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08 Aug 2014

Western Lit: The Turbulent Life of a Native American Woman in the 19th Century Is Chronicled in 'Katie Gale'

Written by  Annie Dawid

In Katie Gale, anthropologist Llyn De Danaan chronicles the life of a 19th century Salish (Pacific Northwest Native American) woman who married a white man, gave birth to four children, became a successful oysterwoman, suffered greatly in a divorce settlement, and watched two of her children die of tuberculosis before succumbing to the disease herself.

An extraordinary life? Not really. An exemplary one? No. But Katie Gale represents more than an individual: She stands in for an entire generation of Native American women trampled under the boots of white expansion.

“Of this I am certain: Katie Gale was a refugee, a person displaced by war and threats of war from her country of origin,” argues De Danaan.

Katie’s tribe lived on the oyster-rich Washington coast “before the first non-Indian oystermen arrived in Oyster Bay with their values, dreams and aspirations that rapidly turned a largely subsistence harvest to one based on accumulation of wealth, investment and growth.”

In the late 1800s, whites arrived in large numbers, the beneficiaries of laws encouraging homesteading. Joseph Gale and others claimed vast oysterbeds. But lacking knowledge of the area’s unique harvesting practices, the settlers were at a disadvantage—hence the high number of intermarriages between white men and Native women who knew how to manage tribal lands for sustenance.

But subsistence living vanished when the 1893 depression struck. “Economic downturns had never touched her people before. Only natural disasters could bring shortages. Now Katie lived in a world that was plummeted into near chaos by the national and even international activities of marketing and finance.”

Despite its difficulties, Katie’s life is also full of love and community, all chronicled in fascinating detail by De Danaan, whose previous anthropological work includes field studies in Malaysia. The book is a masterpiece of creative interpretation of extensive archival work, as Gale left no diaries or letters.

Clearly, De Danaan is moved by Gale’s life and legacy. “Surely my life is as insubstantial, as ephemeral, as was Katie’s. I will become like her, another mostly anonymous wraith, a specter who will walk the shores with all the others.”

But De Danaan underestimates her work; this volume is well worth the contemporary reader’s immersion in another life and time.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay

By Llyn De Danaan

Bison

336 pages, $29.95

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