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.
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.
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.
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. https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/FtLawton_takeover.htm.
Chrisman, Gabriel. “The Fish-in Protests at Franks Landing.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/fish-ins.htm.
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. https://www.seattletimes.com/life/lifestyle/native-landscape-the-rich-layer-of-indigenous-history-under-seattles-skin/.
Madsen, Joseph. “Bernie Whitebear and the Urban Indian Fight for Land and Justice.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/whitebear.htm.
Secaira, Manola. ‘I know who I am’: Urban Natives tell the story of Seattle’s first Indigenous landmark.” Crosscut, October 29, 2019. https://crosscut.com/2019/10/i-know-who-i-am-urban-natives-tell-story-seattles-first-indigenous-landmark.
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.
Working together, we will strengthen our urban native community, by sharing information and resources, staying in touch, and at times encouraging advocacy or action.