‘I’m not a token': Seattle council president Debora Juarez opens up

Juarez shares her history of advocacy, hopes for collective healing and conviction that Indigenous people must have a seat at the table.

Seattle councilmember Debora Juarez

Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez in her office at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2022. Juarez is Seattle’s first Indigenous city council president. (Chona Kasinger for Crosscut)

When Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, was elected Seattle City Council president in January, the media focused largely on her becoming the first Indigenous woman to hold the position. Many articles skimmed over or completely omitted much of her 35 years of qualifications for the job. 

As a King County public defender and then an attorney with the Evergreen Legal Services Native American Project, Juarez has represented nearly every tribe in Washington state. She has also worked on the other side of the courtroom as a King County Superior Court and Seattle Municipal Court pro-tem judge before she was appointed in 1996 as the executive director of the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs under Mike Lowry and reappointed by Gary Locke in 1996. 

Most people are more familiar with her as Councilmember Juarez, representing District 5 since 2015. 

“I'm not a token,” Juarez says. “I'm a real walking human being that's educated, articulate, smart, determined, brilliant and resilient.”

Being the first Indigenous city councilmember and council president is an important step forward for the city that bears the name of Chief Seattle. 

“Seattle is Indian Country, and it's great that we have an American Indian person with such great knowledge of the history and culture of this area as council president,” Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, told Crosscut.  

Six major urban Indian organizations and 13 tribes wrote letters to the Seattle City Council advocating Juarez as council president before she was nominated. For local Indigenous communities, this is a long overdue first, but it is about more than her being a Native woman. It is about the impact she can have as a leader for collective healing and collaboration within the city council and the greater Seattle area, according to Juarez. 

“I'm not here to compete with any of my colleagues,” Juarez says. “I'm here to kind of steer the ship, make sure everyone is heard, that there's dignity and that there's respect, because that's how I was raised.”

Juarez was raised on the Puyallup Indian Reservation by her mother, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and stepfather, who is a member of the Yakama Nation. She went to high school, played baseball and went to powwows with people who now sit on tribal councils. Juarez says her leadership style is a testament to the Indigenous women leaders in her life who led by guiding people from behind. with the most at risk in mind. 

“The strongest wolf is behind, not in front, because you're bringing up the rear to make sure the elders are OK and the kids are OK,” Juarez says. 

Ancestral knowledge systems and cultural practices inform and translate to Juarez’s leadership style. She doesn't believe in the hierarchy of past city council leadership. Instead she says she leads by being strategic and guiding people for a more collaborative council.  

Seattle council president Debora Juarez

Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez in her office at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2022. (Chona Kasinger for Crosscut)

Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez in her office at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2022. (Chona Kasinger for Crosscut)

What's best for the city

“All of our votes weigh the same, our goal is the same, our heart is the same,” Juarez says. “I believe we want what's best for our city.”

While everyone wants what’s best for the city, not everyone agrees on what that means. A remote council meeting in February on Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s resolution expressing support for Seattle Starbucks locations that were attempting to unionize is a recent illustration. Sawant and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda began arguing about a separate resolution altogether. Juarez asked the clerk to mute both council members and asked them to “take a breath” and focus on the resolution at hand. It eventually passed 6-0.

Esther Lucero (Diné), the president and chief executive officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board, described Juarez's leadership style as humble and unapologetic in her decision making. 

“Council President Juarez has an ‘auntie’ way about her,” Lucero wrote to Crosscut in an email. In Indigenous communities and many communities of color, auntie can be a term of endearment for an unrelated person who holds a familial connection. An auntie is someone you can confide in who treats you with care and compassion while also holding you accountable for your actions in a firm way. 

Lucero also believes that Juarez’s approach on the issue of police reform is pragmatic. “Her leadership will be important to finding the right balance so that all communities are safe,” Lucero said. She believes that Juarez won’t allow far-left or far-right rhetoric to drive her decision-making, which Lucero thinks has become more important in recent years. 

Although Juarez describes everyone on the council as different shades of blue, the summer of 2020 revealed polarization and hostility within the council. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer galvanized people all over the world to speak out against police militiarization and brutality aimed predominately at Black people and other people of color. The protests that followed in Seattle made national news and shed light on police brutality in our own backyard. 

The Seattle Police Department launched flash grenades and tear gas at protesters and even targeted medics, which made the calls to defund the police much louder and seemingly more urgent. By June 2020, the majority of the Seattle City Council agreed with a proposal by community organizers and activist groups King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle to defund the police department by 50%, but Juarez wasn’t convinced. In a statement, she agreed with protesters and organizers that the city needed to reallocate funds from the SPD budget and invest in marginalized communities. 

“We need to plant a new tree because the roots, trunk, branches and fruit of this tree are poisoned, as are the future seeds,” she said in the statement.  

But she felt it was important to have a plan in place before she agreed to defund the police by 50%. 

The council already had a majority in favor, so it didn’t need Juarez’s vote to move forward with plans to defund the police. Protesters marched to Juarez’s home demanding that she publicly support the proposal anyway. During this time she said she received death and rape threats, and protesters had covered the outside of her home with written messages, some of which were vulgar, misogynistic comments about her mother, who had recently passed. She said her car was broken in to and that people jumped over the fence and into her yard.

Debora Juarez in her office at City Hall

Seattle Council President Debora Juarez in her office at City Hall on February 28, 2022. (Chona Kasinger for Crosscut)

Seattle Council President Debora Juarez in her office at City Hall on February 28, 2022. (Chona Kasinger for Crosscut)

Violence against Indigenous women

Death threats to Indigenous women are not perceived as empty threats, not when Indigenous women are murdered up to 10 times the national average. On a local level, Seattle has the highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. As a state, Washington has the second highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, according to a 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute

“I would never wish that on anyone because it was terrifying,” Juarez told Crosscut. 

Several local tribes offered to have officers travel to protect her and her home. Other tribes offered to set up teepee and drum circles in front of her home. Even her tribe in Montana and tribes in New Mexico called to check on Juarez. 

“I did have a breaking point,” Juarez says. “Some of it did bring me to my knees, especially the thing about my mom.” 

Through it all she had the support of those she calls her sisters, like Lucero of the Seattle Indian Health Board. When Lucero called to see how she was doing and Juarez started crying, Lucero prayed with her. 

“She said, ‘I'm sending you so much good medicine right now and we all love you. You're in protective arms,’ ” Juarez told Crosscut.

Violence against Indigenous women is something that Juarez, as an Indigenous woman and as an attorney, is very familiar with. In 2019 Juarez proposed a resolution that led Seattle to being the first city in the nation to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

The resolution included working with the city and the Seattle Police Department to accurately classify and collect data on Indigenous people in order to better understand the issues. In hopes of building trust between police and Indigenous communities, a police liaison was created as well. The police liaison, the department, the Seattle Indian Health Board and the Urban Indian Health Institute will be working together to develop victim services, among other things.

Several Indigenous organizations called for any threats and violence aimed at Juarez to end. 

“As a community, we cannot be complicit in any violence against Indigenous women, and the use of dehumanizing language and methods are acts of violence that have been used to harm our people for centuries. If you disagree on politics, then vote your mind, but don’t condone violence against our women,” Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said in a press release

A member of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March in 2018

A member of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March 2.0 in Seattle, Jan. 20, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A member of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March 2.0 in Seattle, Jan. 20, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Racial justice advocacy

“I think people thought, well, you can just go in [to the SPD] and fire everybody,” Juarez says. “You can't do that.” Local police officers' 14th Amendment rights to due process made the promise to defund the police by 50% without a plan impossible, according to Juarez. 

Juarez is on the Labor Relations Policy Committee that negotiates with the city’s employee unions, including the Seattle Police Officers Guild

“We have to honor those safeguards and collective bargaining agreements,” Juarez says. “If it was that easy we would have done that a long time ago.”

Juarez is no stranger to civil disobedience. She was about 10 years old during the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ’70s. She watched the violence and the injustice against her neighbors and saw family members arrested for exercising their treaty rights to fish. As she got older, she joined the marches, fish-ins and other forms of resistance. 

“She spent most of her time [in Seattle] and engaged with a lot of the original leaders of the tribe's activism to get our treaty rights recognized,” Forsman, the Suquamish Tribe chairman, told Crosscut.  

Juarez was shocked that, given her lifetime of work advocating for racial justice, she was being targeted amid police brutality protests. 

“There's no level of, ‘I see you,’ ” Juarez says. “I may not like you or agree with you, but I will look you in the eye and I will be kind to you.”

Juarez says the normalization of hostile, malicious communication has made people blind to the humanity of the person they are speaking to. She believes that in order to make change, you have to keep safe lines of communication open, even if you vehemently disagree with others. Seeing a person as a human being first — with faults, and flaws, and their own lived experiences — is necessary to changing the polarization of politics.

Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March in 2018

Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March 2.0 in Seattle, Jan. 20, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March 2.0 in Seattle, Jan. 20, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Don't be performative

Juarez received love and support from Native leaders and communities when protests turned violent, but she said many of her colleagues, city leaders and organizers stayed silent. For a city so eager to make land acknowledgments, the irony was not lost on Juarez. 

“Don't be performative,” Juarez says. “I've seen that shit my whole life.” 

As an attorney, Juarez would go to reservations and before speaking she would naturally share her gratitude for being welcomed and acknowledge whose land she was on. She sees this practice as a culturally respectful way to acknowledge your place and stature as a guest and express your goal to serve and support them. Juarez’s experiences made clear to her that these now commonplace land acknowledgements are insulting, empty promises without action. 

“You're recognizing you're on Indigenous land, and that you stole it, and people are dead because of it, so what happens next?” Juarez says. 

Land policies of repatriation, co-management, co-stewardship and economic agreements with tribes are among the many ways Juarez points to as real actionable ways land acknowledgments can be more than performative. 

Having Indigenous people at the table when these things are discussed is the best way to make sure that real action is taken, according to Juarez, which is why she created the Indigenous Advisory Council. The council will advise the mayor, city council and city departments on issues that directly affect Indigenous populations. Francesca Murnan (Shawnee) is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and the advisory counci liaison accepting applications for the nine council positions to be held by Indigenous people. 

Leading to leave a legacy

Juarez has been relying on outside Indigenous leaders, lawyers, scholars and subject matter experts to assist her in working on Indigenous issues. This approach has been difficult. Now, this council will be addressing everything from art to economic development and streamlining the needs of Indigenous communities through legislation to the right leaders. 

“It's more authentic,” Juarez says. “It isn't just political posturing for any particular individual. It's just doing the work through city government.”

Indigenous issues should be part of the menu, not an aside to city government, Juarez says. Maintaining that presence and representation is important to instilling respect and understanding of Indigenous peoples, which is why she is concerned about who will chair the city council’s Governance, Native Communities & Tribal Governments Committee when she decides to retire.

Juarez believes you lead to leave — to create a path for success for the next generation. But she wants to lead to leave a legacy, too. 

“I don't want the legacy to be, ‘She was the first Native American [council president],” Juarez says. “I want the legacy to be that ‘Debora was a leader and she cared about the city and cared about the people in the city and wanted the city council to do good things for the people — for the love of our people.’ ”

Correction: Originally, we reported that ten tribes wrote letters to Council in support of Juarez becoming Council President. In fact, 13 tribes wrote in support.

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