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Originally published Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at 10:03 PM

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Jerry Large

The historic story of our mixing

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is exploring the meeting and mixing of Native Americans and Asian Americans in the Northwest. The exhibit is titled "Cultural Confluence: Urban People of Native American and Asian Heritages."

Seattle Times staff columnist

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is exploring the meeting and mixing of Native Americans and Asian Americans in the Northwest.

The exhibit is titled "Cultural Confluence: Urban People of Native American and Asian Heritages."

For me, the exhibit is not about defining individuals racially, but learning through them about this region's history.

Who mixes with whom is a matter of time, place and circumstance. If the opportunity is there, people will hook up, and those connections in turn say something about the circumstances that made them possible.

So while the exhibit is built around the art of several mixed-race artists, it invites a look at Northwest history. For anthropologist Sharyne Shiu-Thornton, who's been suggesting such an exhibit for years, the exploration of history is especially important.

"What were the social circumstances that stimulated this mixing?" she asked when we talked about the project this week. Then she answered her question.

Anti-Chinese immigration laws allowed some male workers into the country but kept women out, for instance. And anti-miscegenation laws sometimes ruled out marriage to white women. So some bachelors married Native American women.

History explains why Indipino's (Native American/Filipino) dominate the exhibit. When I toured the exhibit and asked about that, Josh Heim, Wing Luke's exhibits developer, told me one of the stories.

Before World War II there was a large number of Japanese-American farms on Bainbridge Island and most of the workers were Filipino men. When Japanese Americans were being taken to internment camps, some asked trusted workers to run the farms for them, and because labor was in short supply, the Filipino managers recruited First Nations women from Canada to pick strawberries and other crops.

After the war, returning Japanese Americans rewarded some of their Filipino caretakers with plots of their own, which encouraged them to settle down and marry. And who was available? The women they'd hired.

Filipinos and Native Americans also met working together in Alaskan canneries.

Some of that history is presented along with the art, though Shiu-Thornton wishes there were more. She was part of the community advisory committee that helped put the exhibit together. One of the practices that sets the Wing Luke apart is that it always convenes committees of people who have some real-life connection with a particular exhibit to help shape its offerings.

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Shiu-Thornton's mother is Chinese and her father Cherokee, Irish American and African American.

When I looked at the artwork, I saw Native American, not Asian themes. Shiu-Thornton said she told the committee as the show developed that it seemed to be an exhibit of contemporary Native-American art.

There are stories behind that, too.

For instance, the information on the artist Lawney Reyes says he is Sin-Aikst (a tribe located primarily in Eastern Washington and British Columbia) and Filipino and identifies as Indian. He lived on the Colville Indian Reservation as a child and was sent off to Indian school.

It's not genetics that shapes our outlook so much as the culture we learn from family and community.

Shiu-Thornton hopes the exhibit will get people talking about human complexity and the idea that individuals can embrace whatever bits and pieces of culture suit them without being forced into one-race silos.

The data still bubbling up from the last census suggests a world of increasingly leaky silos, and maybe, eventually, more freedom to just be.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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