Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez intends to formalize a legislative voice for Native American governments and leaders.

Share story

Native Americans predate the City of Seattle and have been part of our city’s history since its founding. Coast Salish people have always had a hand in managing our region, even as newcomers settled here and made this area their home.

It’s a shame, then, that 165 years later, the shoreline settlement that has blossomed into our magnificent, world-class city — and that bears an Indian chief’s name — hasn’t encouraged its Native neighbors to have a say in interlocal governance.

The relationship between local tribes and our city has been fluid, at best, depending on the administration. Historically, Native leaders have had to lobby all nine council members to receive Council attention, whether for social-services funding or environmental protection. That ad hoc approach has created piecemeal legislation on critical issues — until now.

When I was elected in 2015, my life as a Blackfeet Nation member who was raised in Western Washington and my decades of work in both state government and the private sector as an Indian-law attorney made me the de facto champion of Native issues.

While there is supposed to be a government-to-government relationship between the City Council and Puget Sound tribes, I realized there was no formal process for interlocal consultation with each other, even on environmental or homelessness issues — until now.

In December, the Civic Development and Public Assets Committee that I chair enhanced its name, and purpose, by adding “Native Communities.”

It is the first time any municipal government, to the best of our knowledge, has formalized a legislative voice for Native governments and leaders. My hope is that this serves as an example to other municipalities for consulting with, and seeking consent from, Native peoples on issues of mutual concern.

My committee will engage the leadership from the Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Puyallup, Tulalip and other tribes, as well as the Cowlitz Tribe, which operates a multimillion dollar health clinic in our area, on a government-to-government and coequal basis.

We will also consult with service providers like Chief Seattle Club, Seattle Indian Health Board, Seattle Indian Services Commission, United Indians for All Tribes and Mother Nation. And we will synergize our Native relationships on the Seattle School Board and Seattle Police Commission.

These organizations and institutions in Seattle do not merely serve Natives — they also serve our city’s non-Native residents, tackling our most difficult issues from the front lines: housing, homelessness, poverty, police reform and climate change.

These challenges — particularly climate change — know no political boundaries, and frequently affect neighbors and future generations. Therefore, in another historic move, I’ve invited the Puyallup Tribe to consult with us about the proposed liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma. Having regulated a cleaner maritime industry since time immemorial, Puyallup leaders say that local officials have not meaningfully consulted with them about the project as required by state, federal and international laws and norms — most notably the Treaty of Medicine Creek of 1854 and federal Puyallup Land Claims Settlement Act of 1989. Seeking to rectify that lapse, we will dialogue with — and avoid pandering to — each other.

In addition, I’m proposing a resolution that all city departments collect meaningful demographic data on Native service users. Current practices do not accurately reflect the lived experience of the Native population or allow service providers to satisfy all of our citizens’ unmet needs.

Tribes are not an interest group, or a club, or an extreme base. Tribes are governments comprising citizens who live in their communities and in ours. The committee that I now chair is about respecting the tribes’ sovereign voice, and understanding that by involving Native leaders in our processes, we will enlighten and improve our city for our collective betterment.