What’s Changed a Year After Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

It's been a year, but improvements for Native American services are off to a slow start

By Elsy Pawelak

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September 8, 2015

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Drumming, chanting and tears punctuated festivities at Seattle’s City Hall on October 13, 2014, when Mayor Ed Murray signed Indigenous Peoples’ Day into the historical fabric of Seattle on Columbus Day. The declaration provided some relief to wounds that have been packed with salt for centuries; among the celebrants were members of the Tulalip, Puyallup, Suquamish and Muckleshoot tribes, as well as Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Seattle. “By passing this resolution, the City has demonstrated to the original inhabitants of this territory that the City values their history, culture and welfare, as well as their contributions to the local economy,” Puyallup Tribal councilmember David Bean said at the ceremony.

The decision did not come without opposition. The Thursday before the signing, members of Seattle’s Italian-American community held a news conference at Pioneer Square’s Il Terrazzo Carmine restaurant to voice their disappointment over what they see as a repudiation of their heritage. There was even talk of forming a political action committee. However, Murray and Seattle City Council members have stressed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not meant as a replacement for Columbus Day, even though it has never been officially recognized as a city or state holiday.

Murray also announced the appointment of Claudia Kauffman as chair of the board of the Seattle Indian Services Commission. “Claudia will help revitalize and rebuild the Seattle Indian Services Commission to ensure that our Indian residents are well served and represented,” Murray said. A former state senator and current intergovernmental liaison for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Kauffman has her work cut out for her in rebuilding the 43-year-old commission that has been floundering since 2011. One year later, grand pronouncements have not yet translated into reviving lost services for a group badly in need of them.

Understanding the challenges facing the commission requires looking back at the long political road that Seattle’s Native American citizens have had to navigate in the city. Even though settlers named the land after Chief Sealth, in thanks to his welcoming nature, early residents went on to pass an 1865 ordinance (that the state overturned four years later) banning Native Americans from living anywhere in the city.

Nearly a century later, in 1958, Makah activist Pearl Warren founded the American Indian Women’s Service League (AIWSL), the first city organization for Native American citizens. The group aimed to ease the ills that plagued their communities in the wake of the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which essentially moved Native Americans off traditional lands and displaced them into cities. With no federal assistance, education or job training, these newly urban Native Americans were often thrust into poverty and alcoholism; isolated within the larger community.

In light of these issues, AIWSL offered career counseling and created the American Indian Professional Association, as well as provided educational support including a preschool and study hall at the new Seattle Indian Center. Reports on the community’s education, health and social problems were published in its monthly newsletter, Indian Center News, which was responsible for first introducing issues within the Indian community to the general public.