Seattle’s Native American Tribe, the Duwamish, features prominently in several of my novels and short stories. I have a strong affinity to the original people of my hometown and to the river that bears their name. Duwamish, or more properly, Dwf’Du’Absh, means “People of the Inside.” The name’s origins are obscure but it probably refers to their village’s location inside Elliott Bay where it was sheltered from the prevailing storm winds by the headlands of West Seattle. Another possibility is that the village was directly between the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges. Furthermore, Elliott Bay is midway along the length of Puget Sound, so the village was at the geographic center of the region, and also at the center of the ancient trade and travel networks that coursed through it. The Duwamish were, and are, very much a people of the inside.
So, how did I come by my strong affection for the Duwamish? I’ve got no Duwamish blood in me that I know of, but I still feel a kinship to the tribe. Most significantly to me is one of my earliest childhood memories. There’s not much to it but a brief flashback. I was about three years old, and was getting a severe scolding from my mother for having once again tracked mud into the house and onto the carpet.
That mud was Duwamish River mud. I was in big trouble for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, I had soiled the carpet once again. And second and most importantly, my mother had warned me severely against going down to the riverside alone–she feared I might fall in and drown. But I was a plucky little kid and hard to discourage from something that fascinated him. We lived in a government housing project that had been built on the banks of the Duwamish, on land once occupied by the longhouses of the tribe. I would scamper among the many long, low apartment buildings of the complex to get to the river, where I never tired of tossing sticks and rocks into the smoothly flowing muddy waters. But my little sneakers paid the price, often getting globbed up with river mud.
So the connection I feel to the tribe lies in my earliest memories. I grew from an infant to a small rambunctious boy in the exact place the tribe called home before the 1850s brought American culture, strife, and diseases that nearly annihilated them. The link I share with the Duwamish Tribe comes from our common place of origin.
Come to think of it, the South Park Housing Project’s long, single-story buildings—each with several apartments where families lived in the same building—now seem reminiscent of the longhouses that predated them on the same spot. And like those longhouses, the project’s buildings are all long gone. Paved lots and large concrete warehouses now coldly reflect on the river’s waters. So I am like the Duwamish people in that way, too. My home place is no more.
But the Duwamish River remains. The banks where I once played like generations of Duwamish children before me, those banks still exist. And the river still rolls by placidly. Some things never change.
I have written about the Duwamish People in my short story, Blood Tide, and in my most recent novel, Rainier Erupts. To research these works, I have attended Lushootseed language classes at the Duwamish Tribal Museum. In that new building overlooking the Duwamish River I found tribe members to be welcoming, warm, and helpful to me even though I am formally an outsider to their community. Perhaps they sense as I do that my origins give me a special kind of kinship with them. I am, after all, one of those people whose earliest childhood memories are of playing beside the Duwamish River.