Some time ago I contemplated whether our buses—wherever they are on Coast Salish lands—would bear place names in dxʷləšucid (Lushootseed), the language of indigenous Coast Salish peoples from Nisqually all the way to Skagit. It was early winter of 2018 when I began packing for my trip to the Samoa archipelago. Something caught the corner of my eye outside the faculty offices of the UW Anthropology department: the Burke Waterlines Map. I perused the map, pinned to the bulletin board unfolded, and, curious as to where the Lushootseed place names belonged on the map, began to piece together village by village, water site to water site, into my head already deeply colonized by the more familiar English place names I was taught to know, love and sometimes hate.

What if public transportation can bear these place names?

Fast forward another nine months to the first ever University of Washington Southern Lushootseed course. For context, there are no first speakers of Lushootseed language. Although this happened very recently, scholars and linguists—such as Arthur Ballard, Thom Hess, Vi Hilbert, and many others—began documenting and preserving the language several generations ago. Now, efforts to revitalize the language (i.e. bring Lushootseed back to a living state) are well underway, including the language courses Ms. Tami Hohn (Puyallup) teaches at the University of Washington.

These edited photographs reflect a combination of my confidence in Southern Lushootseed, knowledge of the region’s public transportation routes, and reliable sources of place names derived from the Waterlines map or Tulalip Lushootseed’s map (for places in Snohomish County). These place names are not simply of the past. They are living memories for indigenous communities across the region. They deserve to live, just as much as our metropolitan public transportation system does.

Check back on my for more updates!

I am forever grateful to Ms. Tami Hohn for teaching me lifelong skills for learning dxʷləšucid.


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If this 372X were to go to Kenmore P&R, this is what the sign would look like.
If this 44 were to go to Ballard and Shilshole, this is what the sign would look like.
If this Swift Green Line bus were to go to Everett (Paine Field), this is what the sign would look like.
If this 67 were to go to University Village, this is what the sign would look like.
If this 880 were to go to Mukilteo, this is what the sign would look like.
If this 512 were to go “towards Seattle,” this is what the sign would look like.

More coming soon!

30 Replies to “dxʷləšucid signs”

  1. Yes. I love it. There needs to be Lushootseed names on every single sign and marker, at the very least. Teaching it, to the extent the Duwamish and others want it to be taught, also needs to be expanded.

    I first encountered it in person, rather than in pdf or books, in gardens at Seattle University as I was wandering around after an appointment. As a linguistics aficionado, I was beyond giddy to see it inscribed in stone and on explanatory signs. Seeing it expand from there would be amazing.

    1. No, no, there does not need to be translations into a language that is of no practical use on every single sign and marker.

      How can this possibly be considered a useful or serious suggestion?

      Hey, here’s an idea! How about we increase actual transit service to, say, the Muckleshoot reservation. Have you looked at the transit available there? It sucks.

      Granted, it wouldn’t have the side benefit of allowing white people to feel self-righteous about their cultural inclusiveness, so maybe we should focus on that instead.

  2. I can see Shilshole in the second one. The others are incomprehensible. It took me a while to find Lushootseed in dxʷləšucid; the first part must have been dropped, and the “c” pronounced “ts”. The street signs in the International District have the other-language name below the English one so we can do something like that with native names. In Ireland the city signs have the English name in all capitals and the Irish name in mixed-case italics. But to me the most important thing would be to get the names more known in their spoken form, because this alphabet was not something they used but a phoneticist’s reconstruction, and it’s somewhat of a stumbling block for non-native people to learn the names. So I think we’d need Anglicized names at least. Maybe a three-way sign: “Ballard / Shilshole / šilšul”. I don’t know what the Lushootseed names for the others are or whether those spellings are hiding a word I’d recognize.

    1. Mike,

      That’s actually a pretty spot-on point, what you’re saying about the language’s written vs spoken form. Indeed dxʷləšucid is an oral language by nature, so it is important for folx learning the language to know what they’re actually talking about and to speak it. When it comes down to language revitalization though, one thing to remember is that living languages keep up with a community’s social and cultural changes over time. That can mean a whole host of things depending on what language and context you’re talking about. But in this case, Lushootseed now uses the International Phonetic Alphabet in its current written form (the kind you and I would first learn it from) as opposed to the various settler alphabets that were first used to document the language. My next step as a student doing research for these signs would be to dive into old source documents and determine how the Lushootseed terms would be used today.

      The other point I’d like to bring up about translations is that the Lushootseed place names tell stories: of people’s relationships to the land, of the environment, etc. Take the 7 c̓ipc̓ip, for example. A worthy transit enthusiast can duly figure out where Prentice and 64th is on the Waterlines map. c̓ipc̓ip roughly equates to Prentice Street, right? But can they figure out what stories of Ducklings were told around that area? This is what I love about the signs. They don’t mean that I personally know every single story that’s there to be told about the different places, but they at least give folx (like transit riders) a heads-up that there are stories everywhere that remain relevant to indigenous peoples’ lives.

      Here’s the Lushootseed alphabet.

      1. Thanks for that link! I’ve long thought that learning IPA would be the most difficult part of learning dxʷləšucid.

      2. It’s not IPA; it’s inspired by IPA. The IPA symbol for ts is ʦ not c; ch is ʧ not č; zh is ʒ not ǰ. All languages have a set of phonemes (sounds that distinguish words), and adapt IPA in a way that avoids unnecessary complications, for instance using a plain c for ch or ts rather than using a funny symbol or ligature. R is used for a lot of different sounds that aren’t strictly the trilled r (Spanish perro); the English r is properly ɹ, but pronunciation guides use a plain r for convenience because English doesn’t distinguish between r and ɹ — one is just a variation of the other. č and š look like they came from Czech, ǰ and x̌ look like unique analogs, and č̓ looks like Vietnamese. The superscript w is an IPA feature.

    2. There are two issues here: what do the tribes want to revive their language and give it appropriate visibility, and what’s best for everybody else (residents, visitors, cities). And where do the two overlap? I’ll leave it to the tribes to articulate what they want. I can see how they might want bilingual street signs and city signs, since the words are theirs and have cultural connotations behind them. Bus destination signs are more difficult because there’s limited room on the displays and native silsul and anglicized Shilshole don’t mean exactly the same thing. (I think of Shilshole as the coastal strip west of Ballard, not all of Ballard. The 44 goes almost to the coastal strip so it could be justified that way, although not for a passenger that wants to go halfway up Seaview Avenue and gets dumped off at the Locks. (“But the sign says Shilsole!”)

      Second, we really need to focus on the spoken names. The printed words alone are insufficient for non-Indians, who can’t find the name in the word even with a letter-pronunciation guide, can’t pronounce or distinguish half the sounds and need an anglicized approximate, and can’t perceive the stories from the names alone. I’d start with an audio file narrating the Burke Waterlines map, and for each name giving the native pronunciation, an anglicized surrogate, and the story behind the name and how the places were used. (For instance, where were the Ballard villages, just along the coast or into the interior of Ballard and Crown Hill?) Some gardens and museums have dial-an-audio-description for their exhibits, so that could be done with these places. Then beyond that, somehow get the spoken names and stories into the wider community, through some kind of educational outreach and tourist materials.

  3. Making dxʷləšucid signs on capital projects could easily be done within the 1% (or is it 2%?) for art budget or signage budget. If there is sacred open-space land west of Northgate Station that is still in government hands, I hope the relevant governmental entities realize the importance of the land and consider giving it back to the dxʷdəwʔabš. Or any other sacred lands in or near Si’ahl that aren’t in private hands, for that matter.

    When the South Park Bridge re-opened, signage was added next to the walking paths talking about the Muckleshoot and dxʷdəwʔabš. At the very least, historic markers pointing out the sacred lands, where they happen to be in public hands, is long overdue. In a City where neighborhoods only a few decades old are applying for historic designation overlays as a replacement for single-family zoning, which in turn was a replacement for racially-restrictive covenants, which was in turn a replacement for the Indian Exclusion Act, this could be a first step toward the City of Si’ahl protecting actually historic stuff, since all the historic structures were burned down by racist mobs who treated the last longhouses the way Mayor Durkan is treating RVs.

    1. Yeah, this makes me think that perhaps a better location for signage would be at stops/stations/shelters. They could include place names, stories, drawings, etc. Maybe Metro’s facilities group would consider in the future?

      1. There has been off-and-on discussion of selling land back to those from who ST purchased it or claimed eminent domain on it. Since most of the land in Seattle was once inhabited by the Duwamish, and never paid for despite the Treaty of Elliott Bay, perhaps some of the land ST is giving up could be returned to its rightful inhabitants (or their descendants) before all the subsequent “owners” who were all living on stolen land. Not all injustices can be undone, but this can be done. The Tribe might opt for fair market value in current currency, or some sort of land trade, but that would be up to them.

        Also, in recognition that we are running a transit system on their land, and never asked for permission to do so, the very least we could do is give all members of the tribes that inhabit the ST District free transit passes for life, covering all services, and an electric-only bus route to the Longhouse (unless they really don’t want outsiders getting there too easily), perhaps a re-routing of route 131 or 132. Naming the Longhouse in dxʷləšucid on the bus sign might keep people who weren’t specifically looking for the Longhouse from realizing it is there.

    2. ST’s goal now for surplus property is affordable housing, so some arrangement could be made with the Duwamish similar to Capitol Hill Housing projects at Capitol Hill station or El Centro de la Raza’s renovation at Beacon Hill station, which have below-market housing and community organization spaces and a mix of retail shops. Questions include, what lots will be available, is the tribe interested in such an endeavor, and would it need a third-party investment partner to fund it?

  4. This is really cool! While I don’t think it’s useful for way-finding, I think having the Lushootseed names available would help give folks a better sense that the area before they were there was occupied (and still is to some extent) by the Duwamish people.

    I make amateur videos of bike rides I do around the greater Seattle area, and this has inspired me to try adding Lushootseed names when I can to various locations. Thank you for the work you’ve done and continue to do!

  5. It’s a horrible idea to add a language to transit signage that essentially no one speaks. It just clutters the maps/signs and creates confusion. As others have mentioned, the written language isn’t even “real” as the Native Americans never used it. If we want to use Native names they should be spelled out in an alphabet that people know.

    I’m fine with having signs around the city (not street signs) that have the Native American names, even in a text basically no one can read if desired, as an educational tool or matter of interest, but they shouldn’t clutter signs people need to make quick driving decisions or navigate the transit system.

    1. Agreed, especially since Metro would find a way to spend vast sums of money in the process..

  6. cayəxʷ haʔɫ. ʔəsgʷəx̌ʷisəd čəd txʷəl kʷi ɫudslaʔdxʷ ti səxʷʔugʷus ʔal ti haacgʷiɫ ʔal ti siʔaɫ.

  7. Cultural references are certainly sensitive topics. They can appear educational, corny, insincere or inspirational.

    This signage proposal seems almost dismissive in that cultural context. If we had phonetic signs in Chinese or Vietnamese or Arabic (rather than in those character sets or alphabets), I can only imagine the complaints that would ensue. I can only imagine the ridicule of saying that a sign that merely spells out “art” is actually art.

    Instead of written letters, how about using more Salish visual communication forms in our transit systems? It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand works. Suggestions: Reference each of the several Link lines with unique Salish icons of bears, eagles, fish and other elements as part of the color identifier, or reference station exits that way (“follow the bear out of the station” is more memorable to a rider than “use exit 3”). Add a relevant unique totem pole (weather resistant) at each station entrance. The phonetic alphabet names can then contribute to a larger referencing strategy.

    In saying just this, I’m recognizing my own cultural biases. The recommendations should be guided by persons more familiar with the language and culture they are asked to reflect. I’d recommend deferring to them to hone in on a unified strategy.

  8. +1

    But, if it were up to me, I would also convert the route number into dxʷləšucid.

    Sam. Fluent in 27 languages. English is my sixth language.

  9. The buses in Dublin with “An Lar” all go to city center: you don’t need to be native Irish speaker to get that…seems like we could have the bus signs rotate between the two languages as a reminder that English was not the first language spoken here.

  10. This excellent post had me emembering my first visit as a teenager to my ancestral homeland which my parents were forced to leave as children – the colonists had renamed towns, streets and places writing everything in Cyrillic and naming them after their leaders – it is difficult to describe how painful that was but here is a poor attempt at it.

    The land – stolen from generations who had lived on it and with it.
    The history – stolen and written to frame the almost genocidal practices in the light of brining culture to the heathens.
    The lives – hard work we all do to raise a family in comfort and security, stolen and having to start again from almost nothing.

    At least the words Seattle, Mukilteo, Tahoma, and many others that describe this place where we all live have meaning for those who were here well before the American experiment began. These names continue to have meaning for those who have been subject to obviously unimaginable hardship under this experiment and for the rest of us to make the effort to learn, understand and appreciate them is a small first step we can make to change things for the better. The dismissive and disparaging posts about this make it clear just how coddled and insular some people are and just how far we still have to go.

    1. Please replace “Cyrillic” with “ an almost unintelligible alphabet” it makes the same point in a more neutral manner.

    2. Tahoma is just ONE of the native names for Mt. Rainier. Who is to say that’s the “right” one?

      Puskehouse was its name by the Cowlitz. There are a dozen other names too.

      While Tahoma (or Tacoma) are definitely native (Puyallup tribe and others) words, we need to be careful when stating that a specific place has a specific name, especially something as prominent as My. Rainier.

    3. I think we can consider Tacoma and Tahoma as equivalent anglicizations, like Seattle and Sealth, and not worry about mountains or post-1900 pronunciation changes. So there’s no need to rename Tacoma to Tahoma or Mt Rainier to Tahoma or Snohomish to Sdububsh. Ballard should be “Ballard – Shilshole -silsul”, Snohomish “Snohomish – sdububs”, Everett “Everett – X – x”.

      In Ireland place names and personal names have Irish-English pairs like “Ceatharlach – Carlow” and “Seumas – James”. Usually the pairs are etymological but sometimes they’re sound-based or arbitrary (e.g., some Irish names have no English equivalent so a similar-sounding name is paired instead). And for Gaelic place names that don’t provide an English equivalent like “Dun Laoghaire” (dun-leery), the visitors’ mispronunciation “dun lay-oh-g-hair” is at least understood and predictable, whereas attempts to say “lakhwadis” or “dzkhwlusushootseed” from the modern spelling probably wouldn’t even be understood by either natives or settlers. So I think the thing to do is a three-way pairing as above, especially for places with European names.

    4. Oh wait, they wouldn’t know about x -> kh or c -> ts or λ -> l, so they’d say something like “yaks-wadis” or “ds-ks-w-less-uh-sid” — even less understandable. And Downtown Seattle — “Uh, ‘d-ks-w-al si-…’, I give up.”

    5. Seumas was a bad example because it’s used in English as-is rather than translated.

    1. Were there any inhabitants before the Salish?

      The closest I could find is, “Archeological evidence indicates that Coast Salish peoples may have inhabited the area as far back as 9000 BCE. What is now Seattle, for example, has been inhabited since the end of the last glacial period (c. 8,000 BCE—10,000 years ago).” and “notable early settlements that record has been found of include prominent villages along the Duwamish River estuary dating back to the 6th century CE, which remained continuously inhabited until sometime in the later 18th century.” (Wikipedia, “History of the Duwamish Tribe”, “Coast Salish Languages”, “Coast Salish”, “Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast”). All these references imply they were always Coast Salish and none mention any other people before them.

  11. At minimum the photos are good artwork and you could probably sell them printed on a sheet like the Burke Waterlines Map. They’ve inspired a good cultural discussion on where and how these names should be incorporated into general wayfinding and and branding displays and public education. There’s a secondary task of identifying native counterparts to the European names, and deciding how much a former village really relates to the entire city/neighborhood it’s within or near, especially if the town center is a way away from the village center, and ascertaining whether the tribes think the name pairings are appropriate and want their names used for these entities. But all these can be solved.

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