Collage of three photos side-by-side that depict dancers and performers from various ethnic communities who live by the Duwamish River.

Duwamish River Festival: Sparking Joy, Community Gathering, and Environmental Awareness for 16 Years

by Amanda Ong

On Saturday, Aug. 6, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. the Duwamish River Community Collective (DRCC) will host the 16th annual Duwamish River Festival.

The free festival will be held at Duwamish River People’s Park and Shoreline Habitat, featuring food, games, prizes, and live entertainment. 

“This festival is really special to us for many reasons, but first, it is the celebration of the Duwamish River,” Maggie Angel, community engagement and communication specialist at the DRCC, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “The Duwamish River is also a Superfund site, which means it is polluted in really high levels that affect human health and wildlife health. So our goal for this festival is to bring people down to the river, to bring awareness and education of the state of the river, and what’s occurring with it.” 

In recent years, the DRCC has changed its name from the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition to the Duwamish River Community Coalition to demonstrate that their interest isn’t only in cleaning up the river but community health as a whole, on issues ranging from air quality, affordable housing, and food security, to youth programming and gang violence. 

“Certain voices are not heard as much as compared to other voices, [and] in the Duwamish Valley, we have a lot of immigrant families who live here, refugee families,” Angel said. “There’s a lot of barriers, one of them being language … [we try to] give them the tools they need to prepare to answer and advocate for themselves and their community. For us, it’s really important that our community [understands] because it’s affecting their health. It’s not just something we want to do because it’s fun, or because it’s our job, but it’s something that we have seen affecting community health, such as asthma rates [and] other cardiovascular sicknesses that we’ve seen in the community related to all these different contaminations of the air [and] of the water around them.”

The DRCC also hopes to bring these issues to the festival and will host kayak tours as well as organizations at the festival who will speak to various local public health and environmental issues. In addition, they’ll feature many participants, all of whom are local to South Park or South Seattle. These include vendors, like Seattle Hot Dogs and Rico’s Tacos, and performers such as poets, Aztec dancers, Mexican folkloric dancers Angeles de Mexico and Joyas Mestizas, rock band Wild Wild Mexico, street band Neon Brass Party, and a drum performance.

Photo depicting festival attendees listening to DRCC members raise awareness about the environmental issues surrounding the Duwamish River.
A scene from Duwamish River Festival 2019. Several attendees return from a kayak tour of the Duwamish river. Photo courtesy of the Duwamish River Community Collective.

The Duwamish River is the only river in Seattle and before the arrival of colonizers was an invaluable resource that life was built around for many of the Duwamish peoples. Logging, bridges, and waterways, as well as displacement by colonizers, eliminated many of the traditional food sources and ways of life around the river, and over time have greatly polluted it. However, the fight to get the river cleaned up and reach a safe state again has persisted for years. 

The DRCC is one of the groups that has and will continue to fight for the cleaning of the Duwamish River. They do work in research and data as well as community involvement. Angel says that the hardest of these is community involvement, given that many community members’ primary language is not English, but Spanish or Somali.

“But one of the easiest ways to catch people’s attention is to have a party,” Angel said. “So we created this festival to bring our community together with performances, free food, live music, and having a lot of tables with different organizations and with the work they do.”

Angel herself was raised in South Park, where her parents immigrated and were able to find a greater community and home. Growing up, she saw firsthand the issues that DRCC fights for every day. She was a member of one of the DRCC’s first Duwamish Valley Youth Corps as a teen, then came back to volunteer before moving into a paid position. 

“For me this work is really important because my family has experienced the sickness — my family suffers from asthma, my little brother being really, you know, impacted the most from this condition,” Angel said. “And [the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps] was really important when I was a young teenager. There were a lot of gangs in my community … our youth program was really important. We do teach them about, like, what’s going on? Why is it that we have 13 years less of life expectancy in South Park compared to other areas of Seattle?”

Angel said the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps offered her opportunities that were not otherwise available to her, and the DRCC continues to build community and create opportunities for those in the area. The Duwamish River Festival is a moment both for the community and for celebrating the river itself. 

“We [often] talk about the negatives, all the bad things that happened to the river and how it affects us,” Angel said. “What I hope [is] that community and folks that come to the River Festival get that there’s a positive side to it … [the Duwamish] is a habitat area for salmon. There’s definitely life coming back to the river. It’s really beautiful. And we can definitely have a party next to the river, and have our kayak tours going on in the river. Just bring all this joy and positive vibes and positive views to this river is what I’m really hoping to get.” 

Angel says that the festival is a day that can demonstrate how important the river is to the community, the EPA, and other groups that have a say in the river cleanup. But beyond that, the festival is also just simply a day that neighbors can come out and enjoy a sunny day with free food and be in community with each other. That in itself is an act of resistance.

“The fight never ends, but it’s not always negative,” Angel said. “I think I just want to let folks know that there’s always a bright side to things, and it’s the way you shape it that matters. So for us, this is a way of shaping happiness and joy in the river … But most of all, I just invite folks to join us for a happy, busy weekend and hope they can come down and enjoy some festivities with us.”

Come join the festival on Saturday, Aug. 6, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Duwamish River People’s Park and Shoreline Habitat, 8700 Dallas Ave. S.

Flyer advertising the 16th annual Duwamish River Festival.

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: Performers and dance groups from diverse communities who live by the Duwamish River perform at the Duwamish River Festival. Pictured are scenes from the festival in 2019. Photos courtesy of the Duwamish River Community Collective.

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