Cancellation of powwow illustrates need to recharge United Indians
Cancellation of the Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow is a sign that the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation needs to renew its vision and rebuild community support, columnist Jerry Large writes.
Seattle Times staff columnist
It's one of those signature Seattle stories, how a group of Indians and their allies, led by Bernie Whitebear, climbed the fences and laid claim to Fort Lawton.
They didn't give up until the government turned over the 20 acres that now house the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park.
Whitebear died in 2000, and the organization he helped found, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, recently has struggled financially. The foundation has canceled its biggest event, Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow, which would have celebrated its 27th year in July.
United Indians board member Randy Lewis said the powwow drew its audience and participants from around the world. It has been a homecoming for Indians, and Lewis said, "It's the one time Native Americans shine in the public's eye. The one time when we are not being addressed as casino Indians," or in other negative ways.
"People say, 'Why don't you go to the tribes?' " But, he said tribes in the area have their hands full.
The tribes do have other priorities, but they still donate to numerous other causes. That the foundation couldn't raise the more than $100,000 it takes to put on the powwow this year is a symptom of waning community involvement and a punishing economy, but it is also spurring a drive to recharge United Indians.
The group has several new board members and a new executive director, Kelvin Frank.
Frank, who took the job May 2, was a professor of urban regional planning at Eastern Washington University, with an emphasis on tribal government and decision making. And for the past decade he's been a senior planner with the Muckleshoot tribal government.
He acknowledges the need to make the organization run better and to rebuild support.
Frank said his focus is to reignite the vision Whitebear had of a home for urban Indians, a place that helps meet the needs of a disadvantaged population through programs like early education and job training.
Federal government policy in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged movement from reservations to urban areas, but there was little assistance for people trying to make the adjustment. That was also a time when Native Americans and members of other minority groups were fighting to be treated fairly.
Fishing rights was a huge issue in Western Washington, and so was making a better life for urban Indians.
One of the reasons for United Indians' successes was that Whitebear was able to form coalitions with other minority groups and progressive white organizations. And his connections reached across tribal lines, and to city, county and state political figures.
He was the center, and his death in 2000 left a vacuum. How many times, in how many organizations has that narrative been repeated? His absence isn't the whole story, but it is a big part of it.
Gabe Galanda, an attorney who spent three years on the board, said, "Over the past 10 or 12 years almost all of the relationships he built that sustained United Indians have fallen away."
Galanda and Lewis agree that the entire community, Indian and nonnative, has a stake in the viability of United Indians and all of its programs.
Lewis was one of the people who reclaimed the land at Fort Lawton in 1970, and he has been involved with United Indians all along, serving on the board for the past 12 years.
Lewis said it would be too much to expect another Whitebear, whom he called a strong-willed and charismatic politician. "The institution was the primary focus of his life. When you dedicate your life to something, that's hard to top." Besides, he said, given the economy, "I don't know whether Bernie would have been able to hold it together," he said. "We all have to step up."
Frank said when he came on board he realized the organization needed to take a year to reorganize itself and re-engage the community. "The community has to have ownership of United Indians," he said, "They are the people we are here for."
Frank said, "Our first and foremost priority is to serve (the education and social service needs) of the Native and Alaska indigenous peoples." He said the powwow will be back in 2013.
A powwow next year would be a powerful sign that United Indians has renewed its vision and earned the embrace of the community.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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