‘Kirkland Native History Document’ spurs debate about Eastside Indigenous history

Jun 29, 2022, 11:36 AM | Updated: Jun 30, 2022, 12:55 pm
Detail from a map of Indigenous place names published in June 2022 in the City of Kirkland's "Kirkl...
Detail from a map of Indigenous place names published in June 2022 in the City of Kirkland's "Kirkland Native History Document." (City of Kirkland)
(City of Kirkland)

When the City of Kirkland published a document last week about the Native American history of that part of King County, one local historian wasn’t very happy.

For even those who pay scant attention, this is an exciting and dynamic time to be interested in local history. With the intersection of the profound social change of the past few years and a decades-long expansion of what truly counts as history – along with the spread of social media – there’s never been more information available to those who seek to know about the past, and more channels for individuals and organizations who wish to share what they’ve found.

It’s against this backdrop that the City of Kirkland just published what they call the “Kirkland Native History Document.” It’s a 16-page deep dive on Indigenous history in the longtime lakeside community. The report covers a lot of ground and mentions 12,000 years of habitation, ancient settlement patterns, native languages, and 19th-century treaties. The authors include tantalizing details about two “winter villages” that once stood in Kirkland, and describe wetlands along the lake at Juanita Creek where “Lake People” cultivated such plants.

The document is ambitious, and it may be the first of its kind in King County.

But not everyone is happy with the final product. Matt McCauley is a Kirkland historian affiliated with the Kirkland Heritage Society who, among other achievements, solved the mystery of Kellogg Island and shared with KIRO listeners stories of the old Houghton Shipyards.

McCauley believes the “Kirkland Native History Document” could have been better.

“I have to make it clear, I appreciate the sentiment here,” McCauley told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week. “Kirkland used to be very proud of its being the most historic community on the Eastside. There was a lot about that when I was a kid growing up in the 70s, all about [Kirkland namesake] Peter Kirk and the steel mill and all these sorts of things, and [the city] kind of drifted off that.”

“So initially, when I saw this document, I thought, ‘Cool, this is great, they’re putting some resources into this original research here,’” McCauley continued. “And so it was a little disappointing that it wasn’t a better final finished product.”

Jim Lopez is the City of Kirkland deputy city manager. Lopez told KIRO Newsradio that the idea of creating the “Kirkland Native History Document” dates to 2020, around the time when George Floyd was murdered. A group of City of Kirkland employees saw an opportunity to address one aspect of how the city was presenting itself to the public.

“Our staff noticed [that] documents and photos and images [on display] around City Hall were really post-colonial,” or from the time after the arrival of European settlers, Lopez said. “And you know, we were at that very same time thinking of doing a land acknowledgement to honor the Native roots of present-day Kirkland.”

“So it’s in that context that staff came up with this idea of creating a hyperlocal narrative history document for Kirkland” to go along with the land acknowledgment, Lopez said.

Matt McCauley’s specific quibbles with the document are that it’s rough around the edges and feels incomplete. After decades studying and writing about Kirkland history, he says there’s more to the story – such as the fact that some Duwamish descendants never left Kirkland; they married white settlers, and then remained part of the community for decades.

And though McCauley’s other main quibble might seem a little “inside baseball,” he says “inside baseball” is exactly what an official history – something authored and shared by a government entity – should have at its core.

“You have to make sure this stuff is tight when it’s going out,” McCauley said. “Do the sources all match up in the footnotes? It’s got to be accurate because it’s history.”

“What happens in the case of this stuff from a government organization is the Internet is forever,” McCauley continued. “People are cutting and pasting that stuff. They’re using it as sources for Wikipedia. And when something is wrong, it just keeps getting repeated, repeated, repeated over and over and over for years and years.”

“I’d like to avoid seeing that happen in this case and just maybe have them go back and revisit it a little bit and tighten it up,” McCauley said. “[That] would be satisfactory to me.”

Deputy Kirkland City Manager Jim Lopez says the history published online last week is a living document, and they would absolutely welcome a conversation with Matt McCauley to help make the document better. Lopez says that the city had research help from noted historian David Buerge (who wrote the acclaimed recent biography Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name) and that Kirkland staff met and consulted with tribal people whose history connects with what’s now Kirkland – Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, and Suquamish – to share drafts and then incorporate feedback.

To Kirkland’s credit, it appears they did put in the work necessary to credibly and sincerely gather information and connect with the right people in preparing the document. In addition, a quick check with other historians and public officials indicates that Kirkland may be the only city in King County that has commissioned a project like this.

It’s also true that no single book or web resource tells the comprehensive story of Indigenous history east of Lake Washington, or, really, gets at any aspects of the bigger collection of stories and how it all fits together, or, in some cases, doesn’t fit together.

Why not?

One local author and historian told KIRO Newsradio that researching Indigenous history can be much more fruitful in an urban place like Seattle than it would be in Kirkland simply because there’s much more material to work with. That is, in Seattle, there are memoirs, diaries, archival newspapers, photos from the 19th century because Seattle was well on its way to becoming a dense urban area by the 1870s or 1880s. Kirkland, which boomed only briefly in the 1890s before going bust for decades, has only since about World War II onward become a major population center.

On the surface – via “windshield survey” and through a casual examination of museums and public parks – Seattle is also ahead of Kirkland and other suburban communities in incorporating Indigenous history into the landscape and weaving the stories into the city’s modern culture. For example, the Port of Seattle has renamed several Port parks after pre-European place names and installed large signs with those names written in the Indigenous Lushootseed language, and the City of Seattle has created trails honoring Indigenous people, such as Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop.

As Matt McCauley’s reaction has shown, being first has its drawbacks. However, at least one member of the Duwamish Tribe who participated in Kirkland’s effort is satisfied with the “Kirkland Native History Document.”

Ken Workman is a direct descendant of Chief Seattle and a member of the Duwamish Tribe. He reviewed a draft of the document before it was published, and he knows that what constitutes history – particularly Indigenous history – is evolving, and can be challenging to get right in a way that satisfies everyone.

However, Workman says, we are in a more enlightened era when it comes to daylighting local Indigenous history. He’s personally witnessed a lot of positive change over the decades.

“It was only okay to be Native only in the last you know, 40 years, 30 years, maybe 50,” Workman told KIRO Newsradio. Before that, he said, “to be a Native person out here was not good. And in my family, it was buried. Absolutely buried. You do not talk about it, you do not admit it. You fit into this dominant culture as best you can.”

“And so, how do you record these histories when, in fact, there’s so much – my word – ‘trauma,’ that it is shut down?” Workman asked. “My grandmother went to her grave, and she would not tell these things [about being Native] to her children and grandchildren.”

Workman agrees with the old adage that history is written by the victors – in this case, the dominant white culture that settled in the Northwest beginning in the 19th century and displaced much of the Native population. Adding to the challenge of now seeking to research and share Indigenous stories and history is the fact that Indigenous culture in the Northwest had no written language – it’s an oral tradition – and thus the written culture that came here along with whites had no ready means to recognize and share the stories of what had come before – short of the historians and ethnographers and journalists who tried to document stories and memories of the Indigenous people who were willing to talk.

But, Ken Workman says, in thinking about how these two very different cultures can somehow reconcile the history of this place, he sees no contradictions – not even any tension – between Native culture and its origin stories about things like weather and landforms, and the modern science that explains those things – or that tries now to get the history right.

“We come to these myths, and we try to explain things like what is thunder, what is lightning when you have no concept of what that is?,” Workman said. “I’m what I call a ‘modern Indian’; I know why airplanes fly, I know what lightning is, I know the modern sciences.”

“I have science on one side of my brain and I have a culture on my other as inherited through my DNA, Duwamish DNA [and] . . . these two things are on what I call a collision course,” Workman continued. “But there really isn’t any collision, because modern science is proving what our people have been saying all along. And that is, when we pass away, we decay and our biological material decays. It goes down in the ground and then it gets sucked back up into the roots of things.”

Things, Ken Workman says, like the cedar tree – easy to split, lightweight, strong, rot resistant. A cedar tree, he says, is a perfect object and a fitting metaphor for how old and new – even in something like the “Kirkland Native History Document – inevitably intersect and overlap.

“What other tree would you pick out here in the Northwest that would have such utilitarian value? It’s absolutely amazing,” Workman said. “How do you translate, or how do you tell modern people about these ancient connections?”

“What I tell people is, you want to save the planet? Plant a tree. You will sequester carbon, you get oxygen, and it’ll help everybody out,” Workman said.

It seems like the City of Kirkland may have tapped into something with this new document that other Eastside communities may want to also consider, or that an agency like the King County Landmarks Commission or the cultural affairs agency known as 4Culture may want to help facilitate for the entire county.

Jim Lopez says a next step for Kirkland is looking at things like foregrounding Indigenous names and creating signage for parks and other public areas. He seems genuinely excited by the possibilities of what Kirkland’s document – spurred to greater heights by the passion of someone like Matt McCauley and the perspective and wisdom of someone like Ken Workman – might help inspire.

“I can tell you, honest to goodness, we would love it if this inspired that kind of movement on the Eastside,” Lopez said. “We’d be a part of it. Kirkland would be a part of it.”

Along with the “Kirkland Native History Document,” the city also posted a link to David Buerge’s 92-page research treatise “Kirkland: Its Native American Past and Present.” For additional history from an archaeological perspective, Brandy Rinck, archaeologist and cultural resources coordinator for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, recommends a 2016 report called “Archaeology of King County, Washington: A Context Statement for Native American Archaeological Resources,” which is available as PDF download.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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‘Kirkland Native History Document’ spurs debate about Eastside Indigenous history