Seattle Native-led Nonprofits – Indigenous Strength and Resilience During COVID-19

Seattle Native-led Nonprofits – Indigenous Strength and Resilience During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is a little more than a year old, and mainstream news reports about its impact on Native American communities have been overwhelmingly negative. Certainly, the pandemic has highlighted many of the deeply entrenched and historical inequities experienced by Native communities. Yet there have also been opportunities for growth and program expansion, strengthening of relationships, and fundamental shifts in the philanthropic world. The following is just a sampling of what SUNN member organizations have been up to in the past year, along with reflections and insights as they look toward the future.

Chief Seattle Club in Pioneer Square was forced to shut its Day Center when lockdown orders came, which meant no place to eat, shower, do laundry, or access the medical and legal services available, for the many homeless Native people who depend upon the center daily. Because the Day Center provided the only meal of the day for many of its clients, Chief Seattle Club made the decision early to keep the meal service going—and began distributing to-go plates out in front of their building.

They also started finding hotels for their most vulnerable clients, starting with elders and those with underlying health conditions. It wasn’t long before they began delivering bags of groceries to all the people they’d found hotel rooms for—and the program grew through social media to include a wider circle of elders and others trying to isolate in their homes.

“I’m really proud of the club and our staff, and our members and relatives that we serve, and how we’ve handled this. All the Native organizations really stepped up, not just the organizations and social workers, but the community itself and the way everybody’s kids seem to handle it. I think it was really astonishing to watch and see how we got through it.” – Derrick Belgarde (Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians)


Red Eagle Soaring empowers youth to express themselves with confidence and clarity through both traditional and contemporary performing arts.

But what happens to the performing arts when indoor gatherings are prohibited?  Red Eagle Soaring was able to transition from in-person to virtual programming. Along the way, the group found that virtual programming opened up opportunities for youth outside King County, attracting youth from as far away as California to the south and Canada to the north.

In addition, with money from United Way King County, the organization was able to get rental and food assistance to help local families, which also served to introduce new youth to their programming.

“COVID made us realize that we do have an avenue and a way to reach youth that we couldn’t reach before. We’re excited about that. And the only reason we ever found that out was to go through COVID.” – Russell Brooks (S. Cheyenne)


Potlatch Fund provides grants and leadership development to Tribal Nations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. When COVID hit, the organization reached out to its grantee partners to ask them what they most needed. The answer was clear: fast, flexible funding to address the emerging needs of their communities and keep them safe.

The organization then talked with its own funders, who agreed to lift restrictions on their money so that Potlatch Fund could allow grantee partners to use the money to meet the most urgent needs.

This type of grant-making—based increasingly on relationship-building and trust—represents a fundamental change in philanthropy that many hope will outlast the pandemic.

“Some of our funders have even met with us, and we are really enthusiastic because not only are they addressing the needs specific to COVID, they’re still doing programming work, and they’re doing it in a way that’s community-based and participatory.” – Cleora Hill-Scott (Crow/Sioux/Pawnee)


Duwamish Tribal Services promotes the well-being of the Duwamish Tribe, including Duwamish culture. The organization owns and runs the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center, used for private and public gatherings and educational programs. When the COVID shutdown began, the center was forced to close its doors, which meant lost income from canceled tours and school groups, space rent, and special exhibits.

So the organization improvised. Instead of offering indoor tours, it started offering walking tours outside to the Duwamish River to learn about both river ecology and the history of the Duwamish people. It also transitioned its gift shop to an online store, which resulted in a significant increase in sales. Now, the organization has received funding to upgrade the necessary equipment to transition more of their programming online.

“I think it’s forced us to elevate our game a little bit in a way that we didn’t think we were going to have to do.  We still enjoy filling up our house with people and people visiting us and interacting with us. So it’s a little different. I think it’ll be okay.” – Jolene Haas (Duwamish Tribe)

Northwest Justice Project’s Native American Unit had a busy year adapting to COVID. The organization continues its legal advocacy for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals while tailoring services to be responsive to communities disproportionately impacted by COVID. The organization focused on issues related to the pandemic such as access to health care and public benefits, increases in domestic violence, loss of employment and housing, and challenges navigating a changed legal system.

“COVID-19 put into stark relief the disproportionate injustices posed to many Native American communities and individuals. The silver lining of this was that folks understood the need to invest in these communities in ways they hadn’t previously. The Native American Unit—a historically lean office—was able to double in size this past year, a testament to the unit being a funder, and organizational, priority, but also a reflection of advocates understanding the value of serving this community.” – Cina Littlebird (Pueblo of Laguna)


Indigenous Showcase presents an ongoing series showcasing emerging talents in Indigenous communities who exemplify how Native American and Indigenous filmmakers are at the forefront of the industry, successfully establishing a dialogue and creating images that challenge and change long-established cultural attitudes toward Indigenous culture.

Because pandemic restrictions prevented in-person screenings, arts shows and voter registration booths, the organization adapted by funding individual artists, providing direct COVID relief, and supporting mutual aid organizations. It also started Café Conversations, a virtual civic engagement to foster community conversations.


United Indians of All Tribes Foundation provides educational, cultural and socials services that reconnect Indigenous people in the Puget Sound region to their heritage by strengthening their sense of belonging and significance as Native people. The organization runs 13 social service programs and made the decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue all programs by following social distancing measures or running them virtually. To safely accommodate the children attending the Daybreak Star Preschool, they opened an additional classroom.

As needs arose, the organization added services: Realizing that schools were going to close and low-income families might need help feeding children who were home full time, they started assembling weekly food bags, eventually serving 500 families. They extended school to last through summer to help parents who were essential workers in the community. They created a digital equity program to make sure people had the technology they needed to continue to work or get jobs. And they developed a traditional medicines program to deliver traditional medicines and teachings to community members monthly along with food.

The organization also runs an ICW foster care licensing program, and moving to an all-digital world opened up some surprising new opportunities to support families with Native foster children from all across the country who’d not previously received support.

“I think we all learned how strong we are, and how resilient our communities are. The urban Native community we have here is something beautiful. A lot of things can happen in house, but when they need to happen out of house, we can go to all of our partners and make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks.” – Jessica Juarez-Wagner (Yaqui/Mexican)


Native Action Network promotes Native women’s full representation, participation, and leadership in local, state, tribal and national affairs. When COVID hit, the organization was able to shift its leadership development and civic engagement activities online. As an example, last spring they renamed their Leadership Luncheons and began gathering on Zoom. Women Warrior Bling Luncheon participants were invited to wear Native regalia to celebrate their culture while building leadership skills.

For the first of these online luncheons, instead of eating together, the group had hundreds of lunches delivered to healthcare workers at three Native organizations in Seattle. For the following luncheons, the group sent snack packs to participants with food items from Native-owned companies.

Native Action Network also hosted several programs designed to connect community members with COVID relief sources including food vouchers, rental assistance, emergency funds and digital support for students. They funded a Digital Needs Survey to be used by local school districts to connect Native K-12 students with access to laptops and technology needed for virtual learning.

“We are always moved to witness the leadership and creativity of Native nonprofits and people past and present. Across sectors, our communities rallied together to support each other. Hands raised to all the SUNN members for your continued advocacy and work.” – Claudia Kauffman (Nez Perce)


Native American Women’s Dialog on Infant Mortality (NAWDIM) operates as a collective of women working with allies in the urban community to support babies and families. With so many unknowns during the early days of the pandemic, the group’s monthly meetings became weekly meetings to share knowledge about how COVID was impacting expectant mothers as well as to identify community needs beyond food, medicine and diapers.

Although the group had to discontinue its in-person cradleboard classes, members prepared cradleboard kits to distribute to doulas and other community members. And when COVID was spiking in the Yakama Nation, NAWDIM provided a supply of cradleboards and bows to community birth-workers for the families they served.

In April, the group was able to start holding in-person cradleboard classes again, in partnership with the Seattle Indian Health Board. The first class included a precious 7-day-old baby girl, stories of resilience, and the warm laughter and wisdom of Native women.

“NAWDIM is proud of the way our members remained engaged in the collective and how they demonstrated amazing flexibility and dedication during a very unpredictable year.” – Shelley Means (Ojibwe/Lakota) and Leah Henry Tanner (Nimiipuu “Nez Perce”)


Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA) supports Native youth and families through social, cultural and educational support services. When COVID hit, UNEA responded by expanding its services to all ages while maintaining a holistic and culturally rooted, value-driven delivery of service.

The organization launched three new projects while also supporting academic and educational activities for youth designed to keep them engaged in meaningful learning opportunities. With additional COVID crisis relief funds, UNEA directly assisted Seattle area families with weekly food, supplies, technology equipment, and traditional foods and medicine. They launched an Elders Care Project, pairing Seattle area youth with elders. Finally, UNEA hosted virtual community wide cultural and educational events.

“I would like to acknowledge the strength in our community’s ability to collectively share resources and work together to effectively develop cohesive and symbiotic partnerships for the overarching goal of caring for our relatives. We all have a shared collective commitment to serving our community and I am amazed by the spirit and collective resilience of our community.” – Sarah Sense-Wilson (Oglala)


Na’ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is a women-led organization dedicated to the ongoing regeneration of Indigenous communities. The organization’s Native Community Crisis Response Fund (NCCR) in 2020 became their largest grantmaking effort to date. With a significant focus on food security, NIH staff and volunteers delivered Indigenous Food Bundles, which included food and medicines from Native producers, as well as safety items, directly to Native homes across Washington. They also helped to build garden beds for homes and community spaces to generate local food sources.

To support local artists whose work and income had come to a halt, NIH created an Indigenous artist grant program to support the livelihoods of up to 40 artists in Seattle. In addition, NIH distributed funds to Native nonprofits and tribal domestic violence programs to support families in crisis.

Now, Na’ah Illahee Fund looks toward the future and the need to create long-term, systemic change through NCCR with a focus on food sovereignty, community crisis relief, green infrastructure, gender-based violence and MMIP (Missing and Murdered Indigenous People).

As part of this long-term focus, NIH is growing community-led gardens and food systems, including establishing community gardens in the University of Washington Botanic Arboretum and partnering with Black Star Farmers. And they are working with partners Canoe Journey Herbalists and GRuB to build home container gardens for community members to grow traditional medicines.

“We see these continued efforts as part of a greater transition into a Just Recovery, a long-term plan to strengthen infrastructure in food security and healthy, engaged communities.” – Bridget Ray (Ojibwe/michif)


For the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) and its member organizations, 2020 was already slated to be an ambitious year.  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization focused its efforts on documenting and raising awareness of the detrimental impacts of the pandemic on urban Native communities and the organizations that serve them; and launching an unprecedented national civic engagement initiative with members and national partners for the 2020 Census and Native vote.

A culmination of these efforts resulted in two major reports published by the NUIFC:

“Resiliency in Crisis” became the country’s first study to examine the COVID-19 pandemic’s direct impact on urban Indian America and to outline sound federal and philanthropic relief recommendations. Read the report here.

“Democracy Is Indigenous; Reclaiming Our Voice, Reclaiming Our Power” represented the most ambitious civic engagement endeavor of urban Native Americans in history. NUIFC worked with 26 urban Indian community-based organizations across 17 states to empower a grassroots movement truly centering the needs of urban Native people. NUIFC prepared a breakdown of the report that allowed the organization and its coalition to connect with and engage more than 16 million people around the 2020 Census and Native vote.  Read the breakdown of the report here.

“The successes of this effort are only made more impressive when you consider how this herculean initiative was pulled off during a once-in-100-year pandemic. Our partner centers showed, as they always do, that when given proper resources and investment, they can overcome unimaginable challenges and build power in ways unique to them, and we couldn’t be prouder of their work.” – Janeen Comenote (Quinault, Oglala, Kesquiaht/Kwakiutl)