UW Today

This is an archived article.

September 21, 1999

Award-winning history of Puget Sound Indians grew from historian’s experience representing tribes in court

Just like the people she’s worked with and written about, historian Alexandra Harmon has reinvented herself.

Harmon is an attorney who spent much of her legal career representing Puget Sound Indian tribes. She returned to college earlier this decade to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Washington and eventually shaped her dissertation into a book that was honored last week with one of the 1998 Governor’s Writers Awards presented by Gov. Gary Locke.

The idea for her book, “Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities Around Puget Sound,” grew from her legal career working with Evergreen Legal Services, Small Tribes Organization and several western Washington Indian tribes.

“From my research it became apparent that the stories of Indian people are far more complicated and interesting than the goal-oriented stories we had to tell about them in court,” says Harmon, who is now an assistant professor in the UW’s American Indian Studies Center. “It got to the point where I wanted to look into those stories and understand the historical issues I explored as an attorney without having to simplify them.”

Harmon’s book is the first scholarly history of Puget Sound Indians and it breaks new ground in its exploration of race and ethnicity, as well as the relations between people who perceive themselves as different. That difference manifested itself from the first contact between Indians and Europeans. When the British captain George Vancouver explored Puget Sound in 1792 he had a ready-made label for the indigenous people he found there.

“‘Indian’ was a term unknown to the people he labeled. It does not even denote a category for which they had a word,” Harmon writes in the introduction to her book. “Although they or their children eventually used the term to identify themselves, its meaning has not since been static or indisputable. That is the point of this book.”

“Indian” is still being redefined today and will be in the future, Harmon believes.

“Just read the newspapers today. There are people who say they are Indians, and there are groups contesting those claims. Historically, prior to the arrival of non-Indians, people were shifting their residences and their allegiances all the time,” says Harmon. “But it is hard to foresee a future where some people would not insist on their Indian identity, although the terms might change. Indians absolutely will be flexible enough to redefine themselves. All humans define themselves by looking at history and seeing what they want to be.

“My hope is that readers will be exposed to more information about the Indian people of this region and how inventive and resilient they have been. I also would like people to come away with an understanding of the dynamics of race relations. Indian and non-Indian peoples always have had a considerable amount of interaction in this area. These relations have effects in defining how alike and different we are. There is a consistent push-pull relationship on both sides. That people insist on being called ‘Indian’ is the result of what others have done to them, as well as a sense of pride and self respect,” she says.

“Indians in the Making” was published by the University of California Press in 1998.
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For more information, contact Harmon at (206) 543-7116 or aharmon@u.washington.edu.