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Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon.

December 5, 2013

Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon.  Bison Books (2013), Hardcover, 336 pages.


A wonderful, innovatively conceived history of a Native American woman who lived in a community of Indians and whites on the southern edge of Puget Sound in the northwestern United States in the late nineteenth century.

 Llyn De Dannon is an Emeritus Professor at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington.  She herself lives just down Oyster Bay from where Katie Gale once lived.  She has extensively researched and documented all she can find about Gale and those who touched her life.  Her findings are well documented with footnotes, bibliography, and comments about her sources, especially the oral histories she conducted, but this book is not meant for other academicians.  In the innovative tradition of the college where she taught, she has written an interdisciplinary history which takes in to account economic, political, and environmental changes that affected life on Oyster Bay.  Even more unconventionally, she has woven into her account her own extensive speculations about her subject and her own memoir of living on the bay as she wrote about Gale.

 Katie Gale was born near Puget Sound in 1856, just as violence ended between those who had long lived in the area and the European American intruders who were entering it.  Because her mother became sick and died, Katie spend much of her childhood with relatives who lived on Oyster Bay, learning the traditional craft of minding the oyster beds and collecting oysters.  James Gale was an ambitious white newcomer, aware of the value of oysters and eager to make his fortune.  He and Katie lived together, had children, and married, all the while working the oysters together and gaining possession of more beds.  In 1893, a national economic crisis reached Oyster Bay. At the same time, Katie’s marriages become abusive.  Because she was defined as a U.S. citizen and had married legally, she was able to go to court to sue for divorce.  James defended himself by accusing her of being an unfit mother and only a crude and lazy Indian, claims that were easy proven to be false.  Before the court ruled, he and Katie worked out an economic agreement which gave her full possession of some of their oyster beds.  They remained formally married but he spent most of his time in Seattle with his white mistress and his rapidly growing oyster business.  Katie and her two children remained on the bay where she established her own successful oyster business.  She died of tuberculosis in 1899.  Her ex-husband went on to become an important figure economically and politically in the state.

 Because Katie Gale could neither read nor write, her own thoughts and emotions can seldom be known.  The only words we can trace to her are from the accounts others wrote.  Court documents include her description of the violent abuse that James inflicted on her.  The descendants of those who were her friends add a few choice stories, such as the time she tied James, probably drunk, to a tree with his beard.  De Dannon uses her broad knowledge of the region to suggest what Katie might have been doing and saying.  At first De Dannon’s images of the inside of Katie’s house and the trail behind it seemed to me to be sheer fabrications, but on reading her discussions at the end of the book, I learned at she had talked with those who had lived there and known the house and trail.  De Dannon is careful to indicate when she has evidence for her account and when she moves beyond it.  Using her imagination allows her to make figures from the past more real and human.  But she never tries to tell an intimate story that only a novelist could write.

 As Thomas King observes in his fine recent Native American history, most of us tend to assume that Indians were either fighting or invisible to white people.  Katie Gale’s story makes real a transitional community when people of different racial groups lived alongside each other.  They were not equal, but for a time they lived together, worked and played together with an openness that would later disappear.  If we are to understand the full scope of our racial histories, we need to learn more about communities like these in which Katie Gale lived.

 In an unusually long acknowledgement section at the end of the book, De Dannon writes about the people from whom she learned about nineteenth-century life on Oyster Bay.  Many of these were the descendants of people who had known Katie Gale.  She also credits her colleagues at Evergreen College for the shape which the book took.  She notes the questions which both students and teachers were regularly asked when they finished a project. “What did you do?  How did you do it?  What did you learn? Why does it matter?”  In writing this book, these were the underlying questions she sought to answer.

 I strongly recommend this book to a wide variety of readers.  It certainly should be read by anyone interested in Native American and Indigenous peoples, but also by those who simply enjoy well-researched biography or history and unconventional approaches to learning the “truth” of the past.

 Thanks to Library Thing and to Bison Books at University of Nebraska Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Note on my language:

The English language has no adequate words for discussing Indigenous people, especially those in North America.  Perhaps that fact relates to the ways in which such people have been thought about and treated.  All the possibilities are problematic.

 “Native Americans” is probably the best, but it ignores the fundamental unity of people who ignored the US borders with Mexico and Canada.  And it is clumsy to use repeatedly in writing.  I like the Canadian “First Nations,” but it never caught on in this country.  “Indigenous” is the proper term to use globally, but it also sounds too foreign in an American context.  One alternative is to use the names of particular tribes, especially since tribal membership carries benefits.  The US government uses this designation, but this language is also problematic.  People from different tribes who live off reservations have often been thrown together and inter-married, as happened in places like Oyster Bay. Their children are not registered as members of any tribe.

 I have chosen to use “Indian” here and in my other reviews.  I know full well that North American people are not the people of India as the Europeans here assumed and it is a term imposed by outsiders.  It glosses over tribal differences, but it has the advantage of being how European Americans saw those who were here originally.  And it can be used smoothly and repeatedly in writing.  And I am willing to follow the lead of Thomas King in choosing “Indian.”

Because they considered themselves as superior to all those they encountered, European colonizers named those whom they saw as the other.  Like many tribes, they saw themselves as the only real human beings.  “Caucasian” is the closest they came to defining themselves racially.  In writing about them, I have chosen to simply refer to them as “white.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2016 1:39 am

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