New Places Always Take Me Home

Gray sky, evergreen trees, and salty-seaweed scent. In the air, moisture that’s too heavy to be mist, too light to be rain. At times it’s difficult to tell whether it comes from the sky, the ground, or is simply the residue of some past time trying to hold its shape.

My clearest memory of childhood excursions to Seattle is the Chief-of-All-Women pole in Pioneer Square. 

Seattle prides itself on its Indigenous American heritage. Along with the totem pole, there are orcas and salmon, bears and wildcats, in the traditional styles of the Tlingit and Duwamish embedded in the tiles of the SeaTac airport floor and walls, in the pavement of the Seattle Center pavilion, by the Science Center. The totem pole, to me, was ancient. As a girl of six or seven, freckle-faced, big-eyed, running into people as I stared, entranced by the gaze of the animals stacked on top of each other, towering overhead. The colorful wood contrasted with the green and gray of the trees and sky.

All I knew of this totem pole was that “Indians” made it. I had vague associations with indigenous groups, and none of them included specific names of tribes or nations. As far as I knew, there weren’t any in Seattle, at least not anymore.

Twenty-year-old me found herself on her way to Oklahoma. I knew little of the place. I expected oil wells, tornadoes, and open, rolling prairies. Oklahoma used to be part of Indian Territory, part of the “west” in the old cowboy and Indian Westerns I loved watching with my dad and my grandpa, and it was the end of the Trail of Tears.

Over the years, the Oklahoma prairie winds stripped the salt smell from my skin, leaving me feeling parched and thirsty in spite of the hot humidity that pressed against me in the summer months. Red Dirt Country, with iron-rich, clay-based soil. Red Dirt Country where, during my first couple years of residence, a “Red Earth Heritage” exhibit opened at the Oklahoma Science Center. I walked through, looking at artifacts, photos, and maps of the Trail of Tears. My stomach swooped when, on a map, I saw that some of those forced on the grueling march came from as far away as Washington. My state. My home.

In the final stretch of my doctorate in English, I studied constructions of ethnicity in America. I hardly recognize the memory of that little girl staring at an “artifact” of a “lost” culture on the Seattle streets. In Oklahoma, I’ve learned something about the truth of my hometown. As a transplant, in strange, dry-clay soil, my home has transformed into a not-quite-sparkling Emerald City. The hidden past lurks in the mist, under the waves, in the sour-sweet salty air, and it attempts to obscure the present and control the future.

As an undergraduate student majoring in English, I read a canon composed mostly of dead white men. It wasn’t until my doctoral program that I was assigned a novel by a person of color. Yes, I read Native American “creation stories” (in translation). I read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life and Harriet Jacobs’s, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I learned about the horrors of slavery, lynching, the disenfranchisement of Black Americans. I learned very little, however, outside of what was already commonly accepted in history and the canon. I did not read Sherman Alexie, or Louise Erdrich; nor Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, until I was a graduate student. Jodi Byrd, a Chickasaw scholar, argues that for the U.S. to be able to maintain the myth of its founding, as a place of freedom for all, it had to create the Myth of the Vanishing Indian.[1] My lack of knowledge was no accident, but a design of our education systems.

As I studied the construction of nostalgia, race, ethnicity, identity, I realized that I was studying my own nostalgia as well. My memories of my home are forever altered by Coll-Peter Thrush’s history of Native American contributions to the urban development of Seattle. The Chief-of-All-Women pole that held me riveted as a child is a former repository of the ashes of a Tlingit woman drowned on her way to visit a relative. The pole was stolen in 1899, her ashes discarded by a group of men visiting Alaska from Seattle.[2] The pole was erected in Pioneer Place Park and serves as one example of Seattle’s Native American heritage. My memories of first seeing this towering totem pole, fifty feet in height, shatter under the pressure of the truth of its theft; it is a memorial, torn from its place of origin, treated as a tourist attraction, and not honored or understood for its original intention.

This knowledge altered my childhood memories and the construction of my reality. The nostalgic haze, rose tinted, turned muddy. 

The Chief-of-All-Women pole stands in Pioneer Place Park disconnected and divorced from its original purpose, symbolizing the unique spirit of Seattle in a once-foreign but now familiar ecology. In Oklahoma red dirt, my skin barely remembered ocean breeze and mountain air. This once-foreign ecology is now familiar, shedding light on my past and reframing the way I see my present, and think of my future.

After Oklahoma, I moved to Colorado, a state that loves its national parks and one that is responsible for the hashtag, #outsideisfree. I’m surrounded by mountains on every side, because I live in a high elevation desert. I’m surrounded by names that have clear Spanish influence: the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains, Del Norte and Salida. There’s also Saguache, which derives from the Ute language, hinting at another history that is hidden by settlers. I watch the dust swirl from my window as the wind kicks up, and I think of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. Rain spatters the windows, and I think of the Pacific Northwest. Each place I go reminds me of home. Each story told and ignored, reminds me of home. 

[1] Jodi Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 

[2] Coll-Peter Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories From the Crossing-Over Place, University of Washington Press, 2007.

2 responses to “New Places Always Take Me Home”

  1. I love this. I come from Wisconsin, where the snow and ticks both fall from the sky. North Dakota came next, and the wind sent me to Colorado, where I found myself. I found love. And I found my strength. I look forward to more adventures, and reading of yours, as well.

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