Beneath the bricks and cobbles of old Seattle lies another landscape with a more ancient history. Once longhouses stood at the foot of Yesler...

Share story

Beneath the bricks and cobbles of old Seattle lies another landscape with a more ancient history. Once longhouses stood at the foot of Yesler Way. Where the King Street Station now stands, flounder swam in a tidal marsh, and Indians from nearby villages caught, cooked and ate them. Trails from bay to lake and back crisscrossed this gathering place and led to other Indian settlements on Lake Washington and as far south as Renton.

The Natives called it “Little Crossing-Over Place” in their language, Whulshootseed. Though white civilization altered the place almost beyond recognition, the name endured in indigenous memory — the Whulshootseed term for “Little Crossing-Over Place” was used by Native speakers for Seattle until World War II.

Today the city that sprang from this Native nerve center contains 10,000 residents who claim indigenous ancestry — “lawyers and activists, bus drivers and artists, bankers and newspaper editors,” writes historian Coll Thrush in his vivid new book, “Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place” (University of Washington Press, 326 pp., $28.95). “Native Seattle” chronicles the breathtaking and traumatic pace of change Seattle’s Native people have endured, and the resiliency with which they have regrouped and reconstituted themselves.

“Native Seattle” is a dark narrative in many ways — from the smallpox epidemics that destroyed populations long before the Denny pioneer party landed in 1851, to the obliteration of the landscape, vividly re-created in “Native Seattle’s” superb “Atlas of Indigenous Seattle,” which Thrush and Nile Thompson reconstructed from several anthropological sources. One early ethnographer, Thomas Talbot Waterman, estimated that “On Puget Sound alone, there seem to have been in the neighborhood of ten thousand proper names” of places in the Native landscape and memory. As Thrush compiled maps of names and locations of Native Seattle places, Thompson, a linguist, worked on reconstructing the names as expressed in Whulshootseed.

As Thompson translated, the two often discovered the eerie descriptive power of the Indian names. Said Thrush, a University of British Columbia professor who grew up in Auburn: ” I would say, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly what the place looks like.’ These names are the closest things we have to photographs” of Seattle before white settlement.

“Native Seattle” documents the past and tells a survival story. Though 19th- and 20th-century writers romanticized the notion of the “vanishing Indian,” Seattle’s Native people are still very much in and of the city — not just the Duwamish, the Muckleshoots, the Suquamish and other local tribes, but from many other farther-flung tribes who have migrated and made their home here.

The author tells this story in “Native Seattle,” and its atlas meticulously describes the “lost” places of the Indian landscape. But they’re not really lost — they live today under the city’s 21st-century skin. Here’s a timeline of the city’s Native history from “Native Seattle,” and places in the city where Native history underwrites the city’s story:

Village of many people, 1852-1884

Seattle’s “village period” began with the Denny Party’s 1852 move from Alki to the Seattle waterfront. It ended with the coming of the railroad in 1883. One visitor to that long-ago town called it “a very small village, really more Indian than White!”

Natives helped the early town survive, selling settlers ducks and game, working at the sawmill as cooks and washerwomen, and (less respectably) as prostitutes in the town’s notorious “Lava Beds” south of Mill Street. The city’s need for labor forced civic leaders to fight federal efforts to banish Natives to reservations — the city needed its “lumbermen and laundresses, hunters and haulers,” Thrush writes.

The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott helped cement relatively peaceful, if not congenial, relations — a group of Duwamish Indians and white men living with Indian women warned settlers of an impending attack by Leschi, a Nisqually militant who organized an attack on the city.

Mixed-race unions were common, including one between pioneer Henry Yesler (whose wife was living in Ohio) and a Duwamish woman; their daughter, Julia Yesler, is featured in a stately 19th-century photograph in Thrush’s book.

Nadir of indigenous Seattle, 1884-1920

An era of pragmatic coexistence ended with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Boom-bust cycles from 1880-1920 would drive many Native people from their last refuges within the city limits. It was the “nadir” of the indigenous Seattle story, Thrush writes. Sometimes the destructive force was development, sometimes outright arson; a complex of Duwamish tribal longhouses was burned by whites in 1893. This past June, the Duwamish finally broke ground for restoration of the buildings.

In 1910, one Indian agent estimated that 1,000 to 3,000 Indians were both landless and homeless. The building of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks wiped out several Indian settlements that until then had managed to survive.

A sad and shameful story of this period was that of Seetoowathl, a Duwamish Indian who lived in a ramshackle floating house near the mouth of the Duwamish — the longtime resident, who had been interviewed by early-20th-century ethnographers, starved to death in the hard winter of 1920, in the middle of a booming city with 300,000 inhabitants.

Some indigenous people moved to reservations (Muckleshoot and Suquamish). The Duwamish remained, but whites opposed a proposed reservation for the tribe in south Seattle. Their lack of a formal “reservation” has contributed to a decades-long and to-date unsuccessful quest for federal tribal recognition.

Indians from outside the city began to travel here for seasonal employment. Makahs from the Olympic Peninsula, tribes from the north coast and even Canada came to work the hop fields, pick berries and vegetables, and use the cash to buy household essentials and “prestige” items like phonographs and sewing machines. On Seattle’s streets, Native women sold their exquisite baskets, which became status symbols among upper-class white women. Carrie Burke, the wife of a Seattle judge, acquired enough of the baskets that her artifacts became a core of the Burke Museum’s collection.

As whites moved Indians to the margins, they appropriated their culture and symbols. A low point of this cultural theft occurred in 1899 when a group of Seattle business leaders cruising the coast of Alaska cut down a totem pole erected in honor of a Tlingit noblewoman, discarded her cremated remains and erected the stolen pole in Pioneer Place Park.

For a time before World War I, the “core of urban power” in Seattle was a club, the Tilikum of Elttaes (“Seattle” spelled backwards), a group of white businessmen who performed totem-pole dances. This group used the name of a Native ceremony, the potlatch, for the city’s biggest booster festival. Native carvers sold their work to tourists at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, and in 1939, the city appropriated “a suspiciously Roman-looking profile of Chief Seattle” for its official city seal, Thrush writes.

Depression, war, rebirth

During the Depression, Native people working Seattle’s farms, sawmills and canneries lost their jobs and went hungry along with other laid-off workers. But the city’s multicultural mix would create a new generation of Indian activists — Indians and members of the city’s Filipino population intermarried, creating the “Indipino” families that included Bernie Reyes Whitebear and Bob Santos, who helped shape the Indian rights movements in the city in the 1950s and ’60s.

During World War II, Natives took jobs at Boeing and became ever more integrated into the city’s fabric, prompting one anthropologist to note that Native people on Puget Sound had “come through remarkably well” considering Seattle’s “rigorous mushroom development.”

In the 1950s, Indians laid off after the wartime boom were cut adrift, and the ranks of Seattle’s Skid Road population swelled. A group of seven Native women founded the American Indian Women’s Service League and opened the Indian Center at First and Vine. It became a home and refuge to the poorest of their community.

This group of 1950s women, including Pearl Warren, Adeline Garcia and Ella Aquino, planted the seeds of Indian activism — they exposed the shortcomings of federal Indian policy in their newsletter and testified before federal subcommittees on Indian affairs. Tribal activists fought for their right to harvest salmon, a struggle that would eventually result in the Boldt ruling in 1974, which guaranteed them their share.

Also in the early ’70s, activists such as Aquino and Bernie Whitebear “invaded” and occupied Magnolia’s Fort Lawton. They reclaimed a site in what is now Discovery Park, building the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, a nucleus of Native American cultural activity that functions today as a conference center, a location for powwows, the location for a Head Start school program and an art gallery.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or