In May of this year, Chief Seattle Club named Derrick Belgarde as its executive director. An enrolled citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon, Belgarde is uniquely positioned to lead the organization, a human service agency in King County that provides basic needs for the American Indian and Alaska Native community, many of whom are experiencing homelessness.
With a master’s in Public Administration from Seattle University, Belgarde is armed with more than the training and knowledge from his education and work at similar programs. In May of 2009, twelve years before his new position was announced, Belgarde walked into the Chief Seattle Club to get the help that would change his life.
“They asked me, ‘Are you ready? Right now?’ I was half-drunk and hungover, but I said yes and they went with me on the light rail to Thunderbird,” he said.
At Thunderbird Treatment Center — a culturally appropriate addiction treatment for adults run by the Seattle Indian Health Board — Belgarde completed both in-patient and out-patient treatment for nearly a year.
“I was so sick of being sick. I wanted to make amends and heal,” he said.
Belgarde grew up in Salem, Oregon, with his mother. He described it as a dysfunctional family dynamic and an alcoholic home. Though he didn’t live far from his father who is his Tribal connection with the Siletz and Chippewa-Cree from Rocky Boy Montana — they did not connect.
In school, he said he was a good student, but he began drinking and using drugs at the age of 13 and left school.
“From there it just spiraled out of control,” he said.
He spent time couch surfing with family members. After his first son was born, he followed his family to Washington.
“But I passed a lot of trauma onto him. It wasn’t healthy. I have a lot of regret about that,” he said, adding that now that he’s sober, he actively tries to combat passing that trauma onto his children — Derrick, Zion and Zeze.
Belgarde spent some time on the streets of Seattle. Other times, he’d stop drinking and have a steady job, an apartment and reconnect with his family.
“It didn’t last long. I’d usually get fired because I was drunk, and then I’d get myself together again. And then I’d relapse. I was in a cycle,” he said.
In May 2002, Belgarde and his wife Lua were married. For the health of their children, she moved back home near Issaquah, he said.
“I can’t blame her. There were some bus stops that had nice benches in Issaquah. I’d sleep there, sometimes find a job, I just wanted to be close,” he said.
Belgarde’s wife worked for the Seattle Indian Health Board and knew about Chief Seattle Club, where she suggested he get help.
“At Chief Seattle Club it finally clicked. The treatment was culturally relevant, I learned and connected with other Natives. It was perfect,” he said.
After his treatment with the Thunderbird Treatment Center and Chief Seattle Club helped him to get sober, Belgarde enrolled in Seattle Central College to earn his transfer degree. He completed his undergraduate degree in Public Affairs magna cum laude from Seattle University.
While in school, he began interning at El Centro De La Raza in Seattle through a work-study program. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he worked full-time on a number of projects including the food bank and hot meals program. Shortly after becoming employee of the year, he heard about an opening as a program manager at Chief Seattle Club and was invited to apply.
“El Centro didn’t want me to leave and they were all such good people, but I felt called to serve my own community,” Belgarde said.
In February of 2015, he joined Chief Seattle Club and worked his way up through the organization where he was once a member.
“It was such a full-circle moment. I started working there and then in June finished my master’s,” he said.
Soon after joining the organization, he served as deputy director under the previous executive director, Collen Echohawk, who stepped down earlier this year to run for mayor of Seattle.
“I couldn’t feel more confident about the organization’s future knowing that Derrick will be leading,” said Echohawk in a news release about Belgarde’s promotion. “Any success the organization has seen over recent years wouldn’t have been possible without him. The bond he has with our members because of his time living on the streets, and his passion for meeting the needs of our diverse population, have been integral. His lived experience has always made the organization stronger. He is the embodiment of Chief Seattle Club and the community we serve.”
In November 2019, Chief Seattle Club opened its first housing project, Eagle Village located in King County. The organization is set to open its landmark affordable housing project with over 80 units, called “home” in the Lushootseed language, next month.
“I’ve seen us through such tremendous growth. When I was on the streets, I always said one of my dreams was to open a transitional housing program, which is still needed, but this affordable housing project is even better,” Belgarde said.
Belgarde is an avid reader and self-proclaimed hoarder of Native literature, though he admits he does not often read from his extensive Indigenous library.
“There’s so much trauma and negativity, so I haven’t used my energy to read them just yet. In my work, we see it every day. With only being about 1 percent of the population, our data shows Native Americans make up 15 percent of those that are homeless and 32 percent of the chronically homeless,” he said.
Belgarde also serves on the board of Capitol Hill Housing, Downtown Emergency Service Center, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Washington State Affordable Housing Advisory Board.
“We’re working toward a world without Native homelessness,” he said.
Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps