Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

The irony is not lost on Seattle Arts Commissioner Mikhael Mei Williams that in the time of the grandparents’ grandparents, Indians were not allowed in Seattle where Coast Salish art will soon grace the waterfront.

Duwamish longhouses were destroyed by fire. Newcomers tried to erase the Indigenous history and supplant it with their own.

And yet the Indigenous presence could not be shaken away – not by racism, not by oppressive policies, not even by the raised highway that rumbled with traffic along the waterfront from 1953 to 2019.

Coast Salish canoes still land for annual events. A longhouse was built in 2009 by the Duwamish Tribe, another was built in 2015 by the University of Washington. The double-decker highway, known as the Alaskan Way Viaduct, is gone.

And now, monumental works by several Coast Salish artists will soon be installed on the waterfront here, serving to bolster the words of noted Upper Skagit elder and educator taqᵂšǝblu Vi Hilbert, who died in 2008 at age 90.

“We have always been here, we are still here, we will always be here,” she said.

A series of cedar house posts and beams by Oscar Tuazon and three Coast Salish artists will be installed on the Seattle waterfront between Spring and Columbia streets and will call to mind the longhouses that were homes to thousands of Indigenous people here pre-treaty. (Photo courtesy of Waterfront Seattle)

For Williams, the daughter of a Cherokee and Chinese mother and Welsh-Scottish father, the installation is an acknowledgement that Seattle is built on Coast Salish lands.

“It’s that acknowledgement and that awareness and honoring of the fact that there were people — Indigenous people — here before us, and so really everything that this city is built on starts from that point of reference,” Williams said. “I love that, because we have a tendency especially in looking back on history, to start the narrative when colonial contact happened. And that’s an incomplete narrative.”

The monumental works include:

  • “Family,” a set of three 15-foot welcome figures by noted artist Qwalsius Shaun Peterson, Puyallup, that will be installed at Pier 58 on a park-like promenade scheduled for completion in 2023. The figures – representing a mother, father and child – will have bodies made of cedar and heads made of bronze, and each will stand on concrete bases that have decorative elements honoring the Coast Salish textile art tradition.
  • A series of cedar house posts and beams by Oscar Tuazon, non-Native, assisted by Randi Purser, Suquamish; Tyson Simmons, Muckleshoot; and Keith Stevenson, Muckleshoot. Tuazon grew up on the Suquamish Reservation where he learned sculpture from Larry Ahvakana, Inupiaq, and Ed Carriere, Suquamish. The house posts and beams will be installed on the waterfront between Spring and Columbia streets and will call to mind the longhouses that were homes to thousands of Indigenous people pre-treaty.
  • Salish Steps, by Malynn Wilbur-Foster, Squaxin and Skokomish; Tamela Laclair, Skokomish; and Kimberly Deriana, Mandan and Hidatsa. The amphitheater-style steps will connect Overlook Walk, with its sweeping views of Elliott Bay, to the promenade and will be a venue for entertainment and community activities.
“Family,” a set of three 15-foot welcome figures by noted artist Qwalsius Shaun Peterson, Puyallup, to be installed at Pier 58 on a park-like promenade scheduled to be completed in 2023. The figures – representing a mother, father and child – will have bodies made of cedar and heads made of bronze, and each will stand on concrete bases that have decorative elements honoring the Coast Salish textile art tradition. (Photo courtesy of Waterfront Seattle)

The art installations are part of Waterfront Seattle, a city project to remake a thoroughfare along downtown’s waterfront into a 1.5-mile, pedestrian-friendly swath of park space, children’s play areas, and walkable connections to restaurants, stores and neighborhoods.

The multi-phased project is scheduled to be completed in 2024 and will result in improvements for vehicles and transit, safer pedestrian street crossings and pathways, extensive lighting, and more than 500 new trees and extensive ground covers, according to project documents. Shoreline habitat will be improved with demolition of an old pier, new overwater structures that allow light to reach eelgrass beds, and installation of landscaping that will clean stormwater as it makes its way to the bay.

Advocates of Indigenous art as a storytelling tool say the presence of Coast Salish art here will help correct a story that is often distorted or incorrectly told about the city of Seattle, which is historical Duwamish territory. Southeast Alaska Native art and Coast Salish art are often presented homogeneously as “Native art,” without recognition of the different styles and different cultures they represent. One of the prominent pieces of public art here is a Tlingit totem pole in Pioneer Square. And it’s not hard to find Coast Salish-style art here created by non-Native artists.

(Related: Native Seattle: A visitor’s guide)

While Seattle is home to Indigenous people from many Native nations, advocates say, it’s important that all peoples’ stories be correctly told — including those of the original people of Seattle, the Coast Salish.

“Public art evokes stories that visitors associate with the place they’re visiting,” said Louie Gong, a Nooksack artist and founder of Eighth Generation Native art store at Pike Place Market.

“Public art is essentially a storytelling tool, but it’s important to understand that it can either be done well or it can be done in a way that undermines the truth. Historically, when it comes to telling Native stories, the attention to detail has been poor and so we have false public art in places like Seattle that has reinforced false narratives about the city rather than championing the true and glorious histories associated with the Indigenous people who still live in the region.”

The downtown Seattle waterfront will feature a landscape of native plants that will filter stormwater before it reaches the bay. (Photo courtesy of Waterfront Seattle)

He added, “By highlighting Coast Salish traditions, we’re telling a true story about who the Indigenous people of Seattle are. I think it’s important for the public to understand that ‘Coast Salish’ is the cultural region that Seattle is within, and that that is different from the art of southeast Alaska.”

Artist Peterson, who is creating the “Family” installation, said the piece is as much a story of survival as a story of place. People indigenous to the area were pushed into the shadows, along with their languages, religion and traditions. Now, tall cedar and bronze figures representing Seattle’s First Peoples will be part of the landscape, looking out toward the ancestral marine highway where Native people still harvest resources and travel the way of the Ancestors.

“In order for a culture to survive, it takes survivors, and we’ve endured a lot,” he told Indian Country Today.

In project documents, he elaborated on the significance of his welcome figures.

"Native people have survived many obstacles, with attempts to erase them from history. I am filled with pride knowing the work I make has a history that the ancestors of the land will relate to and the coming generation will grow up with, and bridge that gap as we continue to survive, as we always do,” he stated. “Our people are part of this land and its history, but most importantly, we are part of the present.”

Williams, the Seattle arts commissioner, echoed that statement.

“Seeing Indigenous art and placing it in the context of public space reinforces that we are on Indigenous land but also brings Indigenous heritage into contemporary conversation,” she said. “There has historically been the notion that Natives are something of the past, that we’re not contemporary, that we don’t live and operate among contemporary society.

“Having art and having contemporary artists share and interpret and continue to have their art reflect contemporary issues is very important to keeping Indigenous peoples in modern context.”

(Related: Native Seattle: A visitor’s guide)

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist and mariner living in Anacortes, Washington, north of Seattle. 

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