Former tribal chairman is now history museum’s Native liaison

Michael Finley is the new tribal liaison at he Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.
Michael Finley is the new tribal liaison at he Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma. The News Tribune

Washington’s native history has a new advocate.

The Washington State Historical Society recently named historian Michael Finley as its new tribal liaison.

Finley, 41, will work on museum exhibitions and programs and provide a bridge between Washington tribes and the Historical Society.

“It’s something I’m passionate about,” Finley said earlier this month. “(I will) help tribes take a bigger role in what the new exhibits will look like and get their thoughts on the other things that we do.”

Finley served on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation tribal council and as its chairman for about six years.

The 9,600 members of the Tribes have a 1.4 million acre reservation in northeast Washington. Finley is a member of the Lakes Tribes.

Finley’s position is part-time. He will continue to live on the reservation in his hometown of Inchelium, he said.

Finley’s appointment allows the museum to have native voices involved with exhibitions and programs at the ground level, said Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Historical Society.

“We have a desire to work with our tribal communities — to not tell their story for them but to provide a place to tell their story,” Kilmer said.

The move also reflects that Native lives and histories are interwoven with the state’s various historical narratives.

“We just have more and more projects we’re working on where we say, ‘We need to consult with the tribes on this,’” Kilmer said.

Chief among those projects is the ongoing renovation of the museum’s Great Hall, which has galleries devoted to Native history and a plank house.

“We don’t want to go in and do a cursory update,” Kilmer said.

Finley has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Eastern Washington University and serves on the school’s board of trustees. He also consults on economic development, policy, gaming and other issues for tribes.

A book he co-wrote with Richard Scheuerman, “Finding Chief Kamiakin: The Life and Legacy of a Northwest Patriot,” was inspired both by the fact Finley’s children are descendants of Kamiakin and also because little had been written about the 1800s Yakama chief.

“He didn’t have a definitive book written about his life, and I felt that was an injustice,” Finley said.

He’s currently co-writing a book on the Palouse Tribe.

In his work at the Historical Society, Finley hopes to draw a line between tribal histories and current events.

“We’re still here,” he said. “We just may not live like the way they used to, the way people like to romanticize.”

But, Finley said, many of the same issues that concerned past Native generations are still important to them today.

“We’re still fighting that fish are going to be here, seven generations down,” he said. “We’re having to reinvent ourselves, to make sure those resources are protected.”

Finley will have input on all exhibitions whether they are Native-specific or broad in nature, Kilmer said.

“If the voice isn’t there, you don’t know what you’re missing,” Kilmer said.

No one on the museum staff dictates content or has a veto power, Kilmer said.

One of Finley’s first tasks will be taking over the annual Native arts show and festival, “In the Spirit”. The next iteration of the event will be in summer 2020.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.