THE BOTTOM LINE | Embrace our Native American heritage

THE BOTTOM LINE | Embrace our Native American heritage

THE BOTTOM LINE | Embrace our Native American heritage

Washington was one of the last states to get statehood and become a part of the United States of America. Alaska came a while later, and from the beginning, these two states have been linked together at the hip.

Before and after Alaska gained its statehood, Washington senators played a major role in that state’s development, and most of the goods and services that went to Alaska came directly off the wharf in Seattle.

So it is no surprise that Alaska Airlines is such a major presence at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport because Seattle is still the gateway to Alaska. At the end of a trip to Alaska, visitors are presented with a pictorial display and history of the Native American tribes in Alaska. On our side of that gateway — with an airport named for a Native American chief (Seattle) and a Native American tribe (Tacoma) — there is no reference to Native American heritage.

It is a similar argument that I have been trying to make about the new Seattle waterfront. It will be 40 to 50 years before we do any major renovations again so it is crucial to make sure that we give Chief Seattle and the Duwamish tribe their due on that waterfront.


Celebrating history

How people are treated is based on how they are perceived. So if we allow Native Americans to be perceived as a people who have no history or value to this state, that’s the way they will be treated. This is one of the few places left in America where we have not wiped out these people entirely, and though we cannot make amends for the entire nation, we can take every opportunity here to tell their story and never stop thanking them for allowing settlers of all races into their territory.

If this were a perfect world, I would love to see a small park sitting up high on the waterfront with the statue of Chief Seattle on a raised and lighted pedestal. At the base would be a replica of a Native American village, denoting the history of the Duwamish tribe. A small shop to sell Native American items to tourists should not be ruled out.

In the airport, there would be a major display showing the history of all of the tribes in the Puget Sound region, with a pictorial display and the written histories of the tribes. Selling Native American smoked salmon to people traveling to and from Seattle should be their standard fare.

The Alaska and Washington ports should openly celebrate the history of the indigenous people. It will not replace their loss of land and the right to totally control their own lives, but we must make an attempt to show that we do respect their history, their present and their future as a sovereign people.

Nothing that I have mentioned will break the bank and very well would receive financial contributions from the Native American tribes themselves. What is important is our collective intent and how we demonstrate that to the descendants of the people who were here when the rest of us arrived.


Paying homage

Let’s not build the waterfront without paying the proper homage to the people we found there when we arrived. Let’s make the airport reflect the history of the people who welcomed the George Washington Bush party in Olympia and the Tacoma tribes who welcomed white settlers there.

No one should ever visit Seattle by air or boat and not see that we respect the Native American heritage in this part of the world. We are not that many generations away from the 1840s and 1850s, when settlers arrived. We can still do what others in America cannot do to embrace the Native American culture as an integral part of what makes the Northwest unique.

It will not cost us that much, but it will mean a lot to them and leave a clear message for future generations that Native Americans are part of our collective family, in the past, in the present and in the future.


CHARLIE JAMES is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute ( To comment on this column, write to