The Duwamish River is Seattle’s only river and yet hides in plain sight, strangely invisible to the average Seattleite. Since white settlement in the area, the river was nearly erased - dredged, straightened, and used as a toilet and a dumping ground for nearly 150 years. What used to be a huge and thriving estuary, providing food and transportation for the dxʷdəwʔabš (the indigenous Duwamish, the people of the inside), was a polluted Superfund site by the time I arrived on the scene. But it was still alive, supporting seals, salmon runs, ospreys, and many other creatures. The Duwamish Tribe, who had been denied federal tribal recognition over and over again, was likewise hanging on and still fighting. Industry, nature, and neighborhoods shared space in ways unknown to most of the rest of the city. It was a place of tension, of dramatic landscapes and a complex, tangled history.
Nearly 20 years later, there is still plenty to get upset about. There is still noise and pollution from trucks, planes, ships. There are still plenty of industrial businesses that aren’t good neighbors. Residents of the Duwamish Valley have a significantly shorter lifespan than residents of the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, and at the same time live in fear of being pushed out due to gentrification and the lack of affordable housing. And yet it’s also a tight knit community, where people have lots of practice making their voices heard. Superfund cleanup is underway. New parks and restoration of the riverbank bring more people and wildlife to it. The Duwamish Tribe bought land by the river and built their longhouse in 2009 without federal recognition, and the Real Rent program provides the tribe sustaining support and resources. The river is no longer invisible. People see it and care about it. They always have. The story is still complex and still being written.
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