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Notes from the North End: The Land We Play On

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Did you know the Sounders read a Land Acknowledgment before each home game?

A land acknowledgment in Lake City.
Greg Van Belle

If you’re reading this pretty much anywhere in the Seattle area, you’re sitting on Native land. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading this in North America, you’re sitting on what was once land Indigenous Americans called home before European settlement, warfare, and treaties forced them from their land onto reservations, a catastrophe few of us were ever fully taught, and a historical transgression that can never be made right. The slow, plodding progress being made through things like the elimination of racist mascots can not ever make up for the brutal history of colonialism. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

You may be wondering what this has to do with soccer generally and more specifically what it has to do with the Sounders. Stick with me as we unpack this and try to keep it all connected.

The Seattle area specifically and the Pacific Northwest, in general, has at least acknowledged the region’s Native American heritage, even if it goes mostly unnoticed by most of us on a day-to-day basis. The state ferries are all named after local tribes. Businesses use Native American iconography in their logos. We drive on and through reservation land on our way to and from just about everywhere in the Northwest. Tourists flock to places like Blake Island for a taste of traditional culture. It is inarguable, however, that we can and should do more than we are to recognize, promote, and support Native American communities and cultures in the region.

This season the Sounders made two moves in the right direction. One is the much-publicized partnership with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, whose logo adorns the sleeve of this year’s Jimi Hendrix kits. The second is the less-noticed Native Lands Acknowledgment that is displayed and read before every home match.

Lumen Field sits on unceded Duwamish land, and the entire area around the stadium was an important location for shellfish gathering and other subsistence activities for the Duwamish people. If you’ve been paying attention to pregame announcements this season, you’ve heard James Woollard read this statement:

We respectfully acknowledge that as we convene today, we do so on unceded Coast Salish Land, specifically the ancestral land of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes.

We acknowledge and pay respect to the first peoples who gathered here, to elders past and present, and to all Indigenous people. We thank the Coast Salish peoples, including the Puyallup Tribe, for their generations of stewardship over our natural resources.

Let us all work together to create inclusive partnerships, to honor indigenous partnership, and to convene our community to steward the land.

These sorts of acknowledgments have been popping up all over. Many meetings and gatherings now begin with such statements. They accompany the starts of various outdoor activities and festivals. They are printed in murals and on signs in suburban yards.

I was skeptical about these statements, feeling unsure of their value and importance. I’ve seen enough statements and bumper stickers and short-lived advocacy movements to know that without quantifiable action, these statements amount to little more than feel-good moments for white allies of various minority groups. I loved the idea, however, and I wanted to know more about how the Sounders, specifically, started down this path. So I started digging around and talking with my Native American friends and neighbors, with the Sounders, and with other leaders. It turns out, the statements are popular and valuable, and from the club’s perspective, came to be through a series of authentic processes.

According to the Duwamish Tribe, “it is important to note that this kind of acknowledgment is not a new practice developed by colonial institutions. Land acknowledgment is a traditional custom dating back centuries for many Native communities and nations.” So while they may smack of white guilt and “too little” to skeptics like me, we are actually engaging in a meaningful practice borrowed from Native American culture: Giving thanks, acknowledging our predecessors, and paying attention to our responsibility to be stewards of the land for our descendants. The language of most Native Lands Acknowledgments is very precisely crafted to emphasize not only the heritage and legacy of the land, but the need for ongoing stewardship and protection of the land and the traditional activities that take place here.

Land acknowledgment statements also open the door to more community understanding of the history and issues that affect our Native American neighbors. The Duwamish Tribe on whose land we play is not a federally recognized tribe, and therefore is not afforded the same rights and protections that other local tribes have. They lived on what has become some of the most valuable real estate in the world, and are legally entitled to none of it. Very few Seattleites realize any of this, of course. So by that measure alone, simply hearing Woollard read a land acknowledgment statement is a small step on a long journey to awareness, understanding, and reparations.

For a club like the Sounders, who work hard to connect to the community and build a broad, diverse fan base, it makes sense that they would embrace the historical importance of the land on which they play. Teaming up with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians as a game-day and kit sponsor is also in line with this ethic. As far as I have been able to discern, the Sounders are the only major club in the country with Native American iconography on their jerseys and surely have one of the most public and deep partnerships with a local tribe. It may seem like a small thing (and of course it was a commercial transaction — the Sounders aren’t putting the Puyallup Tribe logo on their kits as a mere gesture) but representation of minority cultures in the mainstream is vitally important, and I suspect the partnership with the Puyallup tribe will be ongoing and will grow in its very nature. The sponsorship deal with the tribe lasts through 2027, which will give it time to develop over time.

I spoke with Maya Mendoza-Extrom, Sounders Vice President of Legal and External Affairs, about the process that led to the inclusion of the land acknowledgment in the pregame content. The club, she says, is always looking for ways to connect to the community and to be as representative of the community in which we play as possible, and with the sponsorship agreement in place, such an acknowledgment seemed a natural first public step. The club worked internally and with the Puyallup Tribe to craft the land acknowledgment statement, knowing that it was a first step of many to come with the goal of connecting more deeply to the Native American history and present of the Seattle area.

For their part, the Puyallup Tribe is interested in making soccer more accessible to Native American youth. They partnered with the RAVE Foundation to sponsor a mini-pitch at Boze Elementary in Tacoma, for example, as a way to begin bringing soccer to underserved communities in the region and to create safe places for young people to play.

Going forward, the tribe hopes to join forces with the Sounders for large events on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and other important dates to the local Native community.

Awareness and acknowledgment is a first small step in repairing systemic discrimination and marginalization. We know, for example, that when young people in minority groups see people in positions of influence and power who look like them, those young people see a world with more possibility and more hope. And Native American people are woefully underrepresented in nearly every walk of life in this country.

There is one Native American active player in MLS; Chris Wondolowski is a member of the Kiowa tribe. Madison Hammond, a Navajo tribal member, plays for the OL Reign. But that’s it. This is historically problematic for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. One would like to think that as soccer becomes more vocal about its ties to the local Native American communities, more and more Indian American kids will see that soccer is a possible path for them, and we will see more players, fans, and coaches from the Native American community.

What to Read

With apologies to those of you who are already neck deep in your fall syllabi (Derek), I am assigning a fairly academic book this month. From Football to Soccer by Brian D. Bunk is a bit of a heavy read, but the author uncovers the convoluted and fascinating history of soccer in North America.

If you followed any international soccer at all this summer, you saw the “It’s Coming Home” hashtag from England fans, referring to the common misconception that football owes its history to the British. Bunk shows, through in-depth literature review, that the game we now call soccer is derivative of Native American games played at least as early as young British versions of the game, and almost definitely earlier, given that Europeans didn’t “discover” and record native traditions until deep into American Indian history.

The game we know as soccer likely developed from a Native American pastime that also spawned modern lacrosse and American football. Eastern tribes would often play open-ended games that involved kicking and passing a ball across massive playing fields, with the ultimate goal being to force the ball over the opponent’s goal line. Various versions of this game were played in different parts of the continent, some which disallowed the use of hands, others which allowed a variety of ways to advance the ball (including the netted sticks we now recognize as lacrosse sticks). But the research is clear: Native Americans were playing what would become soccer well before white European explorers bothered to write down the history they witnessed in North America.

Bunk also covers, in detail, the development of organized soccer in North America. I won’t spoil the reveal for you, but I’m sure it won’t shock you that the game was truly developed as we know it today by elite universities who at first needed to keep their students from getting in trouble off campus, and later as a way to keep the future presidents and congressmen of America from killing each other on the tackle football field.

From there, soccer in America grew in fits and starts, and almost died for good during the Great Depression, but I’ll let you read that part on your own.

What to Watch

There are two shows I think you should all be watching this month, and neither one has anything to do with soccer. They do, however, represent a very important moment in television history and Native American representation. For as long as “Indians” have appeared on television, they have been portrayed in wildly stereotypical ways and played by just about anyone other than Native American actors. It wasn’t until “Northern Exposure” hit CBS airwaves in the early 1990s that actual Native actors really began portraying their own people. Today we finally have television shows that are created, written, and acted by Native Americans, and they are fantastic in their own ways.

“Rutherford Falls” debuted on Peacock earlier this year with a strong cast of Native American actors, producers, and writers. Indeed, a full half of the writers room on Rutherford Falls is Native American, a stat unheard of in Hollywood previous to this.

The show is a formulaic but touching sitcom with great acting and fun storylines, including some moving moments about what it means to honor one’s heritage and how the fierce commercial endeavor of running a casino enterprise can mesh with cultural heritage.

But the shining star on television right now is “Reservation Dogs”. Created by Sterling Harjo and Taika Waititi, “Reservation Dogs” is written and directed entirely by Indigenous Americans. The cast is almost entirely Native American as well. The show follows four teenagers in Oklahoma who operate as a small gang of petty criminals to make money on their quest to escape the reservation and move west to California.

The quality of this show is top notch, and if you’re looking for something new to watch this fall, I strongly recommend it.

Some Links

As I worked on this month’s Notes from the North End, I made a lot of use of a few great resources that you should check out.

This interactive map by a Canadian organization called Native Land offers a fascinating look at what tribes lived on the land you occupy, what languages were spoken, and what treaties were enacted in your region.

If you live in the Seattle area, you can join 17,000 of your neighbors in paying Real Rent to the Duwamish people on whose land you live. You choose the monthly amount that works for your financial circumstances and every dollar goes directly to the Duwamish people.

If you are interested in developing a land acknowledgment for your own office, group, or activity, the Duwamish Tribe has a very helpful webpage on the subject.