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When Curtis Morrison moved to Seattle from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, he found himself homeless, facing legal problems and in need of medicine to treat his depression.

He says he found help at the Chief Seattle Club, which eased the often difficult transition from living on the reservation to life in a large city. He’s sober now and credits the club’s Urban Indian Legal Clinic with helping him obtain the medication he needed for his depression and for helping him find housing.

“Other places didn’t know what I was talking about, and nothing would happen,” said Morrison, 45. “It was hard, but I have opportunities and a new beginning.”

Morrison isn’t the only so-called “urban Indian” to reach out to the
Urban Indian Legal Clinic for help.

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The clinic provides free advice and referrals for a wide range of legal issues to Native Americans. The clinic is available to all Native Americans, regardless of income or whether they are a member of the club.

In Seattle, which has one of the highest populations of urban Indians in the country, the clinic provides a much-needed service for an often overlooked community, organizers say.

“It’s about providing everyone that comes through the experience of understanding and knowing their rights,” said Olive Lefferson, clinic coordinator and member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe.

About seven of 10 Native Americans — 2.8 million — live in urban areas such as Seattle, according to the U.S. census. More than 1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives moved to metropolitan areas in the past 30 years.

Nearly 40,000 people in King County self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the census. A quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line, compared with one of 10 in the general population. In addition, Indians experience higher rates of unemployment and are three times more likely to be homeless than non-Indians, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Lefferson said the issues faced by Native Americans can be exacerbated in urban areas, which often are far from their families and tribal lands. Those who have lived in both worlds say city poverty is different from reservation poverty, primarily because of the lack of a support system common on reservations.

Twice a month, American Indians and Alaska Natives can come to the Chief Seattle Club for the Urban Indian Legal Clinic and receive help from lawyers on a variety of issues. About half the cases are related to Native issues, such as a probate dispute or a border-crossing problem.

In cases in which advice is sought on a criminal matter, the lawyers at the clinic can refer clients to a criminal attorney.

The lawyers come from different backgrounds but have one thing in common: They have knowledge of Indian law and the Indian experience.

“For them to come to a safe place, with someone who has worked with Natives, is important,” Lefferson said. “Otherwise, they might think someone won’t understand them.”

Someone to trust

The idea for the Urban Indian Legal Clinic began at the end of 2006, according to Lael Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee, who was president of the Northwest Indian Bar Association at the time. The group wanted to provide a service to a population that is often insular or mistrusting of other mainstream opportunities. The Chief Seattle Club was a logical place to hold the clinic, she said.

“As urban Indians, we know where to go and we know who the staff are,” said Echo-Hawk, a Seattle lawyer. “Let’s face it, if you have to meet with a lawyer, you are in a situation you don’t want to be in, and it’s uncomfortable. We wanted to help people solve problems.”

Ralph Forquera, the Seattle Indian Health Board executive director from the Juaneno Band of California Mission Indians, said he sees Native clients with substantial legal records often stemming from issues related to poverty. Their crimes didn’t occur because they had chosen a life of crime, he said.

“Rather than it being because they’ve chosen a life of crime, it might be petty theft or public inebriation,” said Forquera, who has researched urban Indian disparities.

An urban area also lacks the support base common on a reservation. Growing up on the Fond du Lac Reservation of Northern Minnesota, Dunlap said, he never knew his family was impoverished. Lefferson’s family didn’t have running water on the Blackfeet Reservation, she added, but everyone was poor on the reservation.

“In reservation poverty, you always had an auntie to feed you,” Dunlap said. “Urban poverty for Natives is different.”

Along with isolation, the move to an urban area can be especially jarring for a Native person who has previously lived in an area where health care and education may be more accessible. In Seattle, those services are harder to find.

“All those things that are basically provided by the United States through treaties, when you come to the cities or urban areas, they’re not there,” said Chris Stearns, Navajo, a lawyer who specializes in Indian law and a former Seattle Human Rights Commission chairman.

For Natives, a mistrust of the legal system goes back generations, from soldiers forcibly relocating tribes in the 19th century to lawyers now being thought of only as someone who will put them in jail. The death of John T. Williams, a First Nations wood carver who was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer three years ago, furthered that mistrust.

Among people of color, Stearns said, there exists an idea of “solve your problems yourself.”

The legal system often hasn’t worked for clients in the past, and that affects their function and understanding of it, said Sean Cecil, a Seattle attorney and legal-clinic volunteer. A lot of times, the client’s suffering is not a result of the decisions they made, according to Cecil, but from a lack of understanding of the legal processes.

Sometimes, a simple Google search can provide the clients the information they need, or he refers them to another lawyer.

“They may not put faith in the legal system, but they may put faith in you,” Cecil said.

A new beginning

The legal clinic was one of the first in the nation, Echo-Hawk said. The clinic is self-sustaining and has been able to continue without as much involvement from other organizations.

Dunlap said the Chief Seattle Club and the clinic are an example for the rest of Indian Country to follow.

“There’s no other places like this in Indian Country,” Dunlap said. “This is unfathomable to some Natives.”

As Dunlap and Lefferson spoke at the club, a member with a beaded necklace and long gray hair walked in. Dunlap asked him how he slept the night before.

He said he “slept good,” but his back hurt. His bed had been a concrete sidewalk.

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