The following essay by Rena Priest is part of Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature, a new collection edited by Kristen Millares Young. In it, a host of locals—Jourdan Imani Keith, Claudia Castro Luna, Charles Johnson, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Tim Egan, Wei-Wei Lee, Anastacia-Reneé, Dujie Tahat, and Ken Workman—delve into what Seattle's UNESCO City of Literature designation means. Seattle Public Library hosts a virtual release celebration on September 15 at 7pm. —Stefan Milne
Now’ Siam! Ce-whel-tenaut tse ne sna'. Che Xwlemi sen. I’d like to begin with an acknowledgement that Seattle was built on the homelands of the Duwamish, who still live here and continue the beautiful legacy of hundreds of generations of strong and resilient people.
I am not Duwamish, but it’s told in Lummi lore that at one time, Komo Kulshan (Mount Baker) and Kwome (Mount Rainier) were married. For one reason or another Kwome decided to leave Komo Kulshan and move south. Along her path she made the islands of the Salish Sea. On a clear day he can see her standing so tall and beautiful with the sun on her face. When she catches him looking at her, she gets mad and draws the clouds around her again. That’s why it’s cloudy here all the time.
Full disclosure: I have never lived in Seattle. I have spent most of my life 90 miles to the north on the Lummi Reservation or in the nearby town of Bellingham, but I have been seeking the creative sanctuary of Seattle since I was a teenager. I would paint on my cat eyes and red lips and drive for 90 minutes so I could write in a different café and watch the rain from a different window. Seattle is the quintessential writers’ city. The weather requires inventive ways to keep entertained indoors. Storytelling has always been handy.
Over the past few years I have made friends among Seattle writers and been honored to participate in literary events around town. Every event I attend teaches me something new, evokes feelings, brings me into contact with people who make words into power. This could be true of literary activities in any city, but it’s especially true in Seattle, where story and song are an integral part of the culture. In this region, storytelling has been a way of life since time immemorial. Coast Salish people celebrate story through dances and songs, through totem poles, legends, family anecdotes—and literature.
Story is a way of seeing each other and ourselves. Story is a way of surviving.
Here I must pause and acknowledge that I was about to lie to you. I wanted to give you the literary tour guide’s version of Seattle. Writing about Seattle in an authentic way is difficult for me. Writing about anywhere in the Salish Sea bioregion is a challenge because in order to keep from alienating people, I have been taught by polite society never to publicly acknowledge the true story of the people who belong to this place. We don’t say “genocide.” We don’t say “murdered, cheated, displaced and starved.” We don’t say those things. Tell a different story, sing the people a song. So I tell you how nice the people are in Seattle’s literary community, which is certainly true, but it omits this other story. Please don’t be alienated.
Before English and the written word came here—in the time before the guns and smallpox and conquest; before children were taken from their parents to attend residential schools to become strangers to themselves and their mothers; before we signed treaties and said goodbye to our relatives on the other side of invisible borders, confining us to reservations—in the time when we were all together, the people had elaborate and rich mythologies.
Then as now, stories connected us to our world and taught us to acknowledge the sacred in others. Then as now, the people traveled to neighboring villages to potlatch and share gifts. The people gathered to learn something new and to be in contact with others who hold words as their power—stories of how we survive and make something good with our lives.
In Xwlemi Chosen (Lummi language), we have a word that talks about the time when we were all together: Elhtalngexw.
The etymology breaks down like this*:
elh ta (alhle) = we are here
tol = out to sea
lngexw = people living together in a village
All this is true. We are here, and we have rich mythologies. I first learned of this word in relation to our ancient flood story. An elder had a dream and told the people to build two canoes and tie them together and fill them with strong people to rebuild the nations. The floods came, and when they subsided, the survivors paired off and walked in separate directions to build new villages.
Before they parted, they agreed that they would always recognize each other as coming from the same village. They would be the survivors of the flood. Elhtalngexw talks about the people during the time before the floods, when we were still a strand interwoven with the radiance of waterways, landscapes, animals—the people and places we loved—before we were separated by the lonely belief that god plucked us out and placed us above all life on earth—removed us from our seat in the dignified living world to stand solitary and isolated by the directive “. . . have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Dominion is lonely.
Below the waves the unheard, unseen world sings. In the trees, the birds sing. The sun lights the earth another day. I wake to alarms in the dark. The sacred celebration of sunrise—the birds and fish singing—all of that happens as I sit in traffic thinking of my ancestors, feeling the heaviness of grief. To tell you my true story about Seattle and literature, I must confess wonder: What new stories can we tell to return us to our old belief where the highest form of wealth is to be together with the life of our planet—to wake in a clean and abundant world at dawn, face east, and sing?
Rena Priest is a National Geographic Explorer and a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. She is the recipient of an American Book Award and a 2020 Allied Arts Professional Poets Award. Her work can be found in For Love of Orcas, Poetry Northwest, High Country News, and elsewhere. Learn more at renapriest.com.
*Etymology provided by John Ballew, who was a student of George Adams, whose teacher was Agatha Charles-McClusky