Tell Your Story

I have a ghost… or ghosts. Keys disappear, wifi and cell signals come and go, lightbulbs die at the same time, and things get really weird around 3AM, if you happen to be awake.

I was getting impressions of a young Native American woman so I started researching Salish/Duwamish history, which sadly I knew nothing about. Turns out the lake I live on was heavily wooded with 1,000 year old trees when settlers arrived in 1851. It had for centuries been a refuge for natives hiding out from inter-tribe scuffles.

By the late 1800s every lake in North Seattle, including mine, had sawmills on them. Loggers clearcut the area between the late 1800s and 1913 when the sawmill burned down.

The thing is, I was researching Native American history. Instead I found white colonial history. The reason is obvious: the Duwamish didn’t write their stories down. I can tell you when the Everett-Seattle train was finished, the first farm established in Shoreline, the first brothel to open in Pioneer Square. But a record of what the natives of Western Washington did after the settlers show up, what they felt about all this, where they went?

They signed a treaty and effectively disappeared from the record. (Here’s an example of what’s left on paper.)

The impact this has on our ethos is huge. Northwesterners grow up with the narrative: roads built! sawmills opened! neighborhoods developed! booming economy, trains, progress!

At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s probably not the way a Duwamish person alive at the time would tell the story. But Americans today still believe in the boom/trains/progress definition of success. We believe in clear cutting, in building roads, in displacing people. We think we were awesome back then and that to continue being awesome we should keep doing all those things.

History, like it or not, belongs to those who tell it.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in a few days. I was startled to hear news coverage about this because I had assumed such a thing already existed. How do we not have a museum in the nation’s capitol dedicated to the story of our largest minority, to a people who endured one of the most shameful practices of our nation’s history, to African American cultural icons in the context of their culture?

We haven’t had this because we are content to let white Christian-ish men tell everyone’s stories. White men write our screenplays, produce our music, run our corporations, play God with our economy and (still, Obama and Hillary notwithstanding) dominate our political system.

This is unacceptable. I’m tired of watching romantic comedies written, produced and directed by men. I’m tired of white actors playing characters who were supposedly born in Japan or China. I’m tired of network TV shows where black families and white families live in different universes depending on the demographic the station and its advertisers are targeting. I’m tired of the clichés, the assumptions, the homogenization of our melting pot culture.

The remedy for homogenization is specificity, which means you have to tell your story  (and the stories of your family and community) instead of letting others do so. The details you include in your story are different from those I would and definitely different from the ones assumed by Harry Smith as he writes the screenplay about your life.

Details are like the objects in a museum, assembling a narrative that is specific, compelling, cathartic, and most importantly, true. This is the casserole Grandma used to make when we were sick – or this is where Grandma hid her vodka Martinis. This is the gun that was stolen from the plantation owner and used by seven men attempting to escape slavery in 1845. This is the way the moon reflected off the lake when a young woman was killed here and buried beside a tree so tall it seemed to touch the night sky.

This is the way we hurt each other.

This is the way we share love.

This is the flag, the letter, the moment when something changed. Remember it, because you might need to know how to do that again. Like the crumbs a child in a fairytale leaves behind her to find her way back, stories are history. Objects are memories. Lore is life.

Remember it, share it, record it. History belongs to you.

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