Washington Secretary of State
The following is adapted from a keynote speech I gave to the Cultural Resources Planning Summit held at Kiana Lodge, Suquamish, on June 7, 2010.
For those of you who aren't familiar with me, I am a Seattle-based writer, the third of five generations to call Seattle home. We came here a century ago, stayed and put down roots. Those roots are something I draw on as a writer.
My beat for Crosscut is self-defined. I think of it as The Heritage Beat. I write about Northwest politics and civic culture, but I describe it as writing stories about where history and public policy meet. This includes historic preservation, archaeology, place names, local customs and traditions, and trying to explain why Seattle and Puget Sound are the way they are: Why is there political gridlock? Why do we squabble? What are the competing visions for the future, and where did they come from?
Who are we, anyway?
This interest goes way back for me personally. As a child, I was curious about who we were, and how we got here. What was Seattle? In this remote corner, what was our place in history, and the world? Big questions for a child. I came from a family that had a house filled with historic and cultural artifacts, as well as books. Old swords, Native American masks, antique medical instruments, curios of all kinds.
My father told me stories of local history based on his experience, of his adventures as a young man exploring the region. From his days working in logging camps on the Olympic Peninsula, he told me about seeing Indian tree burials, and about once finding a musket ball in an old tree that he dated to the first Spanish settlement in the Northwest in Neah Bay in 1792. He told me about once finding the brass button from a Royal Marine's jacket on the beach at English Camp on San Juan Island. How many people have souvenirs of the Pig War?
This was not the history we learned in school, or from television.
Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I watched TV Westerns. I knew Seattle was in the West, but we had no cowboys and our Indians didn't dress like Hollywood Indians. You might remember a TV show about Seattle called "Here Come the Brides." This was what the world knew about Seattle. It's theme song was "The Bluest Skies You've Ever Seen are in Seattle." Really? We have blue sky? It was based on the musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," the story of mail-order women who married our frontier men. This confused me. Everyone else in the West got gunfighters and Indian warriors and what did we get?
Dancing loggers. That was our history.
It got worse in school. In fifth grade, we had to take Washington state history. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was so old there was actually a picture of her in our textbook standing in front of a one-room schoolhouse. But I couldn't find anything to interest me, and I was a kid interested in history.
There was no Wild West, no Revolutionary War or Civil War, no guts or glory. Just loggers, and stumps, old schoolhouses, and the dull Alki pilgrims, Seattle's founders, the Dennys and the Borens. I called them the Dennys and the Borings.
To me, there was a gap between the history I saw on TV and the history that seemed so exciting when my father told it, when he described a boyhood that sounded like Indiana Jones'. You might be horrified to hear this, but hunting for arrowheads, or scrounging for old whisky bottles in abandoned homesteads were things that we did as kids. The most interesting history was something you found, and then learned about. It was something you could hold in your hands, something that told a story.
I'll be honest with you. People have no idea what "cultural resources" are. "Cultural" sounds like art, and "resources" are something you exploit, or use up. Forests are called "resources" now. People are called "resources" too, just like coal and oil: "human resources." Who ever wants to go to the Human Resources Department? Sounds like they will serve you up as Soylent Green. History, culture and heritage, apparently, have no inherent value except as a consumables, a resource.
Most people have never heard of NEPA, SEPA, SHPOs, TCPs or Section 106. Most people don't know that protecting cultural resources is something written into our laws, rules, and regulations.
But people are interested in artifacts, landscapes, landmarks, graves, myths, and most of all, stories.
This latter item, stories, I think is most important. Because stories tell us who and where we are. Stories are the way we honor our ancestors and guide our future. Stories are the way we inform, entertain, and pass on vital knowledge. Stories are what give us comfort and perspective, and spur us to act. This is why I have found cultural resources such a rich and interesting area to report on. That is the place where policy and history meet every day. And sometimes collide.
Cultural resource professionals are the ones asking the kinds of questions that excite me as a journalist who wants to know more about this place. What does a mountain mean to people who have lived here 10,000 years? What should it be called, Rainier or Tahoma or Tacoma or Ti'Swaq ("tea-swawk"), as some Puyallup tribal members have proposed? What is in that pile of 3,000-year-old seashells? How did people live here in ancient times, and was it anything like we live now? Is that Denny's diner in Ballard really a landmark, even if it's only 40 years old? Is the place we want to expand the 520 bridge a burial ground of someone's ancestors? What are the histories worth uncovering, and which are best left alone?
To me the preservation of our collective heritage is a no-brainer. But unfortunately, while it is important, it is often an after-thought, or worse, it's considered a nuisance or waste of time.
This is because the laws seem designed to mitigate the damage of so-called progress. So much of the resource work isn't for the joy of knowledge, of getting closer to our past. It's on a check list of hurdles, the list of risks to be documented.
The money and the momentum are not with historic preservation or archaeology or expanding our knowledge and heritage, or confirming our connections to place. The momentum is with the builders, the developers, the engineers, the transportation policy makers, the shovel-ready folks who don't care much about the past. They want a future built on a blank slate.
Our modern economy pushes and encourages us to bulldoze and steamroller the past, despite the rules. It often pretends that history is something that happened somewhere else, or casts it as a barrier to a brighter future.
History is often equated with nostalgia; commitment to place is seen as being stuck, as stagnant. And those who have the longest, deepest history in this place are often viewed as obstructionists. The burden of proof is always on the people who question change.
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