By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
On the morning of April 24, City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods representatives came down to the Seattle Indian Center (SIC), ostensibly to go through a three-part agenda that included introductions, a presentation, and a Q&A session — ostensibly to productively discuss the City’s new community outreach model and to build relationships — but the meeting, as planned, did not make it beyond introductions.
The meeting evolved into angry words from SIC staff and board members, as well as their community allies. SIC wanted to focus most of the conversation on its opposition to the upcoming Navigation Center, which will be housed in the Pearl Warren building in the International District — a building that, they say, is meant to be used primarily for American Indian/Alaska Native services. The Navigation Center, a 24-hour living facility for 75 of Seattle’s homeless individuals, does not fit the bill.
The City reps were not prepared for this discussion.
“I thought why you were calling me was because of the Navigation Center and the fact that we’re a part of Little Saigon and the International District,” SIC Executive Director Camille Monzon-Richards said to the reps. “But you just said you don’t even know about that.”
Monzon-Richards holds onto her memories of Seattle tightly. She is a person who understands and has lived through context. She grew up in the area that is now called the International District.
In 1886, the 350 Chinese residents of Seattle’s Pioneer Square — Seattle’s original Chinatown — were forcibly expelled by the white workers who would supplant them. These Chinese resettled south of Jackson Street.
Japanese immigrants joined the Chinese at the turn of the century along with the Filipinos around the 1920s.
The Black population, which had been a presence in the area, experienced an uptick during World War II, when Black families inhabited emptied homes that used to belong to Japanese Americans — the homes were vacated because Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government.
Around the same time, the U.S. government propelled its Indian termination policy forward with enthusiasm.
This policy comprises a number of laws and policies designed to “urbanize” American Indians, moving them from Indian reservations to cities — Seattle was a “relocation city.” The idealized concept was that Indians would move off of rural reservations, move to the city, and get jobs, thereby lowering Native poverty rates.
The reality was that the Congress designed a program with the centuries-old, persisting belief that American Indians needed to abandon their traditions and assimilate for the sake of progressing civilization. American Indians suffered under low-paying jobs and urban poverty. They dealt with pervasive racial discrimination and segregation in cities.
Which is why and how the International District became known as such. It’s a unique district that is a melting pot of many different cultures — Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Black, Native, Jewish, Vietnamese — because of historical redlining and racial segregation.
“We were pushed onto reservations, stripping our culture from our children,” said Monzon-Richards, a member of the Tlingit tribe. “And when that didn’t work to the extent that the government wanted it to, there was the [Indian] Relocation Act [of 1957] under Eisenhower. They took all the Indians off the reservation because they found out, ‘Oh, there’s oil, and there’s ore.’ They had already taken from us and put us on the most horrible land. But then they took that land back when they realized it had oil. They put us into the city, telling us to be part of the melting pot, to assimilate. Bullshit.”
“Assimilation is: ‘We don’t like who you are, so become like us. … Who you are isn’t good enough for us. We want you to go to city and be like us,’” said Marissa Perez, of SIC. “We’re not even here because we choose to be here. We’re here because the government dumped us here.”
“The bottom line is, what happened many, many years ago continues to happen,” said Betty Patu, SIC board member and an American Samoan.
The Pearl Warren and Leschi buildings
The SIC has a longstanding history with the Pearl Warren building and its sister building across the street, the Leschi Center building — one that recently ended in anger.
(Notably, both buildings take their names from American Indians. Pearl Warren of the Makah tribe originally from Neah Bay, was one of the founders of American Indian Women’s Service League [AIWSL]. She was also the first executive director of the SIC. Chief Leschi was chief of the Nisqually tribe and reportedly against the forced relocation of American Indians onto reservations. He was wrongly convicted and executed for murder by Washington state in 1858 before he was posthumously exonerated in 2004.)
The SIC is one of the American Indian/Alaska Native-serving organizations that sprang from the AIWSL, formed in 1958 in response to the Indian Relocation Act. A group of American Indian women saw that the urbanization of the American Indians resulted in a population that was abandoned, jobless, illiterate, and left to fend for itself and formed AIWSL to tackle these issues.
SIC, an offshoot, was formed in 1972 and in 2016 provided 114,382 units of service. About 27 percent of these service units help Asians and/or Asian Americans — its largest service population. Second is Black Americans, African Americans, and others of African descent — 25 percent. (Then Chicano and Latinos [20 percent], white [15 percent], American Indian/Alaska Native [7 percent], and Hawaiian Native and Pacific Islander [6 percent].)
The Pearl Warren and Leschi Center buildings used to be owned by the Seattle Indian Services Commission. The buildings were financed with tax-exempt municipal bonds guaranteed by the City.
In 2011, an audit by the Washington State Attorney General’s office painted a picture of mismanagement of the properties by the Commission. The SIC, which had been a tenant of Leschi since 1988, was behind $75,000 on its rent. (Monzon-Richards made the argument that the SIC had paid $5.7 million into the Leschi Center over the course of its tenancy — she argued that the $75,000 owed in back rent was comparatively nominal and in 2013, the SIC was in the midst of getting back on its feet and had been paying the total amount of rent.)
The audit also found that a Commission administrator used the organization’s funds to pay personal debts. The buildings were poorly maintained and in need of repairs that the Commission was unable to afford.
The City, as guarantor on $6.7 million owed in bonds, took action, as it was liable in the event of default.
On Dec. 16, 2013, the City passed an ordinance approving the Commission’s decision to transfer the Leschi Center from the Commission to the Seattle Indian Health Board, one of the other tenants of the building. The decision was marked with controversy, as it resulted in the ousting of the SIC from the Leschi Center. The Health Board stated that it needed the entire Leschi space to do its work. City Councilmember Nick Licata sponsored a resolution declaring the intent of the City to retain social services provided by the SIC.
The 2013 resolution stated, “[The] Department of Finance and Administrative Services [will] provide whatever assistance it can to the Seattle Indian Center to relocate as quickly as possible to a new facility in which it may continue to provide the services without interruption.”
Monzon-Richards said this was lip service and the SIC has gotten no help from the City since its ousting. “[The Leschi Center] was stolen from us,” she said.
Today, the SIC is still in the Little Saigon area of the International District, but it is operating — with difficulty — in a space at 1265 South Main Street, one that is a third the size of its former Leschi space.
“Look at [our current] facility,” said Perez, whose work helps American Indians victims of sex trafficking (according to Perez, 25 percent of sex trafficking victims are American Indian). “How am I supposed to bring in a victim who is 13 years old or younger? Where am I supposed to put her in this room? Where would she feel safe and secure? Where can I put here where she feels like she gets privacy? Unfortunately, the majority of people who victimize people like her are men.” The SIC operates services for homeless individuals, the slight majority of whom are men. “How is she going to feel safe when she hears the voices of men? I don’t have the facility to do our work.”
“It’s [the SIC’s] job to help the people in the surrounding area,” said Patu. “And to move them out of [the Leschi] building that they worked hard in and even paid for … This organization has worked hard for Seattle. To be brought here to a place that doesn’t actually fit what this organization is all about — I think it’s really a darn shame. My being here today, I thought I might hear some good news about what the City will do for the Indian Center. If you were here to talk about how the Center can be part of the Pearl Warren building, that makes sense. … But I think we’re wasting our time. I don’t want to sit through a whole morning of what you expect us to listen to.”
“[Seattle is] a city named after a Native American chief and allocates resources that are meant to benefit all people of color,” said James Bible, former president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP and an attorney. “[But the City has] pit one Native organization against another, which has typically been done to people of color. That is troubling. … The people in this room are dedicated to social services and human rights. We’d like for you to go back to your bosses to say that there is a problem. … We always care about housing those who are homeless, but the Seattle Indian Center was providing that before. To systematically deprive them of what they can do — and to give them back limited capabilities — too often the Department of Neighborhoods has been used to do that, to divide communities of color.”
“I want to say thank you,” said Sahar Fathi, division director of leadership development at the City’s Department Of Neighborhoods. “To me, this is a very honest conversation, and I appreciate that you are honest with us. It also sounds like there is a lot of hurt in this room. For what it’s worth, we want to be responsive to the extent that we can be. We definitely will take [these issues] back to our superiors. My question to you is, what else we can do?”
“The Navigation Center is going to be in an American Indian and Alaskan Native building,” said Monzon-Richards. “And it was taken from us in a wrong way.”
“Where is George Scarola?” asked community activist Frank Irigon, referring to the City’s director of homelessness.
“It doesn’t seem like this is the right department [that you need to talk to],” said Emily Alvarado, manager of policy and equitable development at the City’s office of housing. “We want to figure out how to put the right person to put in front of you all.”
“Mayor [Ed Murray] never came back here after his promises,” said Bible. “He promised he’d be here after he was elected —”
“He never even took our calls,” Monzon-Richards interjected.
“When we get moved …” Bible said. “Black folks can only live in the Central District. Asians can only live in some places. We can only move to some place. We are only allowed to live in some places until we make them special. And when we make them special, we are relocated — and the places we inhabit are stolen from us.”
“We’ve had meeting after meeting with people in the City who have reneged on their promises,” said Jim Fossos, SIC board member and a former Seattle firefighter. “Where is Bruce Harrell?” Fossos added. City Council President Bruce Harrell represents district 2, which covers southeast Seattle, where the International District is.
“The City has a history of doing whatever they want to do without regard to the people who live in it,” said Andrina Abada, of the Tlingit tribe. Abada was former chair of the Seattle Indian Commission. “[It has a history of] running over the community, whether it’s Little Saigon, the International District, or the Central District. I’ve had enough of this, being pushed around, kicked around, ignored, thought little of. We are here to tell you we are far more than you think we are.”
Currently, renovations and construction is moving ahead at the Pearl Warren building to ready it for the Navigation Center, though Mayor Murray has agreed to a “pause” requested by Friends of Little Saigon, halting Navigation Center operation until a detailed plan is vetted and approved by the community.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.