Reading Your Surroundings

Native Seattle was full of examples of outsiders looking in on the native culture and making determinations about what the natives thought or felt about life in Seattle. One anthropologist from the 1930s declared that the natives of Puget Sound “had come through remarkably well.” (151) They may have lost their homes, traditions, and lifestyle, but at least their culture was celebrated in Seattle by the white Seattleites.  Or at least what the Seattleites viewed as the native culture was celebrated. The Tilikums of Elttaes, a white men’s booster organization that was made up of the “most powerful men in Seattle”, had parades and potlaches. (133) “The potlach became the inspiration for appropriation” and soon native traditions became interwoven with the unique Seattle culture and their tourism industry. (132) What more needed to be done to preserve native culture? Apparently not much in the opinion of the dominant culture. This mindset is not unique to Seattle of course. Even in Spokane one the city’s most “fondly-remembered early white immigrants to Spokane,” Daniel Drumheller, was accused of brutally murdering an Indian man. Mistreatment of natives and their culture is sadly an American tradition.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Nearby History proved to be a very helpful, informative resource for researchers. I could definitely see myself using it to guide my research in the future because it is full of practical advice on how to focus and plan out your research. In college there seems to be plenty of training on how to find sources, but it is often assumed that students know what questions to ask when researching. This book helps bridge that gap, and was full of many practical, thought-provoking questions to help researchers draw more detail out of their given topic. One of the questions I found most interesting in chapter 2 was “by what criteria—financial, educational, occupational, or social—did the family measure success?” (12) Another important truth Nearby History conveyed is that as researchers we must be flexible to get the most interesting and effective story. Understanding that “as research goes forward obstacles, unexpected resources, better approaches, and more worthwhile topics often reveal themselves” is an important truth that many beginner researchers don’t take to heart. (3)

I also appreciated that chapter 3 discussed training oneself to read the sources that surround us constantly. We take the information communicated to us by buildings, manhole covers, and even post offices for granted, and because of that we are “missing the vast majority of what is happening around [us].” (13)


This photo of a manhole being constructed in Spokane in 1949 shows how much work went into things we take for granted today. Even from simple things, there is information to be gathered for the nearby historian’s research. Source: Washington State Digital Archive

These commonplace things often times don’t seem important to us, but thinking critically about our surroundings can unearth a significant amount of information about the history of a community. For example, one day Winifred Gallagher was thinking about post offices and came to the conclusion that they essentially created the United States. This idea inspired her to write a book entitled How the Post Office Created America.

post office

Winifred Gallagher’s book, How the Post Office Created America, is an example of how simple idea or question can morph into a serious research project.

I am excited to learn more about reading my own surroundings as sources, and look forward to the interesting stories about my community I will discover along the way.


One comment

  1. lachku0130 · April 26, 2017

    I love how you wove all of the readings together this week! I had a hard time doing that especially with the podcast and the Nearby History. After reading your post I see how it could have been done, I guess it just takes a different perspective. Thanks for the great read Katie, looking forward to more!
    -Lauren Kuharski


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