Toward a Global Urban Indigenous History: One Trajectory

Editor’s note: This is the third entry in this month’s theme at The Metropole, Urban Indigeniety. Additional posts in the series can be found at the conclusion of this article.

By Coll Thrush

I came to history through a bit of a side door, but it was an urban one. I had always been interested in a sense of place, which in my case meant salmon, cedar, and suburbia. I had also been aware of what felt like silences in the place where I grew up: the near-invisibility of Indigenous people and concerns despite a treaty tribe’s reservation location adjacent to my hometown; the fact that the town’s pioneer cemetery was almost entirely Japanese, while only small numbers of Japanese-American people currently reside there; and the often-unspeakable horror at becoming the centre of the United States’ largest serial killer case. While I first encountered history as a discipline quite late, in my fourth year of university, the question that has animated much of my scholarship since—what does it mean to “belong” to a place in the context of colonialism?—ultimately has its roots in the stratigraphy of a small city in the Pacific Northwest.

That city was squarely in the orbit of Seattle, so perhaps it was inevitable that I would write about the region’s largest metropolis. Named after a Duwamish leader, the so-called Emerald City, known for grunge and tech, is a deeply colonial place. Here, the rise of American urbanity beginning in the mid-nineteenth century intersected with thousands of years of Duwamish history, the experiences of migrants from many nations and territories who created a large and diverse urban Indigenous community, and settler uses of Indian imagery in the civic imaginary. In a place where Duwamish families were burned out of their homes within sight of downtown, where city leaders had once marched through the streets dressed like totem poles, and where Indigenous activists captured international attention by invading and occupying a disused military fort, the narrative estrangement at the heart of settler colonial teleologies and tautologies simply does not hold up. That is to say, the notion that Indigenous and urban histories have little to do with each other is a mistaken one. Seattle is not unique in this; scholars like Penelope Edmonds, Melissa Matutina Wiliams, and Patricia Rubertone have shown that urban colonial spaces such as Melbourne, Auckland, and Providence remain sites of Indigenous memory and survivance. In contrast to John Gast’s iconic painting, American Progress, in which Indigenous people disappear into western darkness as the sun rises in the urban east, the work of people such as the other authors in this issue illustrate the deep imbrication of Indigenous and urban pasts and presents.

“A Koskimo House-Post” (1914). Photo by Edward S. Curtin, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When I moved to Vancouver in 2005 to take up my current position, I was given the opportunity to engage with a parallel universe of urban and Indigenous histories. Instead of being covered by federal treaties, as is Seattle, Vancouver squats on the traditional, ancestral, and most importantly unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Whereas the Duwamish have no reservation of their own in Seattle, Indian reserve lands exist within Vancouver’s urban fabric. Two markedly different national legal histories have resulted in outcomes as diverse as the Indian Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. And unlike the United States, where Indigenous issues rarely capture national attention, in Canada those issues are often at the front and centre of national media and politics.

And yet, as I came to learn more about Vancouver’s history—both through my university’s relationship with Musqueam and through the writings of people like Lee Maracle and Jean Barman—clear similarities between the two cities persist. In both cases, Indigenous laborers and family members played a key role in early town history. In both cities Indigenous dispossession entered a new and seemingly final chapter in the 1910s, when the Duwamish home-space of the Black River ceased to exist thanks to a new ship canal, and when the City of Vancouver finally got its wish and saw the “evacuation” of the community of Senakw from the Kitsilano Reserve in the heart of the city (about six blocks from where I am typing this).

That urban and Indigenous histories might be entangled makes sense in the North American context, just as it does in places like Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. But what if we followed the lines of colonial power back to their origins in an imperial metropolis? What if, for example, we considered London as part of the Indigenous story, and conversely, if we considered Indigenous people and peoples as part of the London story? These questions led me to write about the experiences of children, women, and men who came to London, willingly or otherwise, from territories that are currently claimed by the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is of course a profoundly different situation from either Seattle or Vancouver, in that there are no modern indigenous nations living on the Thames. And yet, Indigenous history resides there too, in the forms of travelers who ranged from Wild West Show performers and Indigenous activists of many nations to Edwardian Mohawk poets and the present-day London Māori community. This history runs deep; the first known Indigenous North American encounter with London, that of three (likely) Inuit men who were seen at Westminster Palace in 1502, took place more than a century before England’s first successful transatlantic colony.

Philip Hatfield of the British Library shares archival materials with students in Coll Thrush’s study-abroad course ‘In Search of Indigenous London,’ which brought sixteen UBC students to the city in 2019. Photo by Coll Thrush.

The breadth and depth of Indigenous presence in London, whether in the form of missionaries, actors, cricket players, or enslaved people, further challenges the estrangement of urban and Indigenous histories. In fact, it is the urban that best explains many of these encounters and the meanings they were given by both Indigenous people and Londoners: business or religious networks that knotted up simultaneously on the Thames and in Indigenous territories; Londoners who compared themselves to “Red Indians” while lamenting being “over-civilized” by the city; and the symbolic and cultural weight of London far out at the edge of Indigenous worlds, but somehow also the centre. These urban dynamics, as much as national or imperial framings, are crucial to making sense of the experiences of Indigenous visitors and the powerful ways in which they refracted and shaped urban culture, all out of keeping with their relatively small numbers. (Meanwhile, beyond London, a large research project based out of the University of Kent is actively seeking out evidence of Indigenous presence across Britain.)

The ascendant trajectory of urban Indigenous history tracks closely with the resurgence of Indigenous voices in urban spaces beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century. In London, playwright Madeline Sayet recently performed her solo work Where We Belong at Shakespeare’s Globe, connecting her experiences as a Mohegan woman in the UK to a Mohegan man who died in London in 1736, while Indigenous communities around the world are sending delegations to meet with ancestral cultural belongings in London museums, often with ambitions to repatriation. In Vancouver the Squamish Nation is planning to erect high-rises on the Kitsilano Reserve, while one of the largest annual events in the city, the Women’s Memorial March, which takes place annually on Valentine’s Day, honors missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Duwamish descendants, whether part of a federally recognized tribe or members of an unrecognized and yet very visible community, play important roles in Seattle as they co-manage local salmon populations or remind the city of its own history. Meanwhile, back home, the local tribe is now the second-largest employer in my hometown after Boeing, and the city council includes one Indigenous member. These are all stories of the continued entanglement of Indigenous and urban histories, and historians of cities can learn a great deal from this resurgence, in so many different places and in so many different registers. These are the sorts of stories we must include if we are to move toward a globalized urban history of the Indigenous future.

Additional posts in the series:


Raised in the treaty territory of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Coll Thrush is professor of history, associate faculty in critical Indigenous studies, and Killam teaching laureate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on unceded Musqueam territory. He is the author of Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place and Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, has published on topics including food, seismology, and ghosts, and co-edits the Indigenous Confluences series at University of Washington Press. His current project, Wrecked: Ecologies of Failure in the Graveyard of the Pacific, is a critical cultural history of shipwrecks and colonialism on the northwest coast of North America.

Featured image (at top): “Public Forum: Native American Women in Action: Many Fronts, One Struggle” (ca. 1976), Photo by Lenore Norrgard, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.