Reflections on Pacific Northwest Regionalism on an Edge of Empire
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Reflections on Pacific Northwest Regionalism on an Edge of Empire1

“The Pacific Northwest is simply this,” New York Times journalist Timothy Egan wrote in 1990, “wherever the salmon can get to.”2 Many agreed with him (although others were quick to point out that the range of salmon is extensive, even transnational). Regional icons like Douglas fir trees and salmon evoked the “geographical isolation and natural wealth” that historian Bill Lang identified as Pacific Northwest characteristics.3 More importantly, their anadromous life cycle meant they symbolized migration and indigeniety both, central and often opposing traits of Pacific Northwest regional identity. Salmon rely on balanced bioregions through which they journey thousands of miles–from the cool, rushing waters that course through the forest canopy to the mouth of the Columbia River, and into the Pacific Ocean, after which they return to their natal streambeds to spawn. They travel great distances and yet are deeply rooted to home.

This short essay addresses three divergent forms of Pacific Northwest regionalism and argues that each is partial and political. Regionalism tied to iconographic nature, such as in Egan’s definition, linked the vitality of the region to its resources, problematically as those resources waned. Regionalism animated by settler attachment to (and cooptation of) Indigenous material culture simultaneously froze Indian cultures in a seemingly authentic past and erased contemporary Native peoples. Alternatively, a syncretic sense of place that intertwines settler colonialism and Indigenous regionalisms while recognizing asymmetrical power relations can reintroduce Indigenous land and resource claims back into narratives of place, recentering the contests for lands that script the very debates over the meaning of the far west. While regional definitions reflect their geographic and temporally [End Page 93] setting—they are supposed to be distinctive, after all—they are all arguments about place and people.

Regionalism tied to iconographic nature was animated by crisis. In the 1990s and early 2000s, regionalists defined the Pacific Northwest by its natural elements—fish, water, trees, mountains—at a time when all seemed threatened. Salmon runs were in steep decline while the fishing industry was collapsing, an owl (to be reductionist) threatened to permanently interrupt an economy reliant on timber harvests, and historian Richard White questioned the “nature” of the region’s largest river in his important book, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1995). Out of the economic and environmental crises of the period, northwesterners defined themselves by what they feared they might lose, the natural beauty and wealth that seemingly made their place distinctive. In Egan’s words, these resources were a “bond to a better world” that was fast receding.4

Timothy Egan’s definition of the region bespoke its possible extinction: if salmon disappeared, so would the Northwest. Like Frederick Jackson Turner in his seminal address to the American Historical Association, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, Egan proposed a regional definition on the cusp of change. Turner’s westward line of delineation between savagery and civilization had ceased to exist when he argued that the Frontier experience was the basis for American exceptionalism in 1893. Nearly one hundred years later, Egan shared Turner’s nostalgia for the place that was, as well as anxiety over the place that was becoming.

The very idea of its death reversed how many viewed the region in the twentieth century. Less than fifty years before Egan’s book, geographers and historians described the Northwest as emergent, untapped, full of promise, an infant among the nation’s sections. “It is a region of young folk,” declared the editors of Economic Geography in 1942, “of young industry, of young burning ambition.”5

Likeminded historians spooled out optimistic assessments of the region and its distinctiveness. They opposed the views of people like renowned pioneer Jesse Applegate who thought the region “added no new fact to human knowledge—has produced no high illustration of any fact already known, has produced no warrior, scholar in any branch of human knowledge, in fact not a single name that for any merit or acts of its possessor deserves to live in the memory of mankind.”6 Years later, H. L. Davis, the region’s first...