by Amanda Ong
“We were second-class citizens in our own land,” my grandfather used to tell me, perhaps the only time I saw him with a hint of a scowl. Our land then was Hong Kong, where Chinese residents were under British control for 100 years. As the original inhabitants of Hong Kong were Punti, Hakka, Tanka, and Hokkien, the island has always been ethnically Chinese. My grandfather seldom spoke about the marginalization my family experienced during their time in Hong Kong as a British colony and when he did, he was brief. When my mother was a child in the 1960s, our family made the decision to leave Hong Kong to be second-class citizens in another land, hoping for something called “opportunity.”
One of my father’s favorite books is Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. I have not read it, but I know my father, and know intrinsically what its appeal to him must be. No other title feels so precise to the experience of immigrant families’ alienation from their own homelands. Hong Kong and China are different nations today than the ones my family came from. I have never known what it is like to live in my own lands. If I were to, I would be a stranger in a strange land myself, a product of my family’s decisions more than 50 years ago.
The Duwamish people have lived on Greater Seattle/King County lands since the last Ice Age and still live here. They have been here for thousands of years, long before the slight century and half since Seattle has been occupied. We are living on their lands; the city is named for their ancestral leader, Chief Si’ahl, and yet today they still must fight for federal recognition and for the resources to continue to preserve their traditional practices and help those traditions flourish.
The Duwamish Longhouse in West Seattle opened a revival exhibit, “Spirit Returns 2.0 — A Duwamish and Settler Story,” this October. The exhibit is a testimony of the authentic stories and complex relationships of Duwamish traditions and early relationships to the settlers who arrived in the 1850s. The Longhouse is a reclaimed space for the Duwamish people, in a location where white settlers burned original family longhouses in the late 1800s. Despite settler colonialism and the persistent narratives of erasure that Native communities face, Spirit Returns 2.0 is a testament to the living presence and practice of the Duwamish people in their ancestral lands. Preserved heritage objects like century-old hand-crafted knives, clothing, baskets, and models of paddles and canoes line the Longhouse. Alongside them are recordings of elders speaking and singing in the Duwamish language, stories of the settler practices that terrorized the natural environment and overturned Duwamish traditions, and writings of traumatic forced assimiliation and boarding schools many Duwamish were sent to by settlers.
The exhibit is beautiful, underscoring the skill and the resilience of the Duwamish — and the struggle and frustration they undergo to be denied their own land. Though the Duwamish tribe achieved federal recognition briefly in 2001, it was quickly reversed with the arrival of the Bush Administration. Potentially thousands of Native folks with Duwamish ancestry are registered with other tribes because without tribal status, they lack federal benefits like health care, fishing rights, and the opportunity to run casinos. The Duwamish’s right to this land outlives all of us, and yet they have struggled against colonial erasure and for recognition since the founding of Seattle.
I visited the Spirit Returns 2.0 exhibit at the Duwamish Longhouse, and there I was able to see an intimate glimpse of the rich culture and struggle that the Duwamish have shared. My experiences have been antithetical in so many ways — I have been estranged and alienated from my own ancestral lands, only to come to Seattle and occupy theirs. I can not imagine what it is like to grow up in your homeland, amongst your people, learning traditions which your ancestors have practiced for thousands of years, and still be denied liberation.
But there are also so many ways my experiences have run parallel. My parents moved back to Hong Kong in the 1990s, and I spent the first two years of my life there. I was born in the year after the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom back to China, a time my family says was full of hope. So much has changed since. Today the identity of Hong Kong is under threat, as it is poised to be swallowed within the People’s Republic of China. Its citizens fight to save fraught and precious values shaped by colonization.
There is so much I will never know. But I do know my grandfather’s words and the sting of marginalization under colonization. I know how it feels to struggle, to fight to preserve a precarious identity in the face of national dismissal, to inherit an ancestral language that is under threat of dying out. I know the sense of displacement and erasure that follow. And I know how it feels to need to fight time and time again just to call the United States, Seattle, home.
As People of Color and immigrants, we will never do ourselves justice without acknowledging and fighting with the Native people whose lands we are seated on. We speak so often of coming to this country for greater opportunities, but seldom do we speak about whose lands we have come to occupy. I don’t have the answers; I believe we must continuously decide together what this work looks like. But perhaps petitions for federal acknowledgment, Native-authored land acknowledgments, and paying rent to Real Rent Duwamish are a start.
Spirit Returns 2.0 — A Duwamish and Settler Story is an ongoing exhibit. It is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday, at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, located at 4705 W Marginal Way SW, and at the Log House Museum, located at 3003 61st Ave S.W., from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Friday–Sunday.
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Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Exterior of the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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