Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

An Indigenous politician could be the next mayor of a Pacific Northwest city where Native people once were banned from living within the city limits and longhouses were destroyed by arsonists.

Colleen Echohawk, Pawnee, and Casey Sixkiller, Cherokee, are two of 15 candidates for mayor of Seattle, the largest city in Washington and the 18th largest city in the United States with a population of 769,000.

The primary election is Aug. 3. The top two vote-getters will advance to the Nov. 2 general election.

The field of candidates includes City Council President Lorena Gonzalez; former City Council member Bruce Harrell, who served as acting mayor in September 2017; retired National Basketball Association player James Donaldson, who ran for mayor in 2009; and former state legislator Jessyn Farrell, a candidate for mayor in 2017.

But political observers say Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, and Sixkiller, the city’s deputy mayor, are the big story — and the best hope for change in a city with a growing homeless population and diminished public trust in law enforcement.

“To have two formidable Indigenous candidates running for the highest post in a major West Coast city — I’ve been so disappointed the media hasn’t reported that story,” said civil rights lawyer Gabe Galanda, Nomalki/Concow, of Seattle-based law firm Galanda Broadman.

“Having an Indigenous mayor poses a unique opportunity for the city of Seattle to bridge the growing divide in our city rather than expand it, because Indigenous peoples — more than any other segment of our society — have been dealing with deep division over the last several centuries and have been able to overcome it and, more recently, bridge divides and reach compromise and accord in ways that make sense for Indigenous peoples and their neighbors.

“Casey and Colleen are both builders rather than dividers; you can look at their bodies of work and realize that.”

In the seven years as executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, which serves homeless Native people, Echohawk guided the building of $180 million in affordable housing; moved homeless residents from encampments and into hotel rooms; and started an urban farm where homeless Natives grow traditional foods that are served at the Chief Seattle Club.

Echohawk said she has a 22-point Emergency Housing Action Plan “to bring everyone sleeping outside into safety within 14 months” of her election. Her plan is outlined at echohawkforseattle.com/emergencyhousing.

As deputy mayor, Sixkiller has worked to create housing and shelters, expand access to parks and green spaces, and secure funds to restore habitat, replace failing bridges and invest in mass transit. As mayor, he said he will “expand and make childcare more affordable; invest in our neighborhoods so they are safe and thriving; and restore our parks and streets to their intended uses by adding 3,000 new permanent places for people experiencing homeless to call home.”

Shelley Means, White Earth Ojibwe/Lakota, is coordinator of the Native American Women’s Dialogue on Infant Mortality. Her organization and others in the Seattle Urban Native Nonprofits collaborative hosted a Seattle Mayoral Primary Candidates Forum On Native Issues on June 23.

“What I think either [Echohawk or Sixkiller] can show the political landscape of Seattle is that the old way of doing governance has got to change,” Means told Indian Country Today. “It’s not about the politician winning the policy argument, it’s about sitting in a circle and finding the collective answer. It’s about providing the leadership to go into the complexities and tackle some solutions and not hold on to age-old arguments and try to piece together and prove solutions that have been failing.”

Navigating difficult issues

Seattle is, in many ways, a city of contradictions.

Before she became mayor in 2017, Jenny Durkan was a tough-on-crime federal prosecutor but as mayor failed to quickly quell the occupation of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood or address the concerns people had in the lead-up to the occupation. The occupation was part of the nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is not seeking re-election.

Six Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Seattle and the Port of Seattle is a leading economic engine in the Pacific Northwest, yet 11 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The median household income is $92,000, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. The median home value is $663,000. The monthly mortgage payment, according to MortgageCalculator.com, would be about $3,500 a month — beyond the housing cost burden that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers to be affordable to a median-income household.

City parks and trails provide stunning views of Puget Sound and mountains, yet the Duwamish River is a Superfund cleanup site.

Several Indigenous nations have ties to the community, yet they haven’t always been consulted on issues affecting them.

Seattle City Light, a city utility, operates three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River —dams the Upper Skagit Tribe says are killing endangered salmon and steelhead. The Upper Skagit Tribe paid for a billboard message in downtown Seattle after the city rejected the tribe’s request for a study regarding the viability of removing one of the dams. In 2019, the City Council passed a resolution — sponsored by City Council member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet — affirming the city’s commitment to addressing violence against Native people “through meaningful investments and engagement with local tribal and urban Indian communities.” And in 2014, the City Council replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives comprise 1 percent of the population in Seattle and King County but make up 15 percent of the homeless population, according to the city and county’s 2020 homeless population count. African Americans comprise 7 percent of the population but make up 25 percent of the homeless population; Hispanic persons comprise 10 percent of the population but make up 15 percent of the homeless population, according to the homeless population count).

Activists expect a mayor who is Native would be collaborative in finding solutions to these issues. Means has worked with Echohawk and spoke about her approach to finding solutions.

“I’ve seen her really step out there, for example, to funders who were saying, ‘We want to invest millions of dollars in these large institutions that want to do rapid rehousing,’ and Colleen would say, ‘I think you should flip that equation around and give the money to Native groups who are serving homeless people because we know how to take care of our relatives,’” Means said. “We don’t really have the time to educate those large structural institutions on how to take care of our relatives. We just need the resources to do it and we will do it, and she has done that.”

She added, “Colleen spent time building relationships that are not about political power, but about this common view of how are we going to do a better job of serving our community,”

Marilyn Bard, a citizen of the Quinault Nation and cousin of Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, had a similar view.

“I think what [Echohawk or Sixkiller] would bring is this: We don’t have ownership of the land, we have stewardship,” Bard told Indian Country Today. “We are to take care of our land for other generations to come.”

Echohawk and Sixkiller would bring “a different view of how we see our land and how we take care of it,” she said. “We have to take care of climate change. We need to take care of our waters.”

Addressing the issues

Echohawk and Sixkiller’s platforms depend on relationship-building and collaboration — not just with the City Council, which has been dysfunctional on issues related to affordability, homelessness and police reform, but with the community.

Echohawk has served on the Seattle Community Police Commission, which is addressing systemic racism in the criminal justice system. She said there will be zero tolerance for “bad cops.” But she’ll hire a new police chief — the current chief is interim — she can work with to change the culture in the department, give the community police commission some accountability oversight, establish crisis response teams to respond to mental health-related calls for service, and create an Office of Crime Prevention to build a neighborhood-based strategy to reduce crime.

On homelessness and affordable housing, she proposes activating the city’s Emergency Operations Center to coordinate response to homelessness issues, establishing a capital campaign to fund construction of 4,000 tiny homes and modular homes for temporary housing, identifying surplus city property and hotels that could be used for emergency housing, and reforming zoning laws and permitting rules to speed housing development, particularly middle-income housing in every neighborhood.

She proposes establishing an Office of Indigenous Affairs; tribal nations with ties to the city include the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish, Suquamish and Tulalip Tribes. At the June 23 mayoral candidates forum, Echohawk said she looks forward to hosting a “huge potlatch in the mayor’s office.”

She also proposes working with the City Council to establish a municipal broadband utility with access to all residents regardless of income, expanding universal pre-K to all of Seattle, and expanding the use of solar power.

Sixkiller, a Dartmouth College graduate who worked on two congressional legislative staffs and served as chief operating officer of King County, proposes some “rising tide lifts all boats” policies: provide supplemental income payments — similar to COVID-19 relief payments ⁠— to low-income families to ensure a guaranteed basic income that enables them to stay in Seattle; bolstering commerce with small-business stabilization grants and elimination of the local business and occupations tax; and expanding the number of city-funded childcare centers and limiting co-pays to 7 percent of household income.

Regarding homelessness and affordable housing, Sixkiller proposes expanding the number of tiny home villages and using hotels for temporary shelter, building 3,000 permanent places “for individuals to call home,” and organizing a regional response to homelessness “so other cities and communities are part of the solution.”

Regarding policing, he proposes adequately staffing the police department to reduce 911 crisis response times, getting officers out of their cars and “back to building relationships in the communities they serve,” reforming hiring practices to increase racial and cultural diversity, and providing ongoing training in the use of non-lethal tools and crisis response. He proposes doubling the city’s unarmed civilian Community Service Officers program and providing support to non-profit community safety programs.

He said he would work with Seattle Public Schools to make schools “a safe haven” for LGBTQ students, and ensure homeless LGBTQ youth have access to housing, health care and other resources.

Regarding green energy, he proposes establishing incentives for the conversion from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

Other candidates and their platforms

  • Dr. Clinton Bliss, a family medicine specialist, would provide basic emergency food, shelter and treatment to residents who have no other options; permanently remove tent dwellers from city parks; and nullify any section of the police union contract that limits accountability and oversight.
  • Henry Clay Dennison, a Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor in 2020, would establish a government-financed jobs program “to put millions to work”; defend working farmers and ranchers; provide amnesty for undocumented immigrants; and prosecute police officers for brutality and wrongful use of force.
  • James Donaldson, former player with the what was then the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team, would address root causes of homelessness; bring jobs back to downtown; and expand police use of de-escalation techniques.
  • Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who ran for mayor in 2017, would enact climate-friendly policies; enact policies to reduce gun violence; build more low- and middle-income housing around transit and near job centers; modernize the city criminal code; enact police department reforms and make police and local government accountable.
  • M. Lorena Gonzalez, a lawyer and City Council president, would improve the crisis response system; improve behavioral health services and substance use disorder treatment; convert unused buildings and hotel space to house those who are homeless; reinvigorate the city’s Office of Economic Development; modernize industrial infrastructure and lay foundation for green technology and green economy.
  • Bruce Harrell, a former City Council member and a former acting mayor, would help small and minority-owned businesses; invest in neighborhoods; create a center for training and employment; revitalize arts and culture; reform the police department; expand access to health care; support replacement of natural gas with solar in new and existing buildings; improve infrastructure and explore use of high-speed rail; and enact policies to reduce gun violence.
  • Andrew Grant Houston, an architect and environmental advocate, would reform land-use codes and promote tiny home construction; expand access to child care; expedite permit review for zero-carbon construction; and eliminate business and occupations tax to pay for step increases in the minimum wage.
  • Arthur K. Langlie, a construction executive and grandson of a former Seattle mayor and Washington State governor, would repair the relationship between police, local government and most-vulnerable communities; improve police hiring, training and accountability; recruit professionals to provide a greater level of mental health care for those who are homeless; create triage centers to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness; and create 600 new personal home shelters with wrap-around services within 100 days.
  • Stan Lippmann, a former lawyer and past candidate for local, state and federal office, would focus on affordable housing construction and development of alternative public transportation.
  • Lance Randall, an entrepreneur and former legislative aide, would use surplus city property and leased private property for temporary housing with on-site service providers and job placement; implement a program to change the culture in the police department; establish a property tax incentive to fill vacant retail spaces; expand services for addiction and behavioral health; invest in Seattle’s film and music sector; and continue to fund and expand the Seattle Promise College Tuition Program.
  • Don L. Rivers, community advocate who once led the police department’s African American Community Advisory Council, would promote social justice; reduce the carbon footprint; protect vulnerable communities; and reform the police department.
  • Omari Tahir-Garrett, a longtime community advocate and founder of Seattle’s African American Heritage Museum, would raise awareness that Seattle is on Duwamish land; end gentrification in African American neighborhoods; and provide land, materials and expertise for homeless persons to build their own mortgage-free housing.
  • Bobby Tucker, an author and poet, would build a team to house the homeless and provide accountability in the mayor’s office.

Raising the profile of the Native community

The field of 15 mayoral candidates reflects the city’s diversity: they are white, African American, Native American, Mexican American, and multicultural.

According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, some 118,426 Seattleites are Asian American, 56,137 are African American, 53,061 identify as being from two or more races, 51,523 are Hispanic, 3,845 are Native American or Alaska Native, and 2,307 are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. That’s an Indigenous population of 6,152. Consider one-third of Hispanics identify as Indigenous and Seattle’s Indigenous population increases to more than 23,300.

Seattle’s Indigenous population “[is] part of the larger Seattle metro area of about 77,000 voting-age Native citizens,” Means said. “These numbers are more than enough to influence the outcome of a local election, yet Native American voices are often left out of conversations about policies that directly affect them.”

Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala, chairwoman of the Urban Native Education Alliance and member of Seattle Urban Native Nonprofits, or SUNN, views this election as “high stakes for the urban Indian community.”

“The recent SUNN-hosted and organized Mayoral Candidates Forum was an amazing platform for all candidates to showcase their knowledge of Indigenous interests and issues or lack thereof,” Sense-Wilson told Indian Country Today. “The questions SUNN posed during the mayoral forum reflected diverse perspectives and concerns — because, honestly, Seattle's urban Indigenous community is intersect, complex and multifaceted.”

She added, “While [the] forum was not a campaign to endorse or support one candidate over another, I believe we effectively elevated our collective voice and demonstrated to all candidates our voting power can influence the election process, and we want a mayor who will share power and decision making with our community.”

Mount Rainer looms in the background of the Seattle skyline at sunset. (Photo by Howard Ignatius via Creative Commons)

ABOUT SEATTLE

The City of Seattle was named for Si’ahl, leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples and the first signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. Still, an Indigenous person wasn’t elected to the City Council or school board until the 2010s.

“Having Indigenous people in positions of power is going to have a huge impact on [non-Native] perceptions of Indigenous people, and that will affect information from other people that Indigenous people internalize about themselves,” Eighth Generation founder Louie Gong, Nooksack, of Seattle said.

The City of Seattle was named for Si’ahl, leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples and the first signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. Still, an Indigenous person wasn’t elected to the City Council or school board until the 2010s.

“Having Indigenous people in positions of power is going to have a huge impact on [non-Native] perceptions of Indigenous people, and that will affect information from other people that Indigenous people internalize about themselves,” Eighth Generation founder Louie Gong, Nooksack, of Seattle said.

Seattle was first incorporated in 1865 and, while the city was named for the Duwamish/Suquamish leader who many whites viewed as a friend, city leaders passed an ordinance banning Indigenous people from living within the city limits. One of those who resisted that ordinance — becoming arguably the first Indigenous rights figure in city history — was Kikisoblu, Chief Si’ahl’s daughter who continued to live in a waterfront cabin near what is now Pike Place Market. She supported herself by doing laundry and selling the traditional baskets she made. She died in 1896.

Meanwhile, according to the Duwamish Tribe, “the U.S. Army and other whites burned Duwamish longhouses to prevent the Duwamish from returning to their traditional homeland.” By 1910, all Duwamish longhouses were gone.

It would be nearly 100 years, in 2009, before another longhouse would be built in Seattle. That longhouse — the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center, located across the street from an ancestral village site on the Duwamish River — is the headquarters of the Duwamish Tribe, which is made up of descendants of those who did not relocate to the Muckleshoot or Suquamish reservations. Another longhouse, named Intellectual House, was built in 2015 on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

The first Native people weren’t elected to office in Seattle until 2015: Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, Seattle City Council; and Scott Pinkham, Nez Perce, Seattle school board.

Other tribal members serving on the Seattle school board are Chandra Hampson, Winnebago, and Zachary DeWolf, Chippewa Cree.

The following tribal citizens serve in elective office in neighboring communities:

  • Chris Roberts, Choctaw, Shoreline City Council
  • Chris Stearns, Navajo, Auburn City Council
  • Meghan Jernigan, Choctaw, Shoreline School Board
  • Cindy Webster-Martinson, Suquamish, North Kitsap School Board (first Native person elected to non-tribal office in Kitsap County)

In addition, Katherine Festa, Haida, is a candidate this year for City Council in Federal Way, another Seattle suburb. She is housing coordinator for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.

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