Generosity, Oppression, Resilience, Renewal & Unity




The People of This Land

In the Pioneer Square area of downtown Seattle, medicinal plants once flourished. Abundant young salmon found refuge, and well-worn trails wound their way past expansive tide flats, creeks cascading into deep ravines, and peat bogs bursting with cranberries to the freshwater shores of present-day Lake Washington.

Natives knew this area as “Little Crossing Over Place” in their common language, Whulshootseed. Members of the area’s tribes frequently gathered here to socialize, trade, and share traditional knowledge.

Giving and receiving was honored as a regular part of Native culture, a way for tribes to reinforce relationships and tend to one another by allocating the area’s abundant resources where needed. This interdependence was reinforced by communal living in traditional longhouses, each of which might shelter several generations of the same family or different families. Within these dwellings, Native children were taught early by their elders to care for the others in their tribe, especially the vulnerable.

Seasonal gatherings, ceremonies and potlatches linked tribal communities and provided them with opportunities to reaffirm their interconnectedness and shared values such as honor, respect, generosity, and reciprocity.


Disease, Broken Treaties, Erasure Policies

With the arrival of European colonizers in the late 1400s Native communities across the continent were decimated by disease and war. The Native people who remained often worked alongside and supported White settlers, even as the pressures of aggressive westward expansion threatened their lands and livelihoods.

Locally, two treaties—the Treaty of Point Elliott and the Medicine Creek Treaty—forced the majority of Native people onto reservations while promising them rights of access to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. For the most part, these promises were broken.

Those who remained in and around Seattle survived on the fringes, while others traveled from reservations to the city to work, trade and socialize. But with the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, the U.S. Government adopted a new policy of termination toward Native populations by eliminating government support for Indian tribes and ending the protected trust status of all Indian-owned lands. Native people were expected to assimilate, or be absorbed into the dominant white culture.

With promises from the government of help locating housing and employment, many Native people returned to the city of Seattle. But instead of the promised assistance, they faced unemployment, low-end jobs and discrimination. Cut off from their tribes, they also struggled with the loss of traditional community and cultural supports.

We were expected to assimilate….and disappear. But we didn’t disappear. Instead, we found one another. We restored our connections to one another, and we cared for our children, youth, and elders. We gathered together to celebrate and share our traditional knowledge. We refused to be erased.



The Rise of Native Nonprofits and Activism

As Native people moved off reservations and into the city, the first Native nonprofit organizations appeared. In Seattle, seven Native women founded the American Indian Women’s Service League in 1958 and opened the Indian Center to provide much-needed social services, as well as a hub for information and connection to community.

By opening the Indian Center and expanding its services, they also helped plant the seeds of Indian activism for the next 20 years. This activism resulted in several important local developments with far-reaching implications for tribal recognition and sovereignty, among them:

Rise of Nonprofits
The rise of additional Native-led nonprofits, including the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and the Seattle Indian Health Board.

Landmark Boldt Decision
The landmark Boldt Decision, based on tribes’ rights guaranteed in the Medicine Creek Treaty, to gather, hunt, and fish on their usual and customary lands and waters.

Reclaiming of Fort Lawton
The reclaiming of the Fort Lawton site in present-day Discovery Park, which led to the establishment of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

Presently, over twenty Native-led nonprofits provide a wide range of services to the Seattle-King County Native population, continuing a long legacy of generosity and reciprocity. Seattle has once again become a bustling Native center for tribes from across the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Great Plains.



Today, the strength and cohesion of the urban Native community in Seattle are evident all around us including widespread volunteerism, a shared desire to strengthen cultures and preserve languages, the emergence of young Native leaders, a thriving community of Native artists and the diversity of nonprofits focused on meeting the needs of the America Indian and Alaska Native community.

We celebrate these strengths at a time of renewal and resurgence in the Indigenous community. Our community continues to face great challenges, but history and our experience tells us that by building collective power, we are better able to challenge colonialist policies and the persistent invisibility of Native people in mainstream institutions, data, and the media.

By remaining united, we are empowered to advocate for policy and system changes that are created by Native people to benefit the Native community.

We are strong, together.

The following resources were consulted when preparing this web page. This is a living document, and we welcome comments as well as corrections as it evolves. It is not meant to be a complete history, but rather a snapshot of key dates relevant to the history and current lives of American Indian and Alaska Native individuals living in and around Seattle.


Allen, Lossom. “By Right of Discovery: United Indians of All Tribes Retakes Fort Lawton, 1970.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

Chrisman, Gabriel. “The Fish-in Protests at Franks Landing.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

First Nations Development Institute. (2016). A Case for the Native Nonprofit Sector: Advocating for Cultural, Economic and Community Change. Longmont, CO: First Nations.

Gwinn, Mary Ann. “Native landscape: The rich layer of indigenous history under Seattle’s skin.” Seattle Times, August 30, 2007.

Madsen, Joseph. “Bernie Whitebear and the Urban Indian Fight for Land and Justice.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

Secaira, Manola. ‘I know who I am’: Urban Natives tell the story of Seattle’s first Indigenous landmark.” Crosscut, October 29, 2019.

Thrush, Coll. “City of the Changers: Indigenous People and the Transformation of Seattle’s Watersheds.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 1, pages 89-117.


Since Time Immemorial

The Coast Salish-speaking peoples have lived in what is present-day western Washington and southwestern British Columbia for more than 10,000 years. Their geographic territory includes the lands bordering the Salish Sea—Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia—as well as the Pacific coast of Washington and northern Oregon.


The Bureau of Indian Affairs is established and made responsible for the administration and management of land held in trust by the United States for American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives.


Euro-American colonists arrive at Alki Point and begin constructing settlements.


The Denny party moves from Alki Point to the Seattle waterfront and ushers in Seattle’s “village period.” Although Native Americans live and work peacefully alongside the White settlers for the most part, they are increasingly pushed to the fringes of the city as the White population grows and the city expands.

1854 – 1855

The Treaty of Medicine Creek and the Treaty of Point Elliott are negotiated by Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens and signed by representatives of the area’s tribes. Both treaties cede vast amounts of land to the United States government in exchange for money, designated reservations, and permanent right of access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds. For the most part, these fishing rights will be lost by the mid-20th century to the conservation policies, licensing and regulations that govern fishing.


Armed conflict breaks out in the Puget Sound region between the U.S. Military, local militias and members of the Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and Klickitat tribes. Although the Medicine Creek Treaty guaranteed tribes fishing rights, it also took away prime farmland. Nisqually Chief Leschi vows to fight rather than give up his people’s land.


Chief Leschi is arrested for the murder of a militia member and imprisoned at Fort Steilacoom, despite no clear evidence that he was anywhere near the battle at which the militia member was killed. Chief Leschi’s first trial results in a hung jury, but he is convicted at his second trial in 1857 and executed in 1858. In 2004, Chief Leschi is exonerated by the Washington Court of Historical Inquiry.


The Northern Pacific Railroad arrives in Seattle, setting off a series of boom-and-bust cycles (1880-1920) that drive many Native people from their last refuges in the city.


The Dawes Act begins the process of dividing up reservations and creating individual homesteads for resident tribal members, with the goal of assimilating Native Americans by eliminating the social cohesion of tribes and turning them into landowners and farmers. Only Native Americans who accepted the individual allotments were allowed to become U.S. Citizens. Through allotment divisions and the selling of surplus land, the Dawes Act also reduces the amount of land held by the tribes from approximately 140 million acres in 1887 to just 50  million acres in 1934. Since 1934, land holdings have increased to approximately 56 million acres.

1855 – 1904

Approximately 95 Duwamish longhouses are burned to the ground in an effort to drive Native people from the city limits and make way for development in the fast-growing City of Seattle.


The Indian Citizenship Act makes all Native Americans residents of the United States.


Bernie Reyes Whitebear is born on the Colville Reservation. In his lifetime, he grows to be one of the most influential Native leaders in the region.


The Indian Claims Commission is established, further reinforcing the special relationship between the tribes and the federal government. This is followed in 1953 by Concurrent Resolution 108, which seeks to terminate the special relationship between Native Americans and the federal government.


The federal government adopts a policy of termination toward Native Americans and passes the Indian Relocation Act, which ends the protected trust status of all Indian-owned lands. Native Americans are encouraged to leave reservations and move to urban areas, where it is hoped they will disappear by assimilating thoroughly into White culture. The Bureau of Indian Affairs begins a voluntary relocation program, pledging to help Native Americans who move to cities locate housing and employment. Most of these promises go unfulfilled.


Bernie Whitebear moves to Tacoma to be with family and is given a job fishing on the Puyallup River by fishing activist Bob Satiacum of the Puyallup Tribe.


In Washington v Satiacum, the Washington Supreme Court rules in a split decision that the treaties with Native American tribes are superior to the exercise of the state’s police power, reinforcing the rights of Indian fishers to catch fish in the manner guaranteed by treaty rights.


Pearl Warren leads a group of seven Native women, including Adeline Garcia and Ella Aquino, to form the American Indian Women’s Service League, which grows to 50 members by the year’s end. The AIWSL provides a place for local Indians to meet, find a sense of community, and receive culturally appropriate help and services. It also raises the visibility of Seattle’s Native population over the years through events such as the annual salmon bake at Alki Point and the publication of a monthly newsletter called the Indian Center News, later published as the Northwest Indian News. The work of the AIWSL leads to the formation of several additional Native American organizations, including the Seattle Indian Health Board and the United Nations of All Tribes Foundation.


The American Indian Women’s Service League opens the Seattle Indian Center in downtown Seattle. The center becomes the first stop for many Native Americans upon their arrival in Seattle. Bernie Whitebear becomes one of the center’s volunteers.


In Washington v McCoy, the Washington Supreme Court once again upholds the right of the state to subject Native Americans to fishing regulations.

1960s and 1970s

Fish-ins at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River usher in a new chapter of direct activism for Native tribes centered around fishing rights as guaranteed by both the Medicine Creek and Pt. Elliott treaties. These protests grow to include additional sites on the Puyallup River. Originally coordinated by the newly formed Survival of the American Indian Society, the fish-ins attract increasing support from groups like the NAACP, the National Indian Youth Council, and the Federal Justice Department, as well as members of the public.


SUNN member: United Nations of All Tribes Foundation is founded by Bernie Whitebear to provide educational, cultural and social services that reconnect Indigenous people in the Puget Sound region to their heritage by strengthening their sense of belonging and significance as Native people. In 1977, the organization opens the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Discovery Park (in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle).



SUNN member: The Chief Seattle Club forms to provide a sacred space to nurture, affirm, and renew the spirit of urban Native people. The organization’s Day Center in the Pioneer Square district of downtown Seattle provides food, primary health care, housing assistance, and an urban Indian legal clinic, and a Native art job training program, among other services.



SUNN member: The Seattle Indian Health Board forms to advocate for, provide, and ensure culturally appropriate, high-quality, and accessible health and human services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. In addition to providing health and human services, the organization invests in the Native workforce; supports the health and well-being of urban Indian communities through information, scientific inquiry, and technology; and advocates to protect the federal trust responsibility.


Led by Bernie Whitebear and others, a group of NW Native American activists and their supporters stage a month-long occupation of Fort Lawton in the Magnolia neighborhood to proclaim a land base for the urban Natives living in and around Seattle. Eventually, the protests lead to the designation of a 20-acre site within a newly formed Discovery Park and the opening of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.


The Boldt Decision acknowledges and provides federal support for Native Americans’ equal share of Washington’s fisheries as well as their regulation of those fisheries. This decision is challenged but ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.


Congress passes the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, paving the way for tribes to assume the administrative responsibility to manage federal programs that were designed for their benefit. This includes both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services.


Congress passes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act which protects the rights of Native Americans to practice their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.


SUNN member: Duwamish Tribal Services is formed to promote the social, cultural, political, and economic survival of the Duwamish Tribe; to revive Duwamish culture; and to share Duwamish history and culture with all peoples. In 2009, the tribe opened the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center along the last remaining stretch of the original Duwamish River, near a village site where the young Chief Seattle grew up.


The first Paddle to Seattle is held in conjunction with Washington’s celebration of 100 years of statehood. As part of the celebration, the state and Indigenous governments sign the Centennial Accord, recognizing Indigenous sovereignty. Beginning in 1993, the Tribal Canoe Journeys become an annual event, hosted by a different tribal nation each year.


SUNN member: Red Eagle Soaring is formed to serve Native American youth ages 10-19 with free programming that integrates contemporary theater and traditional Native performing arts. The organization engages Native youth and their families in critical discussions about the issues affecting their lives and provides a cultural peer group in which to build confidence, identity, and community.


Congress passes the Tribal Self-Governance Act, amending the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and establishing within the Department of the Interior a program of Tribal Self-Governance.


SUNN member: The Northwest Justice Project is founded and becomes Washington’s largest publicly funded legal aid program. The Native American Unit (NAU) aims to address the unique legal needs of Native American communities statewide. The NAU emphasizes cases involving state and federal agencies’ policies and practices that have had disproportionate, adverse impacts on Native communities.


SUNN member: The Native Action Network forms to promote Native women’s full representation, participation, and leadership in local, state, tribal and national affairs. NAN hosts intergenerational leadership forums, youth academies, 10-month Legacy of Leadership cohorts, leadership luncheons, nonprofit capacity building workshops, and other community development and civic participation activities.



SUNN member: Native American Women’s Dialog on Infant Mortality forms as a Native-led collective that advocates, educates and supports American Indian, Alaska Native and First Nations infants, moms and families. Working primarily in the Puget Sound region, the organization meets monthly with allied organizations and agencies, with the vision that social equity and respect for tribal sovereignty are key to improving infant survival rates in Native communities.


SUNN member: Potlatch Fund is established as a Native-led nonprofit that provides grants and leadership development to Tribal Nations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, later expanding to include Montana. The Potlatch Fund mission is to build on the Native tradition of giving by increasing philanthropy for and among tribal communities and empowering community leaders with the tools they need to succeed.


SUNN member: National Urban Indian Family Coalition is created in Seattle to elevate a national voice and sustain Indigenous values through a strong network of urban Indian organizations. NUIFC advocates for American Indian families living in urban areas by creating partnerships with tribes, as well as other American Indian organizations, and by conducting research to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing urban American Indian families.


SUNN member: Indigenous Showcase is founded in partnership with Tracy Rector and the Northwest Film Forum to present an ongoing series showcasing emerging talents in Indigenous communities. This program exemplifies how Indigenous filmmakers are at the forefront of the industry, successfully establishing a dialog and creating images that challenge and change long-established cultural attitudes toward Indigenous culture.



SUNN member: Na’ah Illahee Fund is established as an Indigenous women-led organization dedicated to the ongoing regeneration of Indigenous communities. Through grantmaking, capacity building and community-based intergenerational programming, the organization seeks transformative change by supporting culturally grounded leadership and organizing.



SUNN member: The Urban Native Education Alliance forms to offer culturally responsive and relevant support to Native youth through social, cultural, and educational support services. Programs are all youth centered, youth driven, and designed for promoting health, wellness, and academic, socio-cultural success for youth, families, and community.


The City of Seattle passes a resolution to create Indigenous People’s Day in Seattle.


The Seattle Urban Native Nonprofits (SUNN) collaborative forms in response to a community assessment and report from Seattle-King County that identifies both challenges and opportunities for the American Indian and Alaska Native urban population. Building upon decades of Native knowledge, expertise and cultural wisdom, SUNN represents a renewal and reemergence of collective Native power and advocacy.


The City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board votes to approve designation of Licton Springs as a Seattle landmark, making it the only Native landmark in the city. The iron oxide springs—located in North Seattle—were historically used by the Duwamish people for medicinal and cultural purposes.


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