted still by the specter of a subduction-zone earthquake. Keep what you’ll need handy.
I didn’t always expect disaster. They say anticipation is the greater part of pleasure, and maybe there is a sick edge to knowing it could soon be fractured, this city, and with it, our fragile bodies, houses, psyches. I don’t know how we tolerate the cognitive dissonance of planting our lives in unstable soil. Those who moved here chose our fate within a seismic reckoning which I’ve come to see as myriad. Not just geologic but cultural. Not just topographic but economic. Not just historical but immediate.
This place helped make me who I am. Like so many settlers before me, I aim to stay. No es fácil. Food and shelter cost so much that people go without and are blamed for it. This, too, is a reckoning we must face — the compression of oncoming waves of workers in diaspora, come to seek jobs that may not provide. And yet, provide we must.
As a City of Literature, we carry stories for the unborn. What will we tell them of our time?
That in a pandemic we were asked to choose between profit and our vulnerable, elderly neighbors? That death forced us to keep a social distance? That to confront and heal our racial divides, we came together — or broke apart?
These essays represent a vision for our city that channels the best hopes of its artists, who were asked for their opinions prior to the pandemic, and whose wisdom should be considered as we revitalize our city’s neighborhoods and cultural institutions in the wake of COVID-19.
Reader of the present, take note: The reader of the future will study our society for clues about what and whom we protected. They will see whether we preserved and shared our abundance.
The corporate wealth which controls public process would have us believe anything is achievable if we work harder. A freelance veteran of the gig economy, I am here to tell you that such lies are designed to divest us of our labors. We are ceding control of the narrative. To what end?
Shall we tell them that ours was among the first generations to listen to women, and that when we spoke it was a howl?
That the earth spoke, and we did not listen?
We cannot answer these questions alone. Take strength in knowing that Seattle writers, readers, literary organizers and activists have counterparts in Barcelona, Baghdad, Bucheon, Durban, Lviv, Melbourne, Milan, Nanjing, Odessa, Prague, Reykjavík and beyond. Together we can own up to our role in the long story of living. For the great honor of curating this collection, I thank Stesha Brandon and the board members of Seattle City of Literature, who through their efforts have created a sanctuary for ideas. If the personal is political, then the local is global.
Our action must be collective to address the scale of the problems delineated with grace and clarity by contributors Claudia Castro Luna, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Dujie Tahat. Where do we find the hope? Look to the Lorde, Anastacia-Renée tells us. Find your purpose under pressure, writes Wei-Wei Lee. Walk these streets and see them for their lyric power, commands Jourdan Keith. Take stock of nature and our history, write Timothy Egan and Charles Johnson. With her visual essay, a cut-paper collage for the cover of “Seismic,” Mita Mahato reminds us that the beautiful struggle precedes and will outlast us.
We, whether newly arrived to Seattle or generations deep, are on Duwamish land, now deforested and poisoned by the hands of forebearers who straightened rivers, sluiced hills and flooded shorelines in the name of prosperity that has not been shared. It is time to honor the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed in 1855 by Chief Si’ahl, our city’s namesake and the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Ken Workman. Native words anchor this collection, which opens with an exhortation by Rena Priest. Their stories have lasted for millennia. And that is what UNESCO reaches for — the millennia, not just those which have already unfurled but those which remain for others to endure.
Note the recurrences in these essays. They are intentional. What must be remembered bears repeating. Resilience is a quality cultivated under duress, over time, against the odds and in community. To hold space for these stories is a sacred duty and a real joy in my literary life, in gratitude for which I remain,
Kristen Millares Young
Ken Workman, great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Si’ahl, or Sealth, as told to Kristen Millares Young
To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret . . .
Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors . . .
At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.
— Chief Si’ahl, namesake of the city of Seattle
I will speak, and I will tell you what I know. People call them stories. I’m just telling you the truth, and people say it comes out as a story.
I was born in Seattle and imprinted upon the smells of Seacrest Cove Park on the shores of Alki Beach in 1954. Whenever I get near that park, I feel more alive.
Growing up, my backyard was what they call Puget Park. There was a creek, hills, trees and wild forest everywhere. It fronted the entire west bank of the Duwamish River. Spring was the best time of year following the long, dark winters. Springtime’s when the big leaves come out on the maple trees, and the whole world comes alive again.
My brother and I played in the woods. Later in life — I am 66 now — I realized we were right there in close proximity to the Herring House village site, the last Duwamish village on our river. So many memories. Blue heron nests high in the trees, crawdads in the creek, raccoons and Christmas trees. Paddling in a dinghy on the Duwamish River. So many memories, but it took my whole life to understand that I grew up surrounded by ancestors — not a metaphor, but a biological reality.
Let me explain.
In 1854, according to Dr. Henry A. Smith’s 1887 account in the Seattle Sunday Star, Chief Seattle was making a speech where he taps Governor Isaac Stevens on the head and says, I am going to look over the treaty you’ve given us, but you should know the first thing we require is unencumbered access to our burial grounds. And then he says, You abandon your dead; you think they are powerless, but the ground is more living to our feet than it is to yours. When the lights are out and the streets are empty, they will throng with the ghosts of my people. And he talks about the hills, the valleys and how even the rocks resonate with the memories of my people.
When you take what Seattle said in this speech, which Dr. Henry A. Smith wrote in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887, putting in flowery stuff, when the way we Duwamish talk is more factual — when you start stripping everything away, Seattle was talking about the cycle of life, recognizing that we Duwamish are a part of everything — the tree, berry and even the blade of grass … everything! I went holy moly, and I started working on what he said in a context of science, which has confirmed the cycle of life and everything it implies.
Burial sites, kyo-ali, are a corpse place. Cemetery. So when relatives would pass, if a high-status person, you got elevated — buried among the branches of trees. And if you had a canoe, that meant you were really high status, so you were placed in your canoe and raised up high to decay naturally. All that biological material that was the person decays and moves down into the ground naturally. After all, we know that here on Earth, gravity pulls at a somewhat constant 32.167 feet per second squared. In springtime, all that stuff that’s in the ground — which was Grandpa and Grandma, Auntie and Uncle at the molecular level — gets sucked back into the trees. The trees — they’re connected by fungi — so the trees are talking to each other, sending these nutrients that were Grandpa and Grandma back and forth. And they help each other — the mother trees help smaller trees and other living things, as Professor Suzanne Simard of University of British Columbia explains through her research.
So you see, the Duwamish have been in this ground for so long that all that stuff — the biological material that was them — is all around you. We’re in the trees, the grass, the berries … everywhere. By logical extension, we are in the deer that eats the grass.
Seattle burned down in 1889 — and was rebuilt around 1909, that’s the current downtown Seattle in Pioneer Square — so now you have lots of 100-plus-year-old buildings that are starting to modernize. People are sandblasting the paint off the superstructure of massive timber beams. Those beams were made from trees grown right here. A simple trigonometric function will tell you that the DNA of the Duwamish people are in the buildings in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle.
So he was right, Chief Seattle, when he said that when the lights are out, and the streets are empty, our ghosts will throng among you. You built your city out of us. We are all around you — living — and we are also the ghosts that are in the trees. We are under the streets and in the buildings. The hills and the valleys, even the rocks resonate.
We Duwamish are living. We are still here. Even when you do not see us. We are everywhere. So say, “Thank you, Grandpa and Grandma,” the ancient ones that have passed on, for your lives. Say, “We see you in what we consume as food today. We recognize you in all things.”
This concept is universal; it’s not just the message of Chief Seattle.
I am just a voice telling a story, but it’s really the story of the whole planet, and only in modern society have we lost our minds, put bodies in hermetically sealed boxes in the ground, so the biological materials of those that have passed never mix back into the ground. It’s as if a steel plate were shoved between dynasties, between modern human beings and all that came before. Humans have been self-exiled from becoming one with the rest of the planet.
We’ve got stories in the tribe, the North Wind’s Weir story, on the Duwamish River, about when it was cold, and there was a great war, and then it wasn’t cold anymore. In our stories, we can track the ice sheets back to 10, 12 and 14,000 years. And all that time, as Duwamish, we’ve been living and dying here on the hills and valleys of Seattle.
Modern people are breathing the air provided by our Duwamish ancestors through the trees.
The new people, the white people … their DNA record here is but a handful of generations. They are a proud people, and this is good, but they are going to have to go a long, long way to catch up with the Duwamish in terms of generations. Our DNA record is 10,000 years old. We are still here. We are in the ground, and we have come up through the trees. The world will have to dig deep and long to fully extricate the last Duwamish bones, should it be the world’s desire to keep us from our land. We are in the ground, trees, berries and every blade of grass.
We are grateful for everything, even the blade of grass that gives its life so something else can survive. Do not waste a single life, for it is through that existence that we continue to endure today.
Be grateful. This is who we are. I am KW, ahta duwabsh, of the Duwamish.
Editor’s note: this essay is a distillation of an oral history shared in 2019 by Workman, who cited a speech given in 1854 by his ancestor Chief Si’ahl, a renowned orator of Suquamish and Duwamish parents. Si’ahl’s speech, reconstructed with questionable veracity by Dr. Henry Smith, was published in 1887 in the Seattle Sunday Star. Smith claimed he took notes during Si’ahl’s original oration, said to have been delivered in Lushootseed, translated into the Chinook language and translated again into English.
Si’ahl is believed to have delivered his speech in the presence of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens; both men were signatories to the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty, during which Si’ahl and more than 80 other tribal leaders ceded their ancestral lands in return for the establishment of reservations, continued hunting and fishing rights, access to ancestral burial sites and other promised tribal benefits.
The Duwamish Tribe exchanged more than 54,000 acres of their homeland — including Seattle, Renton, Tukwila, Bellevue, Mercer Island and much of King County — for a reservation and other treaty benefits that have never been accorded by the US Government.
To this day, the Duwamish Tribe — the People of the Inside, dxʷdəwʔabš — awaits federal acknowledgment.
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