Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkin was out of town. City Council President Lorena Gonzalez was on maternity leave. And Council President Pro Tem Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, was on call to make any needed executive decision.
The fact that this city, named for the 19th-century leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, had an Indigenous acting mayor was not lost on her. So, she put the word out via a mass text, albeit tongue in cheek: “I am technically the Mayor till Tuesday. Any stuff you want done?”
Then came the list.
Shellfish on every plate. The Coast Salish elders said, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” Still, 11.5 percent of Seattle residents have incomes below the poverty threshold and are food insecure.
Give parks and streets Coast Salish names. This reflects, perhaps, her sense of historical accuracy and social justice. Seattle is located within the historical territory of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, yet the Native population of the city is 1 percent (it’s 3.1 percent if you include the number of people whose heritage is south of the U.S. border but identify as Indigenous). Renaming parks and streets to reflect the city’s Coast Salish heritage would ensure the other 96.9 percent to 99 percent of the population is aware of an important part of their city’s history.
Rename Mount Rainier. Many of the Indigenous peoples know the 1,441-foot peak as təˡqʷuʔbəʔ, which is anglicized as Tahoma, meaning “Mother of Waters.” Six rivers, including the Puyallup and the Nisqually, begin on the mountain as glacier-fed streams. The name Rainier? That was bestowed by British Royal Navy Capt. George Vancouver (1757-1798), who during his Northwest expedition of 1791-92 named the mountain in honor of his friend, British Navy Rear Adm. Peter Rainier, who had absolutely no ties to the mountain that bears his name.
Annexation. She was just having fun with this one, although there’s some Indigenous thinking here: How about an easier route from Seattle (Duwamish/Suquamish territory) to Puyallup territory to the Yakama Nation, her stepfather’s homeland? Annexation could make that happen (from Puyallup to Yakama it’s 93 miles as the eagle flies, 154 miles by the most-traveled car route). Indigenous peoples from the Coastal and Plains regions regularly visited for trade, for ceremonies and to visit relatives. Bringing relations together is an Indigenous trait.
Free Taco Time for everyone. She was having fun with this one too.
Juarez said that, as acting council president pro tem and, by extension, acting mayor, she would be available in the event of an emergency, though she noted Durkin “would be on the first plane back,” if the emergency involved a risk to public safety.
As Juarez shared her list of “what ifs,” she was asked if Mayor Durkin had checked in to see if she had enacted any surprises in her absence. She said she and Durkin had joked about it all before the mayor left town. “I’ve known Mayor Durkin for 30 years and we’re good friends,” Juarez said. So, the answer regarding checking in was “no.”
Juarez was first elected in 2015 to the city council. Among her accomplishments: attracting an NHL expansion team to Seattle, with construction of a practice facility and an arena; and legislation that provides direction, funding and benchmarks to city agencies for solving cases of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls and improving law enforcement response to reports of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Seattle was incorporated as a town in 1865 and as a city in 1869. While Juarez is the first enrolled Native American to serve in the mayor’s stead, Bruce Harrell, a Choctaw descendant, served as acting mayor from Sept. 13-18, 2017 after Mayor Ed Murray resigned. Harrell retired from the City Council on Jan. 6 after three terms.
Follow Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, on Twitter @rawalkerjr and LinkedIn at richardarlinwalker.