For the first time since government officials began collecting data on the thousands of people living homeless in King County, a new category on people’s tribal affiliations will soon be added to the system.
The move comes after a years-long push from Native homeless service providers to collect better information on Native people in the county’s federally mandated homelessness database. In recent years, these providers have demanded other homelessness data collection changes that have revealed even more drastic racial inequities in homelessness than previously reported.
An estimated 15% of King County’s homeless population is American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the county’s most recent one-night count of homelessness. The estimate two years ago was just 3%, before Native organizations challenged the count’s accuracy and worked with the county to reform the survey.
The tribal designations are another piece of trying to reform the homelessness system to better serve Native people, according to Wellspring Family Services deputy housing director Nawiishtunmi Nightgun, an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation who is also of Blackfeet descent.
Understanding a person’s tribal background helps service providers better match people with help, Nightgun said, and helps people feel seen throughout the process.
“That’s the main importance of [the] tribal designations,” Nightgun said. “To be seen. To be seen on our own land, for who we are.”
Nightgun started advocating two years ago to add tribal designations to the system when she worked at Chief Seattle Club. Her job has been to research tribes to include and work with the county’s contracted system administrators, Bitfocus, to add them to the database, known as the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
Today, her list includes more than 600 federally and state-recognized tribes in the U.S. alone, 277 First Nations in Canada and 215 Latin American tribes.
Next month, providers will begin training on the updated database. The county credited Native organizations for leading the charge.
“In the process of working with homeless service providers from the Native American and Alaska Native communities we learned how essential Tribal Identification can be for obtaining resources and support,” King County spokesperson Sherry Hamilton wrote in an email. “Thanks to the leadership of the Native Community we compiled a list of Federally Recognized, State Recognized, First Nations, Latin American, and currently Unrecognized Tribes.”
Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said she hadn’t heard of regional homelessness systems elsewhere adding tribal designations to their databases.
“Being attentive to that and understanding and asking about people’s tribal affiliation could help to understand what networks to access, what they needed or wanted, how to communicate,” Roman said. “I don’t think it’s something most homelessness systems think about very much.”
The push to include tribal designations in the system wasn’t easy, according to Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Colleen Echohawk, a member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and a member of the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake. She hadn’t wanted the organization to switch over to using the county’s database in the first place. Chief Seattle Club already collected information about people’s tribal designations on their new member forms, and using the county’s system didn’t include it.
“We’ve been trying on this for so long,” Echohawk said. “It’s been like three or four years we’ve been asking HMIS is there any way we can have this in the HMIS system.”
Having to ask for the tribal designations in the first place was deeply frustrating, said Chief Seattle Club Deputy Director Derrick Belgarde, who is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon and also Chippewa Cree from Rocky Boy, Montana.
“It’s very offensive to pan-Indianize,” Belgarde said. “We all come from unique sovereign nations and groups and totally different customs, [and] it’s really important for us to identify where we come from.”
Having tribal designations in the HMIS database will help organizations provide culturally relevant services and help reflect that work to funders, according to Norine Hill, executive director of Native services organization Mother Nation.
“It really helps us to show the number of tribes we’ve helped over the year,” Hill, a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, said. “We give that to our private funders. And it’s good data to have when we have families that don’t have any connection with any other tribal member [and] we’re able to connect them to another tribal member in the city.”
Doing so could also help organizations begin to reconnect newer generations of urban Indians to tribal identities disrupted by U.S. government policies like the Urban Relocation Program of the 1950s, Hill added, which moved thousands of tribal members away from reservations and into cities.
At the same time, those migration patterns led to major urban Indian activist movements that shaped the future of cities like Seattle, said Josh Reid, director of the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, an associate professor of American Indian Studies and the John Calhoun Smith Memorial endowed associate professor of history at the University of Washington.
Reid, a member of the Snohomish Tribe of Indians, said he was supportive of the idea to add tribal designations to the system and curious to see how it plays out.
“Native identity is really complicated,” Reid said. “You have a lot of people who have multiple citizenship claims in different Native nations, like through their parents and extended family.”
Reid also wondered how the system would handle tribal designations like his own. The Snohomish Tribe of Indians is not currently recognized by the federal government.
Nightgun said the list already includes some unrecognized tribes and gives people the opportunity to identify as part of multiple tribes. Nightgun also plans to flag when anyone identifies as part of a tribe that isn’t federally recognized, then evaluate the numbers at the end of the year to decide whether to add the tribe to the list.
“It’s a continued process,” Nightgun said. “This isn’t the end all, be all. If there are mistakes, we’re always going to be looking at it, working on it.”