Urban Indians Must Become Their Own Best Advocates

By Kyle Taylor Lucas, Guest Writer, Tulalip News

This is the final installment in a series exploring the largest demographic of American Indians and Alaska Natives–the Urban Indian. Through in-depth interviews, the series touches on some of the struggles, hopes, and aspirations of a largely invisible population.

The series introduction, Urban Relatives: Where do Our Relations Begin and End? provided a snapshot of urban Indian demographics and an overview of historical federal policies, which, according to the 2010 census, finds an astounding 78 percent of all American Indians/Alaska Natives residing off-reservation or outside of Native communities.

The second installment, The Tahoma Indian Center: Restoring and Sustaining the Dignity of Urban Indians, looked at a heroic urban Indian program that daily saves lives while operating on a shoestring. It recognized the Tahoma Indian Center and its director of more than 22 years, Joan Staples Baum. The story featured Tyrone Patkoski, an enrolled Tulalip member, known in the art world for his unique artistry.

Third in the series was “Tulalip Veteran Wesley J. Charles, Jr., True American: “Indian Born on the 4th of July.” It told the remarkable story of Tulalip elder and Viet Nam Veteran, Wesley J. Charles, Jr., and a life well lived.

The fourth story, Why Should Tulalip Tribal Members Care About the Affordable Care Act? focused upon the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) benefits to tribal members, especially low-income urban Indians–the majority of whom have long barely survived without any health and dental care, whatsoever, and who stand to benefit most from the ACA.

More than 1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, approximately two-thirds of the U.S. Indian population, now live away from their reservation or homelands. Their displacement is traceable to broken treaty promises, the Indian boarding school legacy, federal assimilation policies, forced relocation, termination, widespread non-Indian adoption policies, overall failed federal trust responsibilities of the past century, and inter-tribal competition for a piece of the pie.

In particular, federal “Relocation” policies of the 1950s and 1960s resulted in Indians leaving the reservation in droves. As part of its “Termination” and “Assimilation” policy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offered grants and job training to entice Indians to leave for employment in urban areas. The promise of food on the table and a roof over the heads of one’s family appealed to hungry, impoverished, and un-housed Indians. Survival can be very seductive.

The intent of these federal policies was to remove Indians from the reservation in order to end federal trust responsibility. Unquestionably, the Diaspora’s cruel result is generations of Indians split from their sacred lands, people, culture, language, and traditions.

A largely untold story is that urban Indians were then and continue to be subject to devastating economic and social strife. For the most part, this invisible population receives a blind eye and a deaf ear from the federal government charged with its trust responsibility. In their opposition to urban Indian program funding, even tribal governments aid the injustice. As example, despite the fact that 78 percent of all American Indians/Alaska Natives reside off-reservation, only 1 percent of the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) budget is allocated to urban Indian health care. This did not happen by accident.

Moreover, despite a highly technological age, data to document the urban Indian condition is woefully lacking. Still relevant today are findings from a 1976 American Indian Policy Review Commission study. It found, “Government policies meant to assimilate if not eliminate, a portion of an entire race of people have created a large class of dissatisfied and disenfranchised people who, while being subject to the ills of urban America, have also been consistently denied services and equal protection guaranteed under the Constitution as well as by their rights as members of Federal Indian tribes.”

Regrettably, tribal government systems have also contributed to the struggle of their disenfranchised urban relatives. For example, at Tulalip, the Social Services Emergency Aid program, in place for countless years, disenfranchised its off-reservation tribal members by denial of access to emergency aid. When explanation was sought, none was forthcoming. Interview calls for this story were not returned. In essence, half of the Tulalip citizens were discriminated against. Already denied anything beyond basic health care at the tribal clinic, the added denial of emergency services was a bitter pill for many.

Tribal enrollment policies have also aligned to deny members identity. For example, the Tribes’ enrollment policy, based on residency rather than descendancy, has deprived generations of Indians rightful identity and affiliation with their people simply due to the accidental location of their birth and despite their descendancy and ancestor’s reservation allotments.

Even so, the urban Indian story is not all bleak. Many urban Indians strive to create and contribute to community with their urban Indian sisters and brothers, and to know their reservation families and communities. Some hope to return home one day when housing and employment opportunities align. Social media has also helped open avenues of communication and connection. Online tribal news outlets and opportunities for online language learning create new avenues of cultural affiliation and contribution. Add that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is providing critical healthcare and dental services for urban Indians who have long gone without any care.

According to Rosalie “Rosie” Topaum of the Tulalip Tribes enrollment office, since December 2012, Tulalip enrollment numbers increased by 140 for a total enrollment of 4,422 with nearly half (2037) of all Tulalip citizens reside off the reservation. All but three of the new enrollments reside off reservation.


“Urban Indian” Stories


Jaime D Singleton FamilyPhoto/Kyle Taylor Lucas
Jaime D Singleton Family
Photo/Dolce Vita Photo Boutique

Jaime Denise Singleton

Born in Everett, Jaime Denise Singleton, 28, Tulalip, spent her first year on the Tulalip reservation. Her father, Dennis Boon, and her grandmother, Helen Gobin-Henson are Tulalip. Her mother, Pam (Marquis) Phipps, is Aleut. The family relocated to Anchorage, Alaska following her parents divorce when she was three years old.

Eager to know her roots, Singleton returned to Tulalip at age twenty-one. “I hardly knew my Dad and didn’t know my family at all. Grandma Helen helped me find work as a temporary youth advocate in the Education Department.”

Despite its enormous economic success, lack of housing continues to be a challenge for the Tulalip Tribes. Many of those on the reservation reside with large extended family in one house. Although not unlike historic tribal communal living, today’s housing structures and work and school lifestyles are largely incompatible.

The lack of reservation housing is also a significant driver for the continuing large urban Indian population. Singleton said, “I lived at my grandma’s house for about six months. I didn’t sign onto the housing list because I knew people with children who had been on the list for years and still didn’t have a house. At the same time, my grandma also had my uncle, his girlfriend and children, my dad, and two other cousins living with her. It was very crowded.”

A common regret of many urban Indians is the isolation from tribal culture and community. “I didn’t know my family or my culture. That’s the worst disadvantage. One of my cousins showed me her regalia from dancing as a child and I felt I really missed out on things like that. Some of my cousins are weavers and they make the most beautiful things from cedar. I thought, I know how to crochet, so I could have learned how to do that.”

Unfortunately, many urban Indians also experience isolation from other Natives. “Because I am mixed and light-skinned, I feel like an outsider in the Native community. I am only one-eighth Tulalip. On my mom’s side, I am Aleut, but only one-sixteenth. My maternal great-grandma married a white man and they moved out of her home village and homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula. Our family has slowly drifted apart. I know nothing about our culture on the Aleut side either.”

Asked about healthcare, Singleton said, “Up here in Anchorage, AK, they have an excellent Indian Hospital called Alaska Native Medical Center that I believe sets the standard for Indian healthcare.” Yet, she recalled growing up visiting the clinic in Kenai where “I always got the sense it was free when I was young, but as an adult I’ve witnessed a hard push to buy health insurance. I feel like the staff and nurses look down on you if you are not insured.”

The Singletons objected to the necessity to sign up for the ACA or “Oamacare” as it is commonly known. “We filed the exemption because my husband was upset about the Individual Mandate. He didn’t understand why, as Native Americans with Treaty Rights, we should be forced to purchase insurance for the healthcare that is supposed to be provided us. He is one-quarter Inupiaq, but is not an enrolled tribal member and not qualified for the lifelong exemption; neither is our daughter.”

Economically, Singleton’s husband, Steven, has had steady employment. “We’ve been married for almost five years and we have property in Georgia where Steven was born and raised.” Having moved to Alaska after the Recession, they’re excited to be relocating to Georgia to build a house.

Grateful for the tribal per capita program, Singleton added, “Because we decided I would stay at home to raise our daughter, Sequoia, the per capita together with babysitting has really helped.” She is grateful, too, for the annual bonus, which has allowed them to “bank” for critical needs, such as their move to Georgia this summer.

On what Tulalip does right, Singleton said, “Our tribe values culture and respects traditions for ceremonies, gatherings, and funerals. It is wonderful to witness. I believe the Lushootseed language program should have greater emphasis because, like many native languages, it is on the verge of extinction. Our income from the Casinos puts us in a unique position to really “save” our language, and I would like to see that happen.”

To more equally serve the needs of off reservation members, Singleton suggested, “The tribe needs more housing! More than half of the homes in Housing Projects are left boarded up and abandoned while some of our membership lives with other family members, or homeless. I would like to see a program that opens up and turns the homes around faster and more homes available so our members have a place to live.”

“My family and extended family have always made me feel like I belong and that means a lot to me. They ask me things like, “When are you coming Home?” It makes me feel included because we know I was not raised there, yet it could still be my home,” said Singleton. She credited Facebook and social media for helping her to stay connected with her Tulalip family and community.


Myron James Frybergphoto/Kyle Taylor Lucas
Myron James Fryberg
photo/Kyle Taylor Lucas

Myron Fryberg, Jr.

Myron Fryberg, Jr., 37, Tulalip, was adopted along with his sister, Joanne, by Myron Fryberg, Sr., and his wife, Mary. “I was adopted at the hospital. My mother is Tulalip and Puyallup, so I have ties with the Puyallup Tribe as well.” It was an open adoption allowing him to visit his birth mother, Deanne “Penny” Fryberg.

“My adopted mom, Mary, is full-blood and she knew all her relatives and family. I didn’t know myself. I was this kid who was given up by his dad. He was white,” said Fryberg who finally met his birth father’s family eight years ago. I learned that I’m Irish and Scottish, and a little French Canadian. The Irish are tribal too. The last name was O’Toole. I didn’t meet my dad, but I still talk to my brother.”

Residing off-reservation for the past five years, Fryberg said he was on the tribal housing waiting list, “but that’s a pretty slow process.” Caring for family at the time, he was forced to move “to town” [Marysville]. “I did a lot of praying and the idea came that maybe it was time to do something else. I was a janitor I asked, ‘do you want to turn 40 and realize that you didn’t do anything with your life?'”

Fryberg learned the Northwest Indian College (NWIC) offered a chemical dependency degree, so he returned to school. “I’ve now finished my third year and have a year to go,” said Fryberg, adding that he’s in the Tribal Governance and Business Management program.

Acknowledging that life has not been without challenges, Fryberg was candid about his struggles with alcohol. “I’ve been living in Bellingham for three years, going to school and staying busy. I had a rough patch at the beginning and I ended up getting a sponsor” who initiated him to service work. “We started working at the homeless shelter serving the homeless and I developed a sense of gratitude for what I had. Before that, I was hopeless about life,” said Fryberg who added, “I had lost my dad. I clung to him the most because I knew he was my relative. Me and my dad were really close. He always took me everywhere when I was a kid.”

Fryberg’s first tribal job was a blackjack dealer at age 19. “I did that for five years, but I didn’t like the structure there. I got clean and sober when I was 19, but I felt that I was treated less than by the tribe, so I went back to school and studied computers for three years.” Then, his friend committed suicide. “It put me back drinking for another four years. I finally quit drinking when I was 29.”

He again worked for Tulalip Tribes as a janitor at the health clinic and later at Tulalip Data Services. Yet, promises of raises were not forthcoming and Fryberg found the process for resolution of grievances unwieldy. He said that because he was supporting five children from family and a relationship, it was a turning point.

“When my dad passed I just didn’t want to be there. There was no chance for advancement or better pay and rather than go through the grievance process, I decided to return to school. I had seen the people that had an education made more money.”

Asked about disadvantages of living away from the reservation, Fryberg said, “There’s isolation. You get lonely. You don’t have your family, but Facebook has helped a lot.”

Unlike most urban Indians, healthcare has not been an issue for Fryberg. “We have non-profit health hospital in Bellingham. They don’t ask for paperwork.” He has also applied for Obamacare.

Fryberg said he is fortunate to live close to the reservation and a tribe with a similar culture. “The Lummi people at the college embraced me right away. I feel like they’ve kind of adopted me as one their own. It was good to see their culture is similar, but I always felt like Lummi was very close to their origins and held their culture close,” said Fryberg.

He noted having been immersed in his own culture at a young age. “We used to practice with the Jimicum family. We learned dance and songs and performed in Seattle. When my grandpa was ready to pass, my dad brought me to drum for him. My mom is Shaker, so we would go to shake on the weekends, and I helped in the kitchen,” said Fryberg. He has also studied Lushootseed.

Asked about his access to tribal social programs, Fryberg noted, “When I needed help, Tulalip said they couldn’t do because I was out of Snohomish County. There have been roadblocks there.”

He expressed gratitude for tribal per capita as having changed his life. “It has given me a chance to return to school and focus strictly on education.”  He added, “The annual bonus has allowed me to put money aside to cover my rent when out of school over the summer.” It allows purchase of necessities he formerly had to forgo.

Fryberg conveyed some frustration with tribal government, “I think they are doing okay. Action seems to be a problem; presentation seems to be a problem. We try to cover up problems. We need to be more aware of where we came from. We need to change the whole philosophy. When we offer service to the people, we’re selling that service. Now, we’re offering a service that isn’t transparent. I tried to get the Board of Directors to hear my plea for non-profits, cooperatives, and getting people employed at Equal Square where there is no hierarchy. It’s a perfect example of assimilation. There’s a sense that oppression is all we know and that people don’t welcome change.”

Asked for specifics, he suggested pooling resources. “If $1,000 per capita is not enough [for people to survive], there’s a lot you can do if you pool your monies–franchising, manufacturing, businesses that have the ability to supply something. Voluntarily, as members, we could do this. If the tribe presented it to us as individual shareholders it would make it easier and if we had a business committee that knew how to invest. A $50 monthly cut in per capita could be invested by the tribe. It could create more revenue and jobs.”Regarding tribal policies, Fryberg expressed concern about structure. “I think there should be more emphasis on the other coat. In dealing with society, you have to wear two coats. One with your tribe and the other with the U.S. There isn’t enough emphasis on what they wear when they’re home. The policies have to change in terms of our leadership. Who are our leaders?” To illustrate his point, Fryberg pointed to the Onadaga in New York. “They “raise” leaders rather than choose based upon popularity. We’re left with the leadership that the federal government gave us–a Board of Directors.”

To better serve the needs of its off-reservation members, Fryberg wants the tribe to support cooperatives. “If more individuals were sharing, there’s the possibility of owning businesses and housing off the reservation. We could invest in, build, or occupy, as added income and owned property.” He emphasized the importance of water conservation and noted NWIC recycles their water. “We need to look at where we go from here, look at the environment, and go back to our customs. Solar would be good. We wouldn’t be supporting Keystone or pipelines. And it could create revenue for our tribe. It speaks to sustainability and supports our sense of identity, of who we are as a people.”


Jennifer Cordova-JamesPhoto/Kyle Taylor Lucas
Jennifer Cordova-James
Photo/Kyle Taylor Lucas

Jennifer Cordova-James

Born and raised on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, Jennifer Cordova-James, 22, is the daughter of Chris James and Abel Cordova. She is an enrolled Alaska Native of the Tlingit Indian Tribe. Her mother is Tlingit and her father is Quechua, of Peru.  She has learned the traditional dishes, music, musical instruments, and regalia, but has not learned as much as she would like about her Peruvian people. Cordova-James said the same is true of her Tlingit people.

Cordova-James has resided off-reservation to attend Northwest Indian College (NWIC) the past nine months. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and has moved back home to the reservation for the summer. She will graduate next winter and, afterwards, wants to return to Tulalip to work in administration or perhaps to do marketing for the casino.

Asked about paying for college, Cordova-James said, “Scholarships! My biggest funders are the American Indian College Fund, the Comcast Scholarship, and the Embry American Indian Women’s Leadership Project Scholarship.”

In terms of employment, Cordova-James spoke highly of the excellent work experience she gained in working at the tribal hotel.Her biggest challenges have been balancing her studies with extra-curricular activities. She has served on student executive board as vice-president of extended sites where she gathered concerns, suggestions, and ideas, at each of the NWIC sites to ensure that student voices were heard and resolved. She regards these as important learning experience while also being “fun years.”

Cordova-James said the greatest disadvantage of living away from the reservation has been “Trying to make a home away from home. I lived in the dorms and the biggest issue was missing home. I suppose a huge challenge for me were family issues or obligations. I would have to make hard choices about who to support. It was my second year moving out, but I come home for summer with family and community,” said Cordova-James.

She noted employment as a second disadvantage, “There were a lot of times that I filled out applications and finally decided to focus upon my studies. The work study positions filled up really fast.”

In terms of access to healthcare, Cordova-James said she had access to the Lummi clinic, but chose to visit the Tulalip health clinic on the weekends. The ACA helps in that she is on her parent’s health plan until age twenty-six.

Cordova-James enjoyed a great sense of community while attending NWIC. “Lummi welcomed me with open arms. The campuses are full of students from other Nations. Navajo, South Dakota, Lakota, Eskimo Inuit, Alaska, and from Canada.”

Enthusiastic and ambitious, Cordova-James has big ideas and plans. In March 2014, she was elected as Northwest Regional Representative to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. They help tribal colleges and universities with foundation and grant funding, lobbying in Washington, D.C., and in Olympia.

“Also our big initiative is a culture exchange program within the tribal college. We want a program where tribal colleges and universities work together. Sometimes it feels like they’re working against each other. We want a program that includes common requirements. Right now, we’re brainstorming and tasking people to conduct research this year. It probably won’t be off the ground for a couple years, but it’s an initiative that we’re looking into–long term,” said Cordova-James.

Speaking to the crisis of drugs on the reservation, she said, “It’s heartbreaking, especially when you’re close with somebody and you went to school with that individual. It’s sad to see young tribal members dying. We need to support them, but not enable them. We need to educate the families.”

Cordova-James said it was interesting to get the question because she and her friend and classmate, Tisha Anderson-McLean, Tulalip, co-partnered on writing a grant proposal for their class final. She said, “We called it the “Quascud Traditional Housing,” which, in Lushootseed, means lightening the load or pulling forward in the canoe when someone’s having a hard time paddling. It was for traditional housing, directly for those members who are coming out of treatment to a journey of wellness.”

Quascud Traditional Housing would offer life skills classes, help with professional attire, interview and job hunting classes, and assistance applying to school and scholarships. “Sweat lodge, culture days, and bringing a traditional healing aspect to support the journey of wellness” would be emphasized, said Cordova-James. The facility is envisioned as an apartment to ensure privacy for those who want to be by themselves. Family visits are included, but it would be a closed facility with no overnight stays, and would include checkout passes in an earned program “We compared ours to Muckleshoot and one other,” said Cordova-James who acknowledged Myron James Fryberg for his support in brainstorming and advising on the proposal.

Cordova-James said, “We got a really good grade, we got an ‘A’ for that! We saw it had huge potential for carrying forward.” Although they have not yet done so, they plan to share it with the tribe. If she doesn’t have enough on her plate, Cordova-James is also a busy activist. “I like supporting the environment,” she said, adding that she worked on I-522–the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) labeling initiative this past year. She also worked against the XL Pipeline and coal trains. “I was protesting. There’s one picture with ‘Idle No More’ on my face. Generally, I work against big corporations trying to kill small businesses and I’m interested in the international issues such as Australia versus Japan on the whaling issue.”


Anonymous Stories

In keeping with all of Indian Country, the effects of historical trauma are equally as devastating among urban Indian populations. It is reflected in the prevalence of social, mental, physical health, and substance abuse problems. Yet, the urban Indian population is treated as invisible with little funding devoted to services to improve the quality of their lives, indeed–their life chances.

Jan – Lakota Sioux

Some stories are so painful, so personal, that to protect their families the storytellers ask to remain anonymous. Using a pseudonym, Jan, 56, is Lakota Sioux from Standing Rock, South Dakota. Born and raised in Washington, she was in the first class of The Evergreen State College. An early activist, she recalled with some nostalgia the alliance of Native students who made and sold fry bread to help the American Indian Movement (AIM) at Wounded Knee. However, her activism began with the fish wars. “When I was in high school I became involved in environmental things, and then I became involved politically around AIM. It progressed from there. The way I’ve always looked at it, you don’t have to live on the reservation to know what is right or wrong. You don’t need to live there all your life,” said Jan.

At 19, Jan left college to live with her grandparents in South Dakota. “My grandma is Lakota and lived her whole life on the reservation. Though I visited them as a child, I wanted to connect with what I didn’t learn. I wanted to know my relatives and to experience first-hand what it was to live on the reservation,” said Jan. It was an exciting time during the early seventies and the beginnings of the American Indian Movement. “I went to the very first International Treaty Convention at Standing Rock,” said Jan.

She worked part-time for a cleaning business owned by tribal relatives on the reservation, then as a public school tutor’s aid, and doing odd jobs. In her free time, she went to Sundance.

Before long, she was married with a child, but her husband died in a mysterious swimming hole accident at Standing Rock. She moved back and forth between Washington and South Dakota and eventually worked on the film, “Thunderheart,” and her son was one of the village children in the film “Dances With Wolves”, playing with Dennis Banks’ children.” My son was healthy. He played soccer. He met Billy Mills. I have a picture with the two of them on the front page of a local paper. He even went on a 3-mile run with Billy Mills,” said Jan, proudly.

While living in South Dakota, she took her son to the tribal clinic. Yet, over the years, lack of access to IHS healthcare for him grew more difficult. She finally settled back in Washington and attended vocational school in 1992.

Jan’s life took a turn as her son grew into his mid-teens. He became unmanageable and she sent him to boarding school, where they determined he was an alcoholic. He went to treatment. Said Jan, “He was in jail for a whole year, and I wondered why he was acting like this. Something’s wrong here. And after he got out and had his daughter, then he got his diagnosis. Until then, I thought he didn’t have a dad, and his hormones are acting up, and he’s acting out. It started when he was around 15.”

He became violent and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, in his late teens. That was complicated by his alcoholism, his involvement in gangs, and recurring arrests.

For most people, we have children, raise them, and then they go off to live their own lives. In Jan’s case, that has not, nor will it ever be the case. Since his late teens, her son has been jailed for Drunk in Public (DIP) more times than she can recall. On two occasions, he was jailed for a year at a time and other times too numerous to count–for months on end.

His dual diagnosis of alcoholism and mental illness makes treatment, which is often unsuccessful for any alcoholic, impossible for her son. Jan reports that upon his release from jail for DIP or domestic violence, he drinks within minutes. When he leaves treatment, he immediately drinks. “I tried to get my son into treatment through the Northwest Region in Portland, but they didn’t think he was a candidate. It was an alcohol and drug treatment program, but they didn’t have a mental health component. How can you have somebody in recovery that doesn’t have rational thought process?” Jan emphasized that alcohol treatment programs must have a mental health component. “They need to have a communal living situation, but they can’t come and go as they please. It almost has to be a lock down place. There has to be something there for them to do, nutrition, exercise, garden,” said Jan.

Jan said treatment and work release require getting to class and work, but her son doesn’t have the rational thought process to do that. She suspects his long-term alcohol abuse and maybe meth use as potential factors. “And it’s worse now because he now has black-outs. Dual diagnosis. Mentally Ill and Chemically Affected (MICA). They changed the name to co-occurring disorder. Then, they shut that program down due to lack of funding.”

Pointing to the ACLU, Jan said, “Oh mentally ill people do have rights. They have rights to be able to have a place to live. Yes, they have rights. How do we solve all of that if they can’t manage themselves? How is harm measured? You have to hurt somebody and kill somebody. My son has DIP charges all the time. He has a felony record, which is why he can’t get a place to live. Even when he does, all the others running around who are just like him make him lose it. He’s the Robinhood of the streets. I bought him a brand-new jacket and it’s gone.”

She can’t have him live with her. He loses, gives away to street people, or spends all his money on drinking; he often has no place to stay. Other times, he has been evicted yet again. He is on Social Security Disability. In the winter months, she gets him a hotel room. The rest of the time, “I had to take a hard breath and say “no” when he wanted to stay at my house. There were times I let him stay with me, but he goes through my stuff and has stolen from everyone in my family. He brings street people here. I just had to feel  rotten and just do it. I had no other choice, “said Jan.

She found a support group that gave her hope, “Mothers of Adult Mentally Ill Sons.” Yet, as the meetings progressed, and the leader advised them “there is no hope,” and their numbers decreased with only four people in attendance at the end. “There was one lady that had two sons like my son and they were worse than him,” said Jan. “My son can go to treatment all he wants and that’s not going to help him. He can go to jail all the time, and it’s not going to help him. The only saving grace of him going to jail was his detoxing. But the day he gets out, he drinks. I’ve resigned myself that there is no hope under the current conditions, under anything they now have.”

“My hope is not of him recovering from his mental illness, but I hope for a secure place like a compound or communal place where he could be safe. There are places around the U.S., but they cost $20k to $30k a month. Basically, at the heart and core of his being is a pretty good person, but his illness gets in the way just like any alcoholic.”

Asked how she coped and took care of herself, Jan said at first it was by attending National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and co-occuring disorders meetings. “I started educating myself. That helps to a point, but like the other day when I took him to the dentist, when he got into the car, he had a psychotic episode. It just kills me inside and it hurts and I just want to die. Just get this pain away. Take this pain away. Because he’s in pain. I feel sad for my son because of the way he has to live. Any mother who has a son or daughter who has to live that way–it’s just painful and hurtful. I cope with it by talking to my friends, and talking to my brother, and talking to my partner who now understands. Boundaries is a big word. I’m tougher on my son than some mothers are. And I cry. You know it’s part of coping–if you can call it that. Crying is relief. Sometimes, you just cry. Also, just being involved in other things. I’ve been involved with my granddaughter, helping her as much as I can. Just being there for her. I’ve screamed and I’ve hollered when I’m driving down the road. I go to the YMCA,” said Jan.


Among other anonymous stories, there are the Indian women in their late fifties and early sixties living urban and alone, struggling month to month with few resources.

There is also the thirty-year-old Puyallup woman who spends her days at the Tahoma Indian Center and looks for a safe place to sleep at night. She has been unable to find work. Sometimes, she stays at the mission, but she worries about the bugs, so she often sleeps on the streets. She seems detached as she speaks about drinking. She “grew up with it.” It is surprising to learn that her mother who is only 53 is in a nursing home. Asked if illness caused her young mother’s placement in the home, the flat reply was, “No, she has wet-brain.” An inquiry about it was met with an incredulous reply, “You’ve never heard of wet-brain! My mother drank so much for her whole life, so it pickled her brain and she cannot take care of herself.”

Wet-brain is a real condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome caused by long-term alcoholism. Its symptoms include mental disturbance; confusion; drowsiness; paralysis of eye movements; and staggering gait. It is primarily caused by a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1) due to severe malnutrition and poor intestinal absorption of food and vitamins caused by alcohol. The wet-brain person acts much like the Alzheimer’s victim with loss of recent memory, disorientation to time and place, confusion, and confabulation (telling imagined and untrue experiences as truth). In its early stages, it can be prevented, but it cannot be undone.

Fifty-two year-old Jack is bright and well spoken. He is Canadian First Nation, but was born in Seattle in 1960. He hasn’t visited his home reserve in more than 30 years. Jack served four years in the Army, stateside. “I really enjoyed my military service. I learned a lot and regret not staying in. It had a lot of security,” said Jack.

Jack started visiting and found a home in the Tahoma Indian Center in the early 90s. As for now, he said, “I’m doing alright, staying alive.” After the service, he got labor work, mostly moving. Today, he does recycling.

Due to his parents’ drinking, he and his siblings were put into foster care early, two or three homes while he was very young. He was five when he was permanently placed into the system, “but I have blocked a lot of it out,” said Jack.

He admits to being an alcoholic, which sometimes prevents his access to the mission. Asked when he began drinking, Jack replied matter-of-factly, “Probably in the womb.” He said he never knew his mother not drunk.

In the next moment, Jack offered, “I learned a lot about natural foods and nutrition and quit drinking in the mid-80s to early 90s. I took up running and ran 26.2 miles in the Goodwill Games. We started at Gasworks Park. My time was 4 hours and 3 minutes. If I could come up with the equipment, I would probably resume running.” He confessed that he is “always dreaming. One of my goals, too, is to climb Mount Rainier.”

“For fun, I like to read–Dean Koontz, Stephen King, history, philosophy, political science, Indian–contemporary and history,” said Jack. He brightens even more in recalling a local doctor who for about seven years took the center rafting on the Deschutes in Oregon. He misses that.

Another Jack, Lakota, Sioux, spoke of how difficult it was to secure health care in Washington State. One local tribe turned him down, so he had to travel long distance to the Seattle Indian Health Center. He is now happily enrolled in an ACA plan.



Despite a sense of exclusion for some and of being “less than” experienced by others, most urban Indians continue to identify with their people, reservation communities, villages, and land. They share a common history and memories. Displaced from their reservations they seek community ties with other urban Indians. Yet they yearn for connection to their land, people, culture, and traditions. They seek common ground and to ensure they are not forgotten.

As noted by the Urban Indian Health Commission, “Today’s urban Indians are mostly the products of failed federal government policies that facilitated the urbanization of Indians, and the lack of sufficient aid to assure success with this transition has placed them at greater health risk. Competition for scarce resources further limits financial help to address the health problems faced by urban Indians.”

The mass migration of Indians from their reservations to urban centers has been devastating in myriad ways, but most glaring are the economic, social, and health struggles endured by newly urbanized Indians and their families.

Then, beginning in the nineties, federal devolution to the states and local government in the form of block grants accompanied by more severe state restrictions to services has resulted in even more devastating service cuts to already impoverished urban Indians. They’ve experienced adverse impacts from entitlement reform and cuts to funding levels, major cuts to social service safety net programs, public housing, and jobs.

The stories of untreated illness and dental emergencies, racial police profiling and an unjust criminal justice system, discrimination in access to services, disproportionality in Indian Child Welfare, and preventable death, homicide, and suicide are legion among urban Indian communities.

Yet, the hard data is still missing; legends don’t qualify on grant applications for increased federal funding. Though they do not wish to be named, urban Indian organizations speak to horrific funding challenges often due to tribal government opposition to their federal funding requests. Tragically, as across Indian Country, the effects of historical trauma are prevalent in social and substance abuse among the urban Indian population. Yet, they are treated as invisible.

There is urgent need to address prevention and intervention, especially for urban youth. Some positive trends include the Washington State Legislature’s convening of a taskforce to address racial disproportionality in the child welfare system. While this year’s report to the legislature showed improvements overall, in its “Detailed Findings,” the report indicates, “Racial disproportionality in all intakes has decreased slightly in 2012 for all groups except Native American children, and disproportionality in screened in intakes has decreased slightly for all groups except Native American and multiracial children which had a slight increase.”

Yet, despite all the strife, there is incredible resilience among urban Indians, many of them generational, and those who have recently migrated away from their reservation communities. Many Indians residing in metropolitan areas are attending college or university, are pursuing career paths, serving in local government, and are active in their communities. They’re active in social and environmental justice efforts.

It is evident that urban Indians, most often invisible to policy makers, must become their own best advocates with their on-reservation relations, with tribal leadership, and with allies and policymakers in their urban centers.



Kyle Taylor Lucas is a freelance journalist and speaker. She is a member of The Tulalip Tribes and can be reached at KyleTaylorLucas@msn.com / Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/in/kyletaylorlucas / 360.259.0535 cell




The Invisibles: Seattle’s Native Americans


They’re rarely seen or heard, but the statistics on the population’s health, education, and happiness speak loud and clear.

By Matt Driscoll Mar 4 2014 Seattle Weekly

Rose Gibbs is tough. Behind a youthful face and crystal-clear brown eyes resides a person hardened beyond her years. She’s been in foster care for the past five, citing her mother’s alcoholism as the reason she and six of her siblings landed there. At 15, she wears a San Francisco 49ers beanie and a look of unease when talking to a reporter. She says she “had to grow up too fast,” and it’s hard not to agree with her. Rose, who identifies as both Latina and a member of the First Nations Lyackson Tribe, is currently attending Ingraham High School in north Seattle. In the course of her life, including stints in Canada, Rose says she’s gone to “more than 10, maybe 20” schools. She thinks seven of those have been in the Seattle School District, but she’s not sure.

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls“I guess, I don’t know. I honestly forgot,” she says. “There’s a big blank, between when I was younger and now. I really don’t remember.”

It’s an understated and understandable answer from a girl who seems accustomed to hiding vulnerability with aloof, indifferent distance. But it doesn’t take much to push past Rose’s hardened front.

“It happened in fourth grade,” she says of the moment alcohol and domestic violence collided, altering her life’s trajectory in an instant.

And then tears.

Rose rarely sees her mom these days, she says after a wrenching pause. Since then she’s spent time with five foster families, but hasn’t felt at home with any of them. She’s stubborn, she admits, and looks forward to her last two years “in the system.” She says she misses her siblings, and hopes one day to reunite with them.

Rose started coming to the Urban Native Education Alliance’s Clear Sky Native Youth Council, where I met her, back in April. At this point she’s what UNEA Chair Sarah Sense-Wilson describes as a “regular,” with an “indomitable spirit” —and a good example of exactly the kind of local kid the nonprofit tries to reach. Through Clear Sky, the UNEA offers tutoring, art, a sense of cultural belonging, and—perhaps most anticipated—a solid meal to urban Native American kids who need it. As it turns out, plenty in the Seattle area do.

Rose and I are seated at a round table inside the Seattle School District’s Wilson-Pacific Building. Compared to my previous visit to Clear Sky, where I’d first met Rose three weeks ago, things are considerably more comfortable. There’s heat this time. And bathrooms that work. On my first visit, the urban Native kids who come to Clear Sky gathered in a cafeteria toward the back of the soon-to-be-razed school building. The missing tiles from the ceiling and floor, and the sign on the door reading “RESTROOMS CLOSED/NO WATER” gave the gym an air of abandonment.

But tonight’s different. The meeting has been moved to a new room, and the upgrade is palpable. UNEA Co-Chair Mary Ann Peltier, who is from the Chippewa, Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, spills the details: They struck a deal with the school district, agreeing to pay $18.35 a night for the improved amenities.

A bad building wasn’t keeping Clear Sky from working its magic, however. While jackets were sometimes required, the decrepit, mural-covered cafeteria at the back of the Wilson-Pacific building was enough for Peltier and Sense-Wilson, a straight-shooting member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, to roll up their sleeves and get to work in. The UNEA’s flagship program, Cleark Sky held its first meeting in 2009, and they’ve been at it every week since.

“You donate?” Sense-Wilson drills me, nearly the moment we meet. “I’m just kidding. I know writers don’t make much money. ”

Sense-Wilson smiles as she ribs me. The room is abuzz. Subway sandwiches are on the menu, along with a class called “‘Native Journalism 21st Century.”  The Clear Sky mission of promoting “cultural, traditional activities and educational achievement” is alive around us. Though the UNEA also offers a basketball program and various other special events geared toward the urban Native population, the Clear Sky Youth council is the nonprofit’s gem. Sense-Wilson says the program provides academic support for “ensuring the success of Native learners,” and boasts a 100 percent high-school graduation rate.

Outside the walls, however, things get difficult for young urban Natives like Rose, who live off the reservation, a minority among minorities in the city. According to census data, only .8 percent of Seattle identifies as an American Indian and Alaska Native alone —a mere blip in a city named after Chief Sealth which was home to Native peoples thousands of years before a white person ever set foot here. It’s a demographic that faces a daunting set of challenges.

“You can turn a corner and see someone you relate to,” Peltier tells this white reporter. “I can turn many corners, and won’t relate to anyone.”

It can be lonely, and worse. And it isn’t getting better. According to information presented in the Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative three-year plan for 2012 to 2014, American Community Surveys over the last 20 years show that the poverty rate for Natives in Seattle has fluctuated, but only slightly. In 1990, 33 percent of Natives lived in poverty; in 2000, it was 29 percent; by 2009, it was back up to 30 percent. That’s higher than the poverty rate for any other ethnic group. Meanwhile, the poverty rate for white Seattleites has stayed steady at just 9 percent.

For urban Native kids, the stats can look even worse. According to the “Community Health Profile” for the Seattle Indian Health Board released in December 2011, in King County 46.6 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children under age 6 lived below the poverty line between 2005 and 2009, compared to 13.2 percent of children in the general population.

The difficulties only continue from there, and for a population as small, diverse, and historically maligned as this one, even finding a starting point from which to dig out can seem daunting. They include the pronounced education achievement gap between Native students and whites, resulting in historically low graduation rates and high dropout rates for American Indian and Native Alaskan students; numerous health concerns, from asthma to diabetes and obesity; addiction and alcoholism; domestic violence; a disproportionate rate of homelessness; and institutional neglect. And the fact that Natives, 1.5 percent of the overall population, make up 4.4 percent of Washington’s prison population.

There’s also the simple fact that placing an umbrella ethnic classification like “Native American” over a group of city-dwelling people from hundreds of tribes and countless cultural traditions simply doesn’t accurately define it.

As a result, the population often fades into the firmament.

“Sometimes I don’t think they see us,” Rose says. It’s a common sentiment. Changing people’s fortunes—as Clear Sky aims to do—often begins with confronting this sense of aloneness, pounded into Seattle’s Natives by politics, policy, perceptions, and nearly 200 years of history.

“To not have any representation that reflects who you are, or honors your cultural, your tradition, your history, it’s really a profound psychological, oppressive place to be,” Sense-Wilson says.

Clear Sky is a bright spot. Looking around on this Tuesday night, there is hope to be had. There’s Rose and her improved grades and self-worth. There are the other 40 or so kids who have arrived, each equally important. There are Sense-Wilson, Peltier, and the other adult volunteers, filling a need for their community when no one else did. And there are smiles.

You get the feeling that if the uncertain future of Seattle’s urban Native community is to be bright, it will likely start with exactly the kind of thing happening here.

“When we do see each other, we know,” Peltier says of the Native community in Seattle and what happens at Clear Sky. “We know when we connect.”

Call it a starting point.

It’s cold outside when the January 17 gathering of the state House’s Community Development, Housing & Tribal Affairs Committee comes to order—the kind of miserable weather Olympia is known for. On the docket is a work session titled “The Urban Indian Experience.”

With only the very occasional yawn, the seven lawmakers who make up the committee have come together this Friday afternoon to learn about the plight of urban Native Americans. For the elected policy-makers, it’s a chance to learn. For those invited to teach them, it’s a chance to have a voice in the halls of power.

Ralph Forquera, a member of the Juaneño Band of California Mission Indians and the executive director of the Seattle Indian Health Board, is first up. The semicircle of seated decision-makers listens as he gets into specifics, trying his best to describe the 29 federally recognized tribes and six unrecognized ones that meld together, along with countless individual Native transplants from across the continent, to make up our state’s remarkably diverse urban Native population. (Nationally, there are 566 federally recognized tribes and hundreds of unrecognized ones.) It’s no easy task, which is part of the larger problem.

The population is mixed, with varying ties to local, national, Canadian, and Alaska Native tribes, Forquera tells them. Some, like the 4,809 Seattle residents who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone in 2010, show up on the census. Many more don’t, for reasons both simple and complex. Who is an American Indian these days, and who marks the box when asked? “It’s a very difficult question to answer,” Mark Trahant, a former editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page and current Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage, tells Seattle Weekly. Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the former president of the Native American Journalists Association, has written extensively on the lack of clear data on the Native population.

Some Natives have long hesitated to identify themselves for statistical purposes, Trahant says by phone from his office in Alaska. Others have unclear or mixed ethnic identities. How much of a connection must one have to identify as Native? What’s required by the tribe? Different ones have different standards, Trahant notes. And what about the growing generations of urban Natives off the reservations? How can we accurately account for them? None of these questions have easy answers, he says.

“Census is not very sensitive to tribe, it’s more sensitive to race,” Forquera later adds, saying “We don’t really know” how many people of American Indian heritage live in Seattle. “There aren’t any really accurate representations of the size of the population.”

But some of the numbers are indicative enough, and Forquera confronts the harsh realities every day. Leading the Seattle Indian Health Board and the Urban Indian Health Institute, he knows the “Community Health Profile” delivered in 2011 states that Natives in King County die of “unintentional injuries” (that is, accidents) more than twice as often as anyone else, at a rate of 79.3 per 100,000 deaths (compared to 32.4 per 100,000 among the general population). They suffer from asthma more than twice as often (17.3 percent vs. 8.1 percent), and diabetes too (12.2 percent vs. 5.9 percent). They’re nearly twice as likely to be obese as the general population (36.3 percent vs. 20.1 percent). The list goes on, and Forquera knows all of it well.

While his expertise is in health, this afternoon Forquera is also a history teacher. In his allotted 10 minutes, he does his best to deliver CliffsNotes on the past 160 years, providing a basis for what’s seen on the ground today. Natives inarguably have been a part of Seattle’s identity since the Denny Party’s arrival at Alki in 1851—and, of course, were the area’s identity for thousands of years before white men tied their boats to Puget Sound shores and pushed them to the side.

Addressing the “Myth of the Vanishing Race”—or, that stuff about Indians being savages and naturally giving way to white guys and their civilizations—William Cronon writes in his preface to Coll Thrush’s 2007 book Native Seattle: “Perhaps in part because Indian peoples have long been associated with ‘nature,’ it has been remarkably easy not to notice their presence in places marked as ‘unnatural’ in American understandings of landscape. Chief among these are urban and metropolitan areas, which for more than a century have provided homes for people of American Indian descent to a much greater degree than most people realize.”

In Washington, as of the 2010 census, 74 percent of those identifying as American Indians or Alaska Natives lived in cities, up from 71 percent in 2000. Statewide, the population of urban Natives is growing. According to data provided by Leslie E. Phillips, Ph.D., the scientific director at the Urban Indian Health Institute, from 2000 to 2010 Washington’s American Indian/Alaska Native population increased 30 percent, from 113,625 to 147,371.

Seattle hasn’t always been very accommodating to its Native population. As Thrush, an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia, describes in his book, one of the first ordinances passed in the newly incorporated Seattle back in 1865—Seattle Ordinance No. 5, to be exact—declared that “no Indian or Indians shall be permitted to reside” in the city. A complex dynamic even back then, the ordinance also mandated that those who employed Natives “provide lodgments or suitable residences . . . ” It was, from the very start according to Thrush, an “attempt to codify a middle road between segregation and integration.”

The national move toward reservations goes back even further, to a series Indians Appropriation Acts that started in 1851 and formalized the process of relocating Natives to land set aside for them by the U.S. Government. As Trahant notes in a recent research paper, however, many of the country’s earliest Native American policies have been based on the conquering view that American Indians would one day be extinct. “The assumption had come down from the earliest of times, not always voiced, but implicit, that the native inhabitants of the New World would become extinct. The notion grew stronger as the settlers waxed in numbers and the demand for living room accelerated,” D’Arcy McNickle, a member of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes, wrote in his 1973 book, Native American Tribalism.

The extinction never materialized. Today, according to numbers from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, approximately 56.2 million acres are held in trust for Indian tribes and individuals, and there are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. The most recent numbers from the BIA indicates nearly two million enrolled tribal members.

Though local and federal government has done its part to drive Natives from Seattle, it’s also worked to bring them back to the city—for better or worse. A swell created by the federal assimilation policies in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s—like House Concurrent Resolution 108, for example, which officially terminated the federal government’s acknowledgement of tribes from New York to California—pumped Natives into cities. The idea—or the stated one—was to free Native Americans of federal supervision and provide them with the same opportunities as other citizens.

The negative consequences, however, were noticeable. “An awful lot of people just ended up exchanging reservation poverty for urban Indian poverty,” Forquera tells Seattle Weekly of the assimilation movement. “It was a pretty cruel thing, actually.”

Nearly 150 years later, the effects of those early injustices are still felt. According to Chris Stearns—a gregarious state gambling commissioner, attorney and member of the Navajo Nation from Auburn—Natives often don’t trust the government, and things like Seattle’s Ordinance No. 5 have historically given them good reason not to. “You can’t unwind that,” says Stearns, the former chair of Seattle’s Human Rights Commission. “We were literally kicked out. That’s the bedrock of the relationship of Seattle with its Native population.”

The impact is more than psychological. This historical push and pull yields a Seattle urban Indian population that’s difficult to define—a mix of local, regional, national, and international Native people who call the city home. Thanks to small numbers and sheer heterogeneity, they exist without much voice, and often without a tangible connection to their heritages. “It’s a very diverse cultural mix, which makes it difficult to describe who we are and why we have specific needs,” Forquera offers. “As a subset of the total community, we’re very small. There’s very little attention paid to these smaller groups.”

On at least one Friday afternoon in Olympia this session, that wasn’t the case. “Be assured, we’re not just going to let this drop by the side,” Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Chair Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) says for the official record, before closing the meeting.

“It seems like the door was opened a little bit,” Forquera would later say of the work session, “so we’re trying to stick our foot in to keep it open.”

So far during the 2013 and 2014 sessions in Olympia, 40 bills relating to Native issues have been dropped; four have been passed by both chambers and signed by the governor.

As Rose will tell you, the invisibility felt by Natives in the general population shows up in Seattle’s schools. But according to those who’ve been around far longer than she has, this wasn’t always the case.

The District’s Indian Heritage High School, which for years found a home in the very same Wilson-Pacific building where Clear Sky now reserves a room on Tuesday and Thursday nights, was created in 1974. By the mid-’90s, the late Principal Bob Eaglestaff, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, was credited for turning the program into a national model for urban Native American education. The innovative school, which provided public education to Native students embracing cultural identity and Native American history, sought—with impressive success—to combat low graduation rates among Native students. District spokesperson Teresa Wippel points to the Seattle Public Schools history books when describing Indian Heritage, noting the 100 percent graduation rate it achieved by 1994.

However, citing low enrollment numbers, the District transitioned the Indian Heritage High School program in 2000, making it one of its then-five middle colleges (or alternative schools) that serve students of all demographics at risk of dropping out. By 2012, the Seattle School District reported that only seven of the school’s 50 students were Native. Preparing for the demolition and replacement of the Wilson-Pacific building in 2015, this year the Indian Heritage middle college program was consolidated with one located at Northgate Mall. As Wippel admits, “The withdrawal of district support and resources resulted in the decline of the program.”

Back at Clear Sky, the Seattle School District’s attempts to serve its Native population directly impact the 15-year-old sitting across from me. And with a few sharp—and obvious—exceptions, the challenges in Rose Gibbs’ life aren’t all that different from those of the children who surround us at the Clear Sky Youth Council, now beginning to line up for dinner.

In school, Rose says she does well in Spanish and history, but struggles in English and science. Sometimes she has trouble getting to school on time, a trip that requires two city buses. She admits to “hanging out with the wrong people” last year, but this year at Ingraham, things have been better, she says. I ask about friends; she tells me she has one. When I ask her whether she thinks the school district cares about her, she says, “Not really.”

The picture painted by the stats for young Native students like Rose isn’t pretty. In the Seattle School District, only about one percent of the roughly 50,000 kids identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. According to the 2013 Seattle Public Schools District Profile, in 2010 and 2011 Native students had the highest drop-out rate and lowest graduation rate of any demographic. While results vary from year to year, the report notes that “The American Indian ethnic group has historically had the highest dropout rates.”

A U.S. Department of Justice Indian Education grant application for the 2013–14 school year provided by the District depicts American Indian students well behind in mathematics, reading, and science. WASL scores in reading and mathematics for American Indian students are also the lowest of any ethnicity. Statewide, a 2008 report from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office detailed the achievement gap between white students and Native Americans, showing Native fourth-grade boys and girls behind white students in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading scores, among other deficiencies. In King County, the Seattle Indian Health Board “Community Health Profile” released in Dec. 2011 indicates that 18.3 percent of those 25 and older who identified as Native American or Alaska Natives reported not having finished high school or obtained a GED—a rate more than twice that of the general population.

Given these struggles, it’s no surprise that Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda has made closing the achievement gap between Native and white students a theme of his administration. In his 2013 “State of the District” address, delivered last November, Banda said: “We still have unacceptable achievement gaps between our students of color and our white students, and we’re not making steady progress with our Native American students. We simply must and will do better.”

But how? That depends on who’s answering. Many in the Native community call for more Native-specific curricula, more cultural inclusion, Native language courses, and—primarily—a return of the District’s Indian Heritage High School. This last would be a decision for the School Board, Wippel says.

“Our biggest challenge and our highest priority at Seattle Public Schools is closing the achievement and opportunity gap,” says Wippel, “while at the same time raising expectations for students meeting or exceeding standards. While we truly believe it is possible to eliminate the gap, it will not happen without a focused, well-articulated plan for providing a challenging and rigorous curriculum for each and every student.”

For Native students, according to Shauna Heath, the executive director for curriculum and instruction for Seattle Public Schools, this plan includes targeting resources; utilizing federal grant funding; working to place a liaison for Native students in every school; implementing a Washington Tribal Sovereignty curriculum (which has already started in West Seattle and will continue in 2014–15); and connecting students with Native professionals and role models.

The District also hired Gail Morris as its new Native American Services Manager in October. From the Ahousaht First Nation, and locally having adopted the Muckleshoot tribe, Morris’ job, among other things, is to help ensure that as many Native students as possible qualify for Title III and Title VII federal education funding. Historically, this has been an area of struggle for the District, with funding having been lost in the past and auditors on four occasions finding that Seattle Schools overrepresented the number of Native students who meet these requirements.

District-wide, another area of concern has been Seattle’s special-education program, which hits Native students particularly hard. A December 4, 2013 “Native American Education Board Update” from the district indicates that 29.9 percent of Native students are identified as qualifying for special education—the highest percentage of any demographic in the district. Many of these Native families have voiced complaints.

Especially troubling, says Deborah Sioux Cano-Lee, board president of the nonprofit Washington Indian Civil Rights Commission, are reports from Native families that their special-education students aren’t receiving the support that their student learning plans require under federal law. Sioux Cano-Lee says her agency has received at least 16 such complaints, and they’re being investigated. Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time the Seattle Public Schools’ Special Education department has faced such scrutiny. The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has chastised the program, even threatening to withhold federal funding, ordering problems (the failure to update and administer student learning plans and provide consistent special-education services from school to school) to be fixed.

“In all fairness, I’m going to have to say that [Superintendent] Banda inherited a huge mess,” offers Sioux Cano-Lee. “This didn’t start under his administration. This was an ongoing issue.”

Wippel says the District is aware of complaints from Native special-education families and others. She says these concerns go “beyond any one ethnic group,” while also noting that, when it comes to the District’s Native families, Morris frequently sits in on individual education plan meetings “in an effort to ensure that those families’ concerns are being addressed.”

“Our new Executive Director of Special Education, Zakiyyah McWilliams, has gone on record as saying that the Special Education department has experienced a high degree of staff turnover during the years and that instability has contributed to these types of concerns,” Wippel continues. “She has made it her highest priority to address these issues.”

As for the achievement gap, Wippel is blunt in expressing the District’s belief that closing it isn’t something it can do alone. In her words, it will require “intentional and strategic partnerships with our diverse families and community partners.”

Asked to describe Clear Sky’s relationship with the Seattle School District, however, Sense-Wilson offers a vague but telling assessment: “It’s complicated.”

“I’m from Seattle. I grew up here,” she explains. “I went to Seattle public schools, so I know that experience of going to school day in and day out and not being able to relate in the same way, and that constant pressure of conforming and not having your identity honored or recognized.” Rose breaks it down in far simpler terms. “Since we have the lowest scores, no one really cares,” she says, making it apparent that despite the district’s recent efforts, work remains.

“There’s not much to say, not much to tell,” Rose surmises.

If only that were true.

There are places to turn for young Natives in Seattle.

In addition to organizations like the Urban Native Education Alliance, the Clear Sky Youth Council, the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center and the Red Eagle Soaring Native youth theater group, nonprofits like Longhouse Media exist—at least in part—to help create a Native community within the city. Created in 2005 and currently run from a small office in the back of the Northwest Film Forum building on Capitol Hill, Longhouse was developed to “nurture the expression and development of Native artists,” according to Executive Director Tracy Rector.

A 42-year-old who identifies as Choctaw, Seminole, African-American, French, Irish, Scottish, and Hungarian, Rector grew up in Seattle and says many of the stories her 9-year-old Native-run nonprofit helps to tell “specialize in the urban native experience.” Since 2005, Rector says, Longhouse Media has helped make more than 360 short films and worked with 2,200 students—all of them young, all of them Native. She says over 80 percent live at or below the poverty line.

“In my own experience as someone who’s mixed-race and someone who didn’t grow up on a reservation, there are unique challenges in terms of our cultural intelligence and being accepted,” Rector says. “Our self-awareness as a Native person is very unique, because we also have all these other facets of who we are, and challenges and realities. [We’re] living in a big city, and negotiating what that means.”

In some ways, the role reservations have often played for rural natives in creating community and finding a voice is a void filled for urban Natives by local organizations like Longhouse. “Our people need to tell our own stories,” she offers, “and that’s what we’re committed to.”

“Many of our students haven’t been to their reservations before,” Rector says. “Their connection to their people is based on their connection as being identified as urban Native.”

Even with the work of her organization and many others, Rector worries about what the future holds for the small but important slice of Seattle’s population. Much like the ordinance that pushed Native people out of the city shortly after Seattle’s incorporation, she says gentrification and the disappearance of housing for low-wage or working-class Native families is doing the same, forcing them to “Federal Way and beyond.”

It’s a source of growing frustration, and it angers Rector. “Everybody deserves to be impacted by the beauty of Native culture in this city,” she says. “Native history is Seattle’s history.”

If Seattle’s history is Native history, then the city’s future is tied to the struggling urban Natives who call it home. As long as the city’s first peoples suffer, we suffer as a city. And for every kid at the Clear Sky Youth Council on this Tuesday night, the future is of direct consequence.

For Rose Gibbs, plotting a successful course into that future isn’t about census numbers, statistics, or trends. It’s about finding a way to pass English and science and finish the 10th grade at Ingraham. It’s about graduating from high school and, she hopes, making it to college—something Rose wants, but isn’t sure will be possible. Talking about the future elicits an equal mix of defiant self-confidence and uncertainty. She’ll be fine, she promises. She’s just not sure how.

One thing Rose is certain about, however, is that Clear Sky has helped. It speaks to the power of a grassroots movement and the importance of an invested community. It speaks to what people can do, even when it feels as if 98 percent of the population doesn’t see them; to resiliency and hope; to the promise of tomorrow, for Rose and others.

“I feel like I got support here,” Rose says of her time at Clear Sky. “It’s helping me know what it means to be Native.”

With that, she gets up and joins her friends. At this moment, in this warm room with working bathrooms, filled with people who care, Rose is anything but invisible.

Call it a starting point.


Concrete Indians Working Hard to Find Work

Duane Champagne, Indian Country Today Media Network

More than two-thirds of American Indians are now living off reservation in urban areas. During World War II, many Indians migrated to urban areas to contribute to manufacturing during the war effort. During the subsequent Cold War period and U.S. economic expansion, Indians were attracted to urban areas, and supported by Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation programs.

Most reservation Indians migrate to urban areas because they need employment to support themselves and their families. Some research indicates that many Indian migrants would remain at their home reservations, if there were enough jobs.

Like most urban migrants, many Indians do not plan to stay in urban places and often maintain ties to their reservation communities. Many return to the reservation to visit during the summers, and many often return for ceremonies. Moving to an urban area does not necessarily mean that tribal members have forgotten their communities and tribal nations.

How well are urban Indians doing? There is no systematic national data about the economic well-being of urban Indians. For the last couple of decades researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and Indian community members within Los Angeles urban Indian organizations have carried on analysis of Indian employment based on U.S. Census data for Los Angeles County. Census data is one of the few places where systematic information about urban Indian employment can be found. In the last Census count of 2010, the data suggest that urban Indians in Los Angeles are among the working poor. The participation of Indians in the Los Angeles County labor force is about 60 percent, and similar to other ethnic groups.

However, American Indians show higher rates of unemployment and have average salaries that are less than half the salaries of non-Hispanic white workers. Los Angeles County urban Indian workers have significantly less job security and are significantly less rewarded for their efforts. Indian workers are willing to work, but often are last hired and first fired, and on average make about $22,000 annual salary. The low level of financial remuneration makes life difficult for many Los Angeles urban Indians because the cost of living in Los Angeles is high.

In contrast to the stereotype of lazy Indian workers, Los Angeles Indian workers are willing to work, but face problems getting and maintaining employment, and find that the economic rewards for working are relatively minimal. Poverty rates for Indians in Los Angeles County are about 22 percent, which are similar to other traditional urban ethnic minorities such as blacks and Latinos.

However, the lower the poverty rates on reservations, which are often above 30 percent, and significantly higher than in urban areas. Urban Indians may be doing better economically on average than reservation Indians, but the economic circumstances for urban Indians, based on the Los Angeles data, suggest urban Indians are struggling economically. While there is a significant urban Indian business community in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, and an emergent middle class, it sometimes takes generations before Indians move up the economic ladder.

The urban area continues to hold a relative economic attraction for reservation Indians. In economic terms, life in urban areas may be better than on reservation, and reservation Indians continue to look for employment in urban areas. The significant employment difficulties for Indians in the urban economic environment suggests why many Indians would prefer to remain on their home reservations, if there was sufficient employment. Tribal communities offer social, cultural and political support, but often offer few stable or enduring economic opportunities. Indian workers are pushed to relatively difficult economic lives in urban areas. The future of tribal nations will depend on culture, community, and political sovereignty, but jobs and economic opportunity for tribal members will play a major role in keeping Indian workers and talent at home and in the service of tribal nations.


Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/07/urban-indian-working-poor-150092

Quietly, Indians reshape cities and reservations

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York TimesA mural painted by children at the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex in Minneapolis.
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
A mural painted by children at the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex in Minneapolis.


Published: April 13, 2013 in The New york Times

MINNEAPOLIS — Nothing in her upbringing on a remote Indian reservation in northern Minnesota prepared Jean Howard for her introduction to city life during a visit here eight years ago: an outbreak of gunfire, followed by the sight of people scattering.

She watched, confused, before realizing that she should run, too. “I said: ‘I’m not living here. This is crazy,’ ” she recalled.

But not long afterward, Ms. Howard did return, and found a home in Minneapolis. She is part of a continuing and largely unnoticed mass migration of American Indians, whose move to urban centers over the past several decades has fundamentally changed both reservations and cities.

Though they are widely associated with rural life, more than 7 of 10 Indians and Alaska Natives now live in a metropolitan area, according to Census Bureau data released this year, compared with 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.

The trend mirrors the pattern of millions of African-Americans who left the rural South during the Great Migration of the 20th century and moved to cities in the North and West. But while many black migrants found jobs in meatpacking plants, stockyards and automobile factories, American Indians have not had similar success finding work.

“When you look at it as a percentage, the black migration was nothing in comparison to the percentage of Native Americans who have come to urban areas,” said Dr. Philip R. Lee, an assistant secretary for health during the Clinton administration and an emeritus professor of social medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Recent budget figures show that federal money has not followed the migration, with only about 1 percent of spending by the Indian Health Service going to urban programs. Cities, with their own budget problems, are also failing to meet their needs.

One effect of the move toward cities has been a proliferation of Native American street gangs, which mimic and sometimes form partnerships with better-established African-American and Latino gangs, according to the F.B.I. and local law enforcement reports. Last month, a federal jury in Minneapolis convicted several members of the Native Mob, a violent gang, of racketeering and other crimes as part of one of the largest gang prosecutions ever undertaken in Indian Country.

The migration goes to the heart of the question of whether the more than 300 reservations in the United States are an imperative or a hindrance to Native Americans, a debate that dates to the 19th century, when the reservation system was created by the federal government.

Citing generational poverty and other shortcomings in reservations, a federal policy from the 1950s to the 1970s pressured Indian populations to move to cities. Though unpopular on reservations, the effort helped prompt the migration, according to those who have moved to cities in recent years and academics who have studied the trend.

Regardless of where they live, a greater proportion of Indians live in poverty than any other group, at a rate that is nearly double the national average. Census data show that 27 percent of all Native Americans live in poverty, compared with 25.8 percent of African-Americans, who are the next highest group, and 14.3 percent of Americans over all.

Moreover, data show that in a number of metropolitan areas, American Indians have levels of impoverishment that rival some of the nation’s poorest reservations. Denver, Phoenix and Tucson, for instance, have poverty rates for Indians approaching 30 percent. In Chicago, Oklahoma City, Houston and New York — where more Indians live than any other city — about 25 percent live in poverty.

Even worse off are those living in Rapid City, S.D., where the poverty level stands at more than 50 percent, and here in Minneapolis, where more than 45 percent live in poverty.

“Our population has dealt with all these problems in the past,” said Jay Bad Heart Bull, the president and chief operating officer of the Native American Community Development Institute, a social services agency in Minneapolis. “But it’s easier to get lost in the city. It’s easier to disappear.”

Despite the rampant poverty, many view Minneapolis as a symbol of progress. The city’s Indian population, about 2 percent of the total, is more integrated than in most other metropolitan areas, and there are social services and legal and job training programs specifically focused on them.

The city has a Native American City Council member, Robert Lilligren; a Native American state representative, Susan Allen; and a police chief, Janee Harteau, who is part Indian. But city life has brought with it familiar social ills like alcoholism and high unemployment, along with less familiar problems, including racism, heroin use and aggressive street gangs.

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