Gathering The Stories Of Northwest People "Left Out" Of History

May 12, 2014

It started with the discovery of long-forgotten gravestones in a thicket of bramble and alder. That set one author on the faint trail of a feisty Native American woman and oyster farmer who lived in 19th century western Washington. The biographer is using the resulting book to inspire other Northwesterners - particularly tribal members. She wants to bring out the stories of people who, in her words, have been "left out of our histories." Correspondent Tom Banse reports from Oyster Bay in Mason County, Washington.

Author LLyn De Danaan at home in Mason County, Washington.
Credit Mary Randlett

The waterfront cottage that LLyn De Danaan calls home overlooks a cultural crossroads rich in history. So it is fortunate she is a cultural anthropologist by profession. Her eyes and ears are tuned to signs and stories of place. And at this place, waves of settlers came from the earliest times to reap shellfish.

Tom Banse: "We're on a white beach in some respects, but it's not white sand like in Hawaii. These are all oyster shells."

LLyn De Danaan: "These are Pacific oyster shells left from the time when the Brenner Oyster Co. was a going thing."

Banse: It was quite the going thing, apparently."

De Danaan: "Yes, quite the going thing."

De Danaan moved here in the early 1970's. In recent decades, she heard enough tales about one pioneer to start a file. The name was Katie Gale. This independent businesswoman owned property and tidelands in her own name in the late 1800's.

De Danaan: "That was all a little bit unusual from conventional wisdom and things I had heard about both people in the oyster business and Native American women."

The biographer was fascinated by how Gale straddled different worlds and stood up for herself and her mixed race children.

De Danaan: "I suppose there just were too many things about that that intrigued me that I couldn't let go of it. I literally couldn't let go of it for years!"

A turning point came when De Danaan and several friends from the historical society discovered an overgrown little homestead graveyard a mile from her house. One of the headstones belonged to Katie Gale.

De Danaan: "I was so amazed, excited, enthralled that I began beating on Stan's shoulders as he was kneeling in front of me holding this stone."

Her friend had to plead with her to contain her excitement and stop it.

De Danaan: "I literally said, 'I know who this is,' as if she were an acquaintance of mine. But it almost felt that way. I would say that was a moment of calling. I have to tell this woman's story. I have to know her."

But here's the problem: the long-dead Katie Gale left no letters, no journals. De Danaan could find no photographs of her, no living descendants. The best source material was a divorce case file. It took almost a decade to accumulate corroborating details, context and enough educated guesses to write a biography. "Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay" was published last fall. But the tale doesn't stop there.

De Danaan: "There are so many stories not told. There are so many histories and people left out of our histories. That is what my work has to be now. I feel that it is my obligation to do that."

Which brings us to a writing class at the Evergreen State College Longhouse in Olympia. De Danaan is a guest speaker.

De Danaan exhorts the seminar to bring forth stories before they're lost, perhaps starting with family history. This is a message De Danaan returns to again and again in regular public talks and one-on-one mentoring.

De Danaan: "You're able to find out a lot... more than you think."

All of the students in the circle facing the author this day are Native American. It takes awhile, but eventually sensitivities come out.

This student's grandmothers warned against exposing too much of their Spokane tribal heritage to outsiders who might twist it or exploit it. Makah tribal member Vince Cook heard that from his elders too.

Cook: "That's a tough one because when I was younger we were told not to record, not to videotape."

Cook says attitudes are changing now as people see tradition and culture slipping away. He feels spurred to write about his great grandmother and all the things she taught him.

Cook: "I think it is important to continue on not only for myself, but for my family and for others to know about the Makah culture and to keep it alive."

Another person who says author De Danaan encouraged him is amateur folklorist Si Matta of rural Pe Ell, Washington. Matta's focus is on gathering the stories of his ancestors from the Cascade (Watala) Indian tribe who once lived and fished in the Columbia River Gorge. He's approaching the task in a thoroughly modern way by soliciting and sharing material and old photographs via a website and Facebook page.

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