Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, said her preparation for a Seattle City Council candidacy began in the 1970s, when she was growing up on the Puyallup Reservation.
Her education came on the front lines of the fight for justice. She was there, at age 10, with her family when Native Americans reclaimed and occupied the former Fort Lawton in Seattle, now the home of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and Daybreak Star Cultural Center.
As a young teen, she participated in the Fish Wars on the Puyallup River in the early 1970s, standing up for the people’s right to fish their native waters as they always had, a right they reserved in treaties with the U.S.
She was there in 1976 when the Puyallup Tribe evicted the state from the former Cushman Indian Hospital; she was picked up at school for the eviction and occupation by Puyallup’s then-chairwoman, Ramona Bennett.
In ensuing years, Juarez earned a law degree, became a public defender, learned to juggle motherhood and a law career with multiple sclerosis, and twice survived cancer.
She represented indigenous nations in such areas as treaty rights, economic development, legal and social policy, natural resources, and public safety. She successfully sued the State of Washington for protection of a Klallam village site and the repatriation of remains and ancestral items that were removed during a state construction project there.
She became a King County Superior Court judge and served as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs under two governors. She served as a partner at the law firm of Williams Kastner, specializing in economic development, education law, government affairs, and natural resources.
All of these experiences “have given me more than a unique perspective,” she said. “They’ve enhanced my intuitive nature, made me more aggressive. I don’t take no for an answer. I have been in the shoes of a lot of the people we are trying to protect.”
Juarez, 55, is a candidate for Seattle City Council representing District 5, a 13-square-mile area that stretches from Lake Washington to Puget Sound and includes about eight neighborhoods, eight elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, and at least 18 parks.
City voters changed the system of council elections in 2013; seven positions are now elected by district, two citywide. As a result of the change, all council positions are on the ballot this year.
Of 36 candidates for nine council positions, Juarez is believed to be the only candidate who’s a citizen of a U.S. indigenous nation. Of Juarez’s candidacy, Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen said an indigenous perspective on the council could “make the city’s agenda fairer” for Native Americans.
In this city of 652,000 people – the 21st largest city in the U.S. – Indigenous Peoples make up about 1.2 percent of the population. According to the U.S. Census, 13,224 identify as Native American or Alaska Native; 6,055 identify as Native Hawaiian or indigenous Pacific Islander. Advocates for diversity on the City Council say a council member who happens to be Native American could help bolster cross-cultural understanding and build social justice in the city.
There are challenges in Seattle. In 2011, after the police shooting death of First Nations carver John T. Williams and the kicking of a Mexican-American man, the U.S. Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department had engaged in “a pattern of constitutional violations in its use of force.”
And in 2014, Seattle Public Schools dismantled the once highly successful American Indian Heritage School program, moved its students to other schools, and made plans to demolish the school building to make way for a new K-8 school. The school site contains a spring that is of cultural and historical importance to the Duwamish people.
As a council member, Juarez said she’ll promote investment in the district’s urban economic centers; work for improvements in transit, as well as bicycle and pedestrian ways, to help people get to and from jobs and school; advocate for a “fair share” of city resources for the district; and find ways to eradicate disparities between the city's neighborhoods in education, health, housing, and economic opportunity.
“We need to do a better job of investing in the economic infrastructure … to promote growth and employment,” she said in her platform.
Juarez has lived for more than 20 years in the district she wants to represent. She said the district system of elections is second nature to her because of her personal and professional life in Indian country.
“It only makes sense that you should live with the people you represent. There are the obvious reasons: accessibility, accountability, spending your money [locally] and using the services of your neighbors, property taxes, using local transportation,” she said.
“However, the ability as a long-time resident to witness and voice the growth and changes in your neighborhood is the most powerful reason for district representation on the Seattle City Council.”
In addition to Juarez, six other ethnic candidates have announced candidacies for election to the council – including in Juarez’s 5th District. That’s as of this writing; candidates will file declarations of candidacy between May 11-15 to get on the ballot, according to the Seattle city clerk’s website.
In the 2nd District, Bruce Harrell, who identifies as being of African, Japanese and Choctaw ancestry, is seeking a third term on the council; he was a proponent of the successful effort to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in Seattle. Challenger Tammy Morales, Mexican-American, is principal of Urban Food Link, a consulting firm that works with communities to “create fair, vibrant regional food systems that connect people to healthy food.”
In the 5th District, Sandy Brown, Mexican-American, is an activist pastor and former member of a local school board; Mercedes Elizalde, Mexican-American, recruits and trains volunteers for the Low Income Housing Institute; and Mian Rice, African American, is a Port of Seattle policy manager and son of former Seattle mayor Norm Rice.
In the 9th District, M. Lorena Gonzalez, Mexican-American, is legal counsel for Mayor Ed Murray.
Other Native Americans in positions of grassroots or government leadership in Seattle include attorney Ethel Branch, Navajo, co-chair of the city Human Rights Commission (in a Harvard fellowship bio in 2005, she wrote that she would someday like to serve as governor of Arizona); social documentarian Tracy Rector, Seminole, a city arts commissioner; educator/journalist Matt Remle, Hunkpapa Lakota, who successfully advocated for adoption of Indigenous Peoples Day resolutions in Seattle; attorney Chris Stearns, Navajo, former chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and current chairman of the state gambling commission; and Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala Lakota, chairwoman of the Urban Native Education Alliance.