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The relationship between Seattle’s Native American community and the local school district was supposed to have gotten better.

The relationship hit a low in 2015 when the district’s American Indian Heritage High School was demolished to make way for a new middle school and its students dispersed to other campuses.

Then, in the ensuing years, the school board ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day; the new middle school was named for the late Robert Eagle Staff— the principal of Indian Heritage High School in the 1980s and ’90s; two Native Americans were elected to the school board; and a prominent Native educator— who previously served as Montana’s superintendent of public education—became head of the school district.

Those important steps forward were followed by big steps back.

The graduation rate for Native American/Alaska Native students is 56%, according to information on the district’s website—down from a high of 100% during Eagle Staff’s tenure at Indian Heritage High School. Licton Springs K-8, a Native culture and social justice-based school that occupies a wing of Eagle Staff Middle School, may be moved across town. And now, Seattle Public Schools has ended its partnership with the Urban Native Education Alliance, a non-profit that for 11 years has provided free academic, athletic, and culture-based after-school programs.

Chief Seattle, Seattle, Native American History, Suquamish, Duwamish, Northwest, Pacific Northwest

This statue of Chief Seattle stands in his namesake city.

The Urban Native Education Alliance, or UNEA, is suing Seattle Public Schools in King County Superior Court, alleging the district’s decision to end the partnership was “erroneous, arbitrary and capricious.” The Urban Native Education Alliance also alleges the district’s “racially imbalanced enrollment policies” have resulted in an assimilationist scattering of Native students throughout the district.

Opening briefs will be filed in November and December, according to the case schedule on file in Superior Court. Arguments will be presented in court beginning at 9 a.m. Jan. 3. The case is Sense-Wilson et al vs. Seattle School District No. 1, case number 19-2-17721-7.

Indian Country Today reached out to the office of Superintendent Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa, by phone and email and received no response. School board member Zachary DeWolf, Chippewa Cree, the board’s liaison to the Native community, did not return messages left at a number listed as his on School board member Scott Pinkham, Nez Perce, declined to comment. “I am on the SPS Board and cannot comment on the relationship at this time,” he texted.

So what happened?

In a letter to the Urban Native Education Alliance, the district’s Northwest regional director, Jon Halfaker, wrote that the alliance failed to provide information to the district as required by its site-use agreement – “such as the list of students attending the program, sample content/curriculum, and an overall plan for partnering with the school.”

He added, “We do not have evidence that students from the Robert Eagle Staff/Licton Springs campus are being served regularly by the program.” As a result, “We will no longer be able to offer UNEA space in the Robert Eagle Staff/Licton Springs campus [without a fee].”

Urban Native Education Alliance President Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala Lakota, said she received a single request for information about student attendance at one event, but the alliance had rented a building at Eagle Staff Middle School for that event so the information requirements related to UNEA’s site-use agreement didn’t apply, she said.

Sarah Sense-Wilson with family and Olympian Billy Mills - Facebook

Sarah Sense-Wilson with family and Olympian Billy Mills - Facebook

The district’s attorney didn’t raise any concerns about information disclosures when district officials and Urban Native Education Alliance leaders met earlier in the school year, she said. And the Urban Native Education Alliance still had three weeks to provide information to the district when it received its eviction letter.

‘An unconscionable decision’

Members of Seattle’s Indigenous community founded the Urban Native Education Alliance in 2008 to provide social, cultural, and educational support services at Indian Heritage High School as district support for the school declined. Twice-weekly, they host cultural activities, dinners, employment and college readiness classes, fitness classes, tutoring, and what one Seattle City Council member called “a network of caring community members who watch over and nurture the students.”

The Urban Native Education Alliance presents an honoring event for graduates each June. The alliances Clear Sky Native Youth Council provides students with avenues for advocacy and leadership development.

The Clear Sky Native Youth Council is just one of the programs offered by the Urban Native Education Alliance.

The Clear Sky Native Youth Council is just one of the programs offered by the Urban Native Education Alliance.

This month, Urban Native Education Alliance hosted an evening with 1964 Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota; and took students to a Town Hall meeting to meet author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and activist-lawyer-spoken word artist Nikkita Oliver, a former candidate for Seattle mayor.

Eviction from Eagle Staff Middle School has forced the Urban Native Education Alliance to look for new venues for each of its events. Sense-Wilson said that makes it difficult for many Native students to attend.

In a letter to school district officials, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant called for the district to reinstate its agreement with the alliance and make Eagle Staff Middle School available for Urban Native Education Alliance after-school programs.

“At a time of unprecedented inequality, when young people are fighting back against racial injustice, this is a serious step backward by Seattle Public Schools,” Sawant wrote. “After centuries of treaties being signed and then violated across the continent, it’s stunning though unfortunately not surprising that Seattle Public Schools is treating Seattle’s urban Native community with the same indifference … This is an unconscionable decision, and I urge you to reverse it.”

Of the Urban Native Education Alliance’s programs, she wrote, “We cannot overstate the value of the program to students, community, and the school district. Across our education system, racial bias in school discipline, poverty, racial discrimination, homelessness and housing instability lead to some of the lowest academic outcomes among our most vulnerable communities. In contrast, the Urban Native Education Alliance has for over a decade demonstrated 100 percent high school graduation rates for the students who have regularly participated in the Clear Sky program. This year alone, nearly a hundred students have participated in Clear Sky.”

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Educator and journalist Matt Remle, Hunkpapa Lakota, said Indigenous students thrive in Clear Sky because the program provides “a safe space” for them to assert their identity; one student is the son of a Colville mother and a Nigerian father, and the father once shared his own culture at a Clear Sky meeting.

These students attend schools that are still grappling with how to teach Native history and sovereignty, despite a 2015 state law that requires them to do so—and despite the availability of a no-cost curriculum and training made available through the state Office of Public Instruction.

Clear Sky students participate in youth leadership forums and youth conferences, and are mentored by adult Native professionals, Remle said (he recently taught at a Clear Sky journalism workshop). Most recently, Clear Sky members lobbied the city for an Indigenous land acknowledgement resolution; and are working to win protections for Licton Spring, a spring for which the school is named and which is important in Duwamish history.

As a liaison between a school district and the Native community in a neighboring city, Remle said partnerships between school districts and community groups are vital in closing the academic achievement gap—and in helping districts close gaps in meeting students’ needs. “I can’t see why any school district wouldn’t want those support services,” he said.

Remle thinks administrative turnover and shifting priorities may be part of the reason for the break in the relationship between Seattle Public Schools and the Urban Native Education Alliance.

“The agreement made between SPS and UNEA was made with a different superintendent,” Remle said. “There are a lot of hands involved ... and different interpretations of the agreement.”

Juneau is the 22nd superintendent in the district’s 152-year history, but she’s the fifth superintendent in the last 10 years. Accommodating continued student population growth has pulled a lot of each recent administration’s focus—the district grew by 1,700 students from 2014-17, according to Seattle Public Schools data, and today SPS is the largest school district in Washington and the 87th largest in the United States, with 53,000 students and 4,500 educators in 102 schools.

Student population growth is the reason district officials cite for Licton Springs K-8’s possible move just two years after its school building was completed. “Student enrollment growth in the region … has resulted in building capacity constraints that need to be addressed,” district officials wrote to parents in November 2018.

Salt in the wound

To some Urban Native Education Alliance supporters, the district’s termination of its partnership continues a legacy of government decision-making that has harmed Native people.

Duwamish and Suquamish leader Si’ahl, or Seattle, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, making land here available to newcomers, but his descendants in the Duwamish Tribe are still fighting for federal recognition. An early Seattle city law banned Indians from living within the city limits. By the end of the 19th century, all longhouses in the city had been burned to the ground.

Most Native elders attended compulsory boarding schools far from home, or had parents who did. Beginning in 1953, the U.S. government began ending its treaty relationship with several tribal nations and pushed jurisdiction to states, Washington state among them. Native people here were jailed for exercising their treaty right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas.

Then, things seemed to start looking up. The Termination Era ended in 1970. A federal court decision in 1974 upheld treaty fishing rights. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act became law in 1978. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became law in 1988, setting the stage for new economic revitalization in Indian Country. The Paddle to Seattle took place in 1989 as part of Washington’s centennial celebration, spawning the modern Intertribal Canoe Journey and a cultural revival.

American Indian Heritage High School emerged in 1974 amid this change. Educator Jeanne Raymond, Umatilla, recalled in a 2005 interview with the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project that Native students felt like outsiders in a public school system that ignored their history and culture and taught that Columbus discovered America. “They’re looking in the window and it’s hard for them to feel a part of it and to be at home,” she said in the interview.

Raymond and other Native educators started Indian Heritage High School because “we saw the dropout rate had to be changed. We had this whole group of kids that were tentative about school.” Then Indian Heritage High School opened “and they came.”

Not long after its founding, the school had more than 100 students representing 34 Tribal Nations, Raymond said in the interview.

During Eagle Staff’s leadership, from 1989-1996, the school had a perfect graduation and college attendance rate. In the post-Eagle Staff years, however, the school building deteriorated because of deferred maintenance, and the school became a “program” and its students moved to the second floor of a mall. Plans for the school’s demolition emerged. With the future of their academic home uncertain, Native enrollment declined. So did the graduation rate.

Indian Heritage High School’s demolition forced Urban Native Education Alliance to move its programs to another high school across town. It returned to familiar ground when Eagle Staff Middle School opened.

Urban Native Education Alliance lobbied successfully for the school to be named in honor of Eagle Staff and has also lobbied, not successfully, for American Indian Heritage High School to be reestablished. Since its eviction from Eagle Staff Middle School, the Urban Native Education Alliance’s programs have been mobile, alternating between a community center, a park, and other venues.

In the 2018-19 school year, 1.1% of Seattle’s student population hailed from Indigenous cultures—Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. But that number could be higher. Some 12.06% of Seattle students are of Mexican ancestry; according to the Pew Center, one-third of Mexican Americans identify as Indigenous (Nahuatl, Maya, Zapotec. Mixtec, among many others), possibly boosting the local Native student population to 5.12%.

Urban Native Education Alliance supporters say the non-profit’s programs—and the stability of using Eagle Staff Middle School— are critical to keeping Indigenous students engaged. Raymond’s comments in 2005 were prescient.

“Our kids are the invisible kids in school,” she told UW. “They’re not the ones that shine, but they’re strong and they have things that are not visible that are gifts. I felt like with our high school, we were able to let kids shine with the gifts they had that were not visible to other people.”

She added, “It’s so important our kids feel a part of something, [that] they feel successful. And some of them didn’t feel successful in regular schools. They were just there, trying to struggle through.”

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Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a writer based in Anacortes, Washington.