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

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.

Protests at Fort Lawton in 1970 led to the creation of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center
MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Photo by Cary Tolman, 1986.5.51939.1

The community took the next step into its own hands. In March 1970, Native American protesters attempted to occupy and claim land at the Fort Lawton Army installation (which now sits in Discovery Park in Magnolia) by “right of discovery.” They demanded a gathering place for strictly cultural events. The protest eventually led to the establishment of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center at Discovery Park. Opened in 1977, Daybreak is run by the United Indians of All Tribes and is still used as a cultural center, with ceremonial gatherings (including the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day last year), an art gallery and a preschool.

Two years after the Fort Lawton protest, the City of Seattle chartered the Seattle Indian Services Commission, its first public development authority. Initially created as an umbrella organization to connect different community services groups, including the Seattle Indian Center, Seattle Indian Health Board, AIWSL and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, the commission had its own offerings, too, such as computer training, travel assistance and youth programs.

But more recently the commission was plagued with financial and managerial problems, says Kenny Pittman, a senior policy adviser with the city. A 2011 annual audit revealed that the treasurer had been using funds for gambling, and $70,000 had vanished. The Seattle Indian Center was $180,000 behind in rent at the Leschi Center, one of two buildings owned by the Seattle Indian Services Commission in the Chinatown–International District. The other, the Pearl Warren Building, needs an estimated $2.5 million in repairs.

Money wasn’t the only problem. The commission of eight included tenants and often remained deadlocked on issues 4 to 4. When the city formally intervened in 2012, the tenant board members were removed, and the total number of members was dropped from eight to five to avoid future deadlocks.

While all of its educational programs were put to rest in 2011, the commission did not shut down. City Council member Nick Licata took over as chair of the board, and the commission continued operations.

That’s where Claudia Kauffman comes in—and she’ll be the first to say that it’s still a long road ahead. Less than a year in office, and her first order of business has been to get structure in place. “There’s only four of us—we have no staff, no tenants, a facility in desperate need of repair and updates,” she says ruefully.

Pittman explains that the city has provided a property management firm to take care of the Pearl Warren Building and some staff during this transition, but that ceases at the end of the year. The rent the commission collects from Operation Nightwatch (a men’s overnight shelter for the homeless that rents a portion of Pearl Warren), parking licenses with the Indian Health Board and a few food truck rentals is the only income the commission has.

“We’ve spent the last two months focusing in on the future and what we can do with this property, for the Native community,” Kauffman says. The commission has hired some professional property managers as well as professional financial services to clear up some of the outstanding financial issues that previous commissioners left behind. Kauffman and the leadership’s three other members are currently focused on finding another board member. But it’s hard to find people willing to commit to the four-year-long, unpaid position.

There may be few who are more well suited to take over the disheartened commission than Kauffman, who boasts a powerful résumé as the first Native American woman to be voted as a Washington state senator, and who helped found the nonprofit Native Action Network, which provides support for female Native Americans. “She was an obvious choice,” says Nicole Willis, tribal relations director with the city.

And she is intent on making clear how passionate she is about the work of getting Native Americans seen and heard in the city of Seattle, as challenging as that is turning out to be.

In 2013, Kauffman began to lay some groundwork for what needs to be done with the “Vision of Urban Indians” study, for which she partnered with the United Way to look at the state of Native Americans in the community.

According to the report, nearly 40,000 people living in King County identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. They’re moving to outlying areas, such as White Center and Shoreline, for one, with more health issues than the rest of the population and less likelihood of attending college. Kauffman hopes to use the study’s information as a foundation to further understand the community’s needs—and to draw in funding.

“We have this great draft vision,” Kauffman says. “We’re just not quite at the point [where]we’re ready to launch yet.”