Seattle City Council Member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, hesitated as she spoke to the council on Monday, November 28, about the December 5 deadline law enforcement has given for the water protectors to leave the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock.
“I think the violence is going to be... is going to be, um...”
She paused a moment to compose herself. Then she looked up. She was ready to say the words that were obviously painful for her to speak.
“I think it’s going to be bad on December 5.”
Juarez, Seattle’s first enrolled tribal member on the City Council, was elected to office about a year ago and made her comments in a briefing Monday morning. The briefing, available to view on the Seattle Channel website, preceded her presentation of the city’s Proclamation of November as Native American Heritage Month. She began by reading some prepared notes.
“In light of everything happening in North Dakota, and with our new administration, it’s more important than ever to take these opportunities to celebrate, not only our culture, but what’s going on.”
Screenshot of Seattle Channel video
Seattle City Council Member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, briefs the council on the current situation at Standing Rock on November 28.
Then she stopped reading and spoke from her heart.
“I want to make a few points, if you’ll just indulge me, President Harrell,” she said, addressing City Council President Bruce Harrell. “I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to follow what’s happening in North Dakota, but I want to note that this is more than just a pipeline and a protest, that the water protectors have been out there for over seven months, that this is the largest gathering of tribes in a century. I fear Monday, December 5, and as you know, I don’t fear a lot of things.”
A veteran of the 1970s Washington state Fish Wars in which she protested along side the late Nisqually Native rights leader, Billy Frank Jr., Juarez is no stranger to conflict. Her activism goes back even further. When she was only 10, she and her family participated in the occupation of an old Army base in Seattle, Fort Lawton, which resulted in the land being returned to Seattle’s Native people. Fort Lawton is now called Discovery Park, home of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.
“So as a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and working in Indian country for 30 years as an attorney, and certainly living this life, it is saddening for me [to see] what’s going to happen, and what I’m concerned about on December 5.”
Juarez was raised on the Puyallup Reservation. In addition to the Fish War protests, Juarez was also present when the Puyallup evicted the state of Washington from the Cushman Indian Hospital in 1976. She later attended Western Washington University, then the Seattle University School of Law, becoming a public defender and then a King Country Superior Court judge. Her experience impressed then Governor Mike Lowry enough to appoint her the Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs. In November 2015 she won a seat on the Seattle City Council representing District 5.
So Juarez is well-versed in Native issues and is no stranger to fighting for Native rights. Her fears about what will happen on December 5 come from decades of personal experience. She told the council:
“I think it’s important to note that we have over 300 tribes, including mine, that are represented at the camp. We’ve already had more than 525 people arrested since August. There have been recent clashes that have included physical force, tear gas, rubber bullets and large water hoses and freezing weather. At least 17 to 20 protesters have been taken to the hospital.”
She went on to call this a pivotal moment in Native people’s fight against oppression.
“It’s never been about Standing Rock or Cheyenne River or the other Sioux nations saying this is just about Indian country and it’s about us. It’s always been about, and our people have always fought about, including Uncle Billy Frank on the Nisqually and Puyallup Rivers that resulted in the Boldt Decision to protect fish, it’s always been about protecting the Earth and having people come together.”
In September, Juarez got a city resolution passed supporting the Standing Rock Sioux and their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then Donald Trump, who owns stock in the pipeline, won the presidential election.
“After the election, where a lot of people were crying and afraid, a lot of our people were like, ‘We’re not afraid. Everything we have, we have fought for. We understand genocide. We understand colonialism. We understand what it’s like to be wiped out and to hold on. So we’re ready.’
“And that’s why I’m concerned.”
Sometimes when a news story goes on for days, weeks or months, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Details pile on details and after a while the story grows into a huge amorphous blob that you almost begin taking for granted. That’s why it’s so important to be reminded that the current fight at Standing Rock is just the latest episode of a conflict that’s been going on for centuries. And all that time, anger has been building right along side it. This powder keg has been growing for generations and the violence perpetrated against unarmed water protectors is the fuse.
Juarez fears that fuse will be lit on December 5 when Morton County Police start enforcing their evacuation ultimatum. She boiled her message down into one important take-away:
“I think this is going to be a pivotal moment, not just about tribal sovereignty and natural resources, but about how we treat Native people and land.”
And to paraphrase Juarez, if that fuse gets lit and the powder keg blows up, it’s going to be... Well, it’s going to be bad.
Courtesy Debora Juarez
Enrolled Blackfeet member Debora Juarez poses in a 2015 campaign photo used in her run for Seattle City Council.