The Battles in Seattle, or how to tell the story of a radical social movement

by Theresa Warbuton
Published November 25, 2017

How we tell stories can matter as much as the stories we tell. Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen and Chumash writer Deborah Miranda, in her book Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, quotes Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko to warn us: “don’t be fooled by stories! Stories are ‘all we have,’ she says. And it is true. Human beings have no other way of knowing that we exist, or what we have survived, except through the vehicle of story.” The shapes of stories, then, are not merely reflective but also generative. Whether we seek to maintain a longstanding, venerated structure or to instill a new method of telling into a familiar story, we do so with the knowledge that the form we give to stories reciprocates the forms that stories give to us.

As a scholar of Native and Indigenous literatures, honoring this understanding of stories is central to my approach. In my book project, The Politics of Make Believe: Answering Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements, I seek to understand how Native and Indigenous authors are using storytelling to build new worlds alongside those stories and worlds that have existed since time immemorial. I turn to literature written by contemporary Native women authors to conceptualize methods of commemorating and memorializing history that weave together the complicated stories upon which our contemporary worlds are built.

Doing this work differs from a study of Native and Indigenous literatures that is centered on the acquisition and proliferation of ethnographic knowledge. Such an approach assumes that all non-Native readers like myself can learn from Native and Indigenous storytellers is information about Native and Indigenous peoples themselves. Along with many contemporary scholars, my work is grounded in a commitment to upending this idea of what these diverse and dynamic bodies of work have to tell us.

In this way, the interpretive and generative power of Native and Indigenous stories, especially those written by contemporary Native women authors, bears upon the stories we tell about radicalism in North America. This is the case of the 1999 protests against the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, often colloquially referred to as the “Battle in Seattle.” On the 18th anniversary of these protests, from November 28 through December 3, I find myself still thinking about the shape of this story and how that shape has been reciprocated in the shape of radical left movements in North America. The story of the 1999 Battle in Seattle is an important one, one that pops up again and again in the literature on the reemergence of anti-authoritarian movements in North America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. According to David Solnit, “the 1999 Seattle WTO shut down and resistance has become an icon—a story that gives other things meaning.” But what meaning does it give and to whom?

As many have pointed out, the story of the 1999 Battle in Seattle has been a contentious one. Out of the protests and their aftermath came some of the most popular misconceptions about radical political strategies and tactics, including direct action, horizontal movement building, and consensus-based decision making. Anti-authoritarian activists and organizers today still work against the misrepresentations that sprang up from the media coverage of those five days in late November and early December. And perhaps this is one reason why the story of the 1999 Battle in Seattle is still so ubiquitous in the literature on anti-authoritarian movements in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is mentioned in an overwhelming majority of texts in contemporary anarchist studies, as well as popular books on other radical social movements like Occupy Wall Street. Its retelling forms the foundation of the argument that such movements are not sporadic uprisings, but are rather concerted movement building, aimed at realizing sustainable methods of social and political upheaval.

Curiously, that story of radical social movements makes no mention of an earlier battle of/in Seattle. The 1856 Battle of Seattle was an important moment in the Puget Sound Wars. The wars played a decisive role in the settlement of the lands and waters along the Salish Sea and, concomitantly, the absorption of the region into the quickly expanding territory of the United States. In the Seattle region, this battle is commemorated and memorialized in many ways: for example, by the placement of a plaque in 1916 that now sits in City Hall Park and that was memorialized again with a rededication ceremony by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2016, or in the naming of Decatur High School in Federal Way after the USS Decatur, which came to the aid of settlers during the 1856 Battle. Here we have two stories, two Battles of Seattle, whose pervasive invocation in specific but differing circles helps us understand how they function as what historian Coll Thrush has called ‘place-stories’ or stories that “capture the conjunction between sites of history and the accounts we make of them.” Connecting these stories is more than tantalizing: embroiling the story of the 1999 Battle in a much longer and richer history of resistance in the place that is now Seattle would seem to bolster its argument against capitalist globalization.

Why, then, don’t these stories often intersect? This missed opportunity could be read as boiling down to an error of omission, but with the shape of stories in mind, the constant repetition of the story of the 1999 Battle in Seattle without any reference to the 1856 Battle of Seattle reads instead like an investment in a particular story about the history of settlement in the Pacific Northwest. Rather than understanding the 1856 Battle of Seattle as the literal and figurative palimpsest upon which the 1999 Battle in Seattle occurred, the silence surrounding the former in the constant invocation of the latter represents a lack of engagement in contemporary radical social movements with the question of the relationship between the structure of settler colonialism in the 19th century and the rise of global neoliberalism in the late 20th century. By paying attention to the shape of the story of the 1999 Battle in Seattle, we can begin to understand this as a structural issue rather than a cosmetic one. We can also start emphasizing the myriad ways in which Native and Indigenous literatures, rather than translating cultural practices and histories for a non-Native audience, instead ask us to reorient our engagement with land, with history, and with story itself.

Theresa Warburton is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in American Studies and English at Brown University and Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Program of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Western Washington University.