Urban Natives in South King County | Guest Column

"Native people are extinct."

“Native people are extinct.”

My children would come home from school frustrated from classroom dialogue where their classmates would share that Native people were extinct. They would tell me about these experiences after school. During class, their response included rolling their eyes and commiserating with a friend: “I am right here.”

I would have to explain that there are people who don’t see us in our contemporary world, wearing blue jeans and living in urban settings; that they only envision us in regalia, living in teepees or igloos, or poor caricatures of our people as sports mascots.

This invisibility is not only an issue that my children have faced but one that is also mirrored across South King County and in Federal Way. It is important for our community to understand that this invisibility impacts quality of life on many levels.

American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) have higher rates of poverty and lower median income, educational attainment and access to housing. Our South King County community has the opportunity to create equity for those who call this area home. Access to housing, education and culturally responsive supports can move the needle forward and impact those issues that affect us.

Many people believe that AI/AN populations live either in rural areas or on reservations. In the case of our region, Native people were the First Peoples of the land – the tribes that made up the region include the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish and Snoqualmie. In addition, other Native peoples moved from their reservations and villages to urban areas. Donald Fixico wrote about the Urban Indian experience and how we see the AI/AN population shift from reservation/village to urban areas in World War II, as well as describing the federal relocation programming that began in the 1950s that continued through the 1970s.

According to 2011 Census data, only 22 percent of Natives live in American Indian areas like reservations or Alaskan Native Village Statistical areas. This means 78 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples do not live in reservations and villages.

Even in 1992, UCLA researcher Josea Kramer noted that urban Native Americans are often an unrecognized invisible minority. Teresa Evans-Campbell, researcher and Director of the Master’s in Social Work program at the University of Washington found much the same and wrote, “There is a lack of information about Native peoples in urban areas compared to their counterparts in the reservations. Native people in urban areas also have less access to Native-specific resources than those who reside on the reservation.”

Issues that AI/AN populations in urban areas face include high rates of social and health problems. There is a need to reach out to AI/AN peoples in urban areas while addressing those issues in culturally competent ways. One example of a cultural competent practice is the work that the Seattle Indian Health Board has done by including a traditional healer within the realm of health care. Cowlitz Tribal Health in Tukwila notes that health care is holistic: traditional, modern and culturally sensitive medical and social service practices create balance in the physical, mental, spiritual and social components of life.

Hilary Weaver, associate dean and professor for academic affairs in the School of Social Work at the University of Buffalo, also noted that moving beyond a “deficit perspective” is critical in working with AI/AN peoples in urban areas. What Weaver is suggesting is that it’s not enough to just focus on what’s wrong. It’s important to map the assets.

In a 2014 report for the United Way of King County, Kauffman and Associates looked at the urban Indian population in our area. Of the 1.9 million people in King County, 2 percent identify as AI/AN – nearly 40,000 people. Further, the AI/AN population is not concentrated in Seattle but has moved to regions in the south, north and western sections of King County. The Urban Indian Health Institute released a map based on U.S. Census data that illustrates AI/AN populations have shifted, with the largest concentration in South King County specifically residing in Federal Way, Kent, Auburn, White Center and southwest Seattle.

A few of the issues identified in the United Way report that impact AI/AN community include poverty, educational attainment and housing. AI/AN people have a 34 percent poverty rate compared to 10.2 percent for the general population. The Native American Higher Education Initiative reported in 2005 that AI/AN students experience the lowest graduation rates among all racial/ethnic groups – 4 percent of the Indigenous population in the United States has a bachelor’s degree while 27 percent of the white population holds this degree.

While our community takes these issues seriously, we are also working toward identifying our assets. With a strong AI/AN presence in South King County, the community has started visioning and researching what we would like to see for our future. So far, the community has emphasized the importance of health care, educational support both in the K-12 system and in higher education, housing and a community gathering place where we can celebrate culture in South King County.

Recently, Highline College hosted its first Native Student Success Summit, at which high school students from the Federal Way, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila, Renton, Seattle and Highline school districts could explore their identities and their career and college options. In May 2015, the South King County Native Coalition, a partnership of community organizations/agencies and individuals invested in the Native community of South King County, began meeting to address the need for more collaboration and communication with the increased population and concerns of community.

The South King County Native Coalition is pleased to be hosting a community dinner at Highline College on July 9 at 5 p.m. in Building 2 to explore our presence. We also anticipate another community dinner August 27 at a location to be determined.

Please visit our “South King County Native Coalition” Facebook page to learn more. It is my hope that, with the community-building efforts that the South King County Native Coalition is focused on, that my grandchildren will not be invisible nor considered extinct but be celebrated and valued in their schools and society.

Tanya Powers is mixed heritage St. Lawrence Island/Siberian Yupik and Irish. Her interests are access and retention for under-represented students in higher education. She works at Highline College and is the proud mother of two strong daughters.