Highline Black and Native Speaker Series Provides Opportunities for ‘Rewriting History’

by Jack Russillo

Rose Davis doesn’t get offended when people have misconceptions about her people, the Muckleshoot Tribe, as just the owners of a casino. Instead, she views those instances as opportunities to set the record straight.

“I think that it serves as the perfect way to educate more about who we are and where we come from,” said Davis. “And that way we’re people behind the casino and hopefully people in the U.S. know us as a people more than just as a casino.”

Davis was asked by a student whether she got offended when people asked about her people’s relation to the casino while speaking during her virtual presentation on January 11 as a part of the ongoing Highline Black and Native Speakers Series. She spoke virtually in front of Highline High School students to share her experiences as a mixed heritage Native and Black woman and also as a language teacher and cultural preservationist. Davis currently educates teachers and students about the Muckleshoot dialect Lushootseed at Highline’s Native Education Program.

“I remember being in public school and there were girls in my class who joke[d] around about Indians and how they just live off the government, how they sell fireworks, and how they have all the money and stuff like that,” said Davis. “I was right there next to her but I didn’t say that I was Native and that it was offensive to me — but looking back on it now, I feel like it could’ve been an important teaching moment for her and possibly her family. So I was telling [the Highline students] to never be afraid to speak up or to be proud of who you are and where you come from, because with all of our history and arts and cultural language, everything that’s coming back, it’s all a teaching moment not only for ourselves and our community but also for our neighboring communities.”

During her presentation, Davis talked about how she learned to speak Lushootseed through recordings because the last fluent speakers had passed away before she could learn from them. She also noted that even when they were alive, the elders couldn’t teach their language to their children because of the cultural desecration and vilification they experienced at Native American boarding schools. Davis shared pictures of her family and recordings of her great great uncle’s stories. She also noted how their language is still evolving and that anthropologists have recorded the tribe’s language and culture, helping to fill the ancestral gap that was created by destructive, government-sponsored actions. 

Unfortunately, Davis isn’t the only person who needs to fill cultural gaps created by white colonialist decisions. But that’s why sharing her experiences can be helpful to others.

“[Our teachers] need way more resources and support in teaching about Indigenous history of Washington State and beyond because the textbooks are still flat-out lies — at least a lot are some form of distorted truth,” said Sara Ortiz, the native education program manager for Highline Public Schools. “And those are the textbooks that are just common fare in schools. So distance learning, in addition to us being able to bring forward some dynamic programming in a distance learning format — like the Black and Native Leader series — we’re able to get way more materials out to teach the tribal sovereignty curriculum and make sure that teachers are teaching it to their students.”

Ortiz, who is a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo tribe located in what is now New Mexico, is in charge of coordinating Highline’s Black and Native Speakers Series. In addition, she  co-founded the Northwest Native Writers Circle, co-chairs the South King County Native Coalition, and is the western urban representative on the OSPI Native American Education Advisory Committee. Ortiz organized the series to help give Highline’s students  — especially its ethnically diverse population students — the chance to learn more about Indigenous experiences and to allow them “to see themselves in these beautiful representative ways.”

“The Black and Native speaker series is so exciting for us because we have so many prominent Black and Native leaders in our Highline community, as well as in the broader Seattle and King County community, who have been so supportive of our program for years,” said Ortiz. “Some have been teachers and mentors and have helped us in thinking about systems transformation. We’ve also had attorneys and scholars, poets and language teachers and artists across different mediums. It’s just been so beautiful to have that love and connection to these beautiful leaders, so it seemed like a natural next step for us to have a series like this and to really celebrate those leaders.”

The most recent event in the series took place on March 11, when award-winning poet and interdisciplinary artist Storme Webber took the virtual stage. 

Webber is a Two Spirit Sugpiaq, Choctaw, and Black writer and performer whose first solo museum exhibition, “Casino: A Palimpsest,” was presented at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum in 2017. Webber presented some of her political activism and discussed her artwork, her newest book, and her background and personal story.

Webber’s work to bring historically marginalized voices to the forefront coincides with the theme of the Black and Native Speakers Series, in which people like Webber and Davis bring their cultural connections and perspectives to be shared, appreciated, and built on.

“I think very highly of school districts, museums, and other community resources like those that are actively healing the history that was taught incorrectly,” said Davis. “So now it’s the time where they’re stepping up and advocating for all kinds of people and kind of being a backbone for us too, to the point where our tribe can strengthen our factual history. How many years has incorrect history been taught in schools? I love how these institutions want to work with us and learn our history, as a people, and we can get good work out of it too … I feel like there’s a huge change happening with a lot of healing. It’s very important and I love to see the work be carried out. It’s beautiful. It’s been such a blessing to be able to make connections and start the rewriting of history.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: Storme Webber, who spoke in Highline School District’s Black and Native Speaker series. (Photo attributed to Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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