Good Friday and the Native Homeless in Seattle

Deception Pass, Seattle

Good Friday and the Native Homeless in Seattle

A 2015 Good Friday pilgrimage reflected a message surrounding a variety of issues still faced by Native communities today.

Although this small pilgrimage took place in 2015, it’s message and horrors are more relevant than ever on this Good Friday.

There’s a mixture of garbage and urine drifting on the breeze in the alley off Yesler and 2nd Avenue a little after 11 a.m. this Good Friday in 2015. A blanket of condensation from Puget Sound softly covers our small group on this morning. The sky is gently weeping.

We’re paused in front of a stoplight at a congested street corner, near the heart of the largest urban center in the Pacific Northwest. What’s left of this once prestigious neighborhood is now crowded with pawn shops, taverns and cheap hotels. The littered streets we walk lie less than a mile south of Seattle’s city center, a few blocks north of dozens of empty parking lots bordering Century Link Field, home for the Seattle Seahawks. With a year-around mild climate and tree-shaded park benches, this part of town is known across the country as an urban refugee camp, a gathering place for homeless men, women and children.

Thirty of us, bedraggled, are moving in procession around remains of a cobblestoned park called Pioneer Square. We accompany a Jesuit priest, pausing to pray in alleyways, under overpasses and outside storefront missions. We’re different ages and come from widely diverse socio-economic backgrounds. During this Holy Week, we’re temporarily joined in a centuries-old liturgy rooted in Roman Catholic penitential practice.

According to Church historians, Christian pilgrims began to appropriate Jerusalem’s “Path of Sorrows,” the Via Dolorosa, to new settings and distant places in the 14th century. Here, now, in the 21st century, stopping every few minutes in front of homeless shelters and at busy intersections, we pray our way along 12 “stations of the cross” in remembrance of the Crucifixion. As our scattered procession moves along 3rdAvenue, a police officer, his patrol car parked on a sidewalk, talks intensely with two young men. Noise from traffic and construction rings in our ears, disruptive, constant.

The Chief Seattle Club, a small nonprofit street ministry, is coordinating this Good Friday service. The agency’s mission statement, typed on the morning’s bulletin, framed by a Coast Salish design, reads, “To provide a sacred place to nurture, affirm, and renew the spirit of urban Native Peoples.”

Founded by Jesuit priest Raymond Talbert in 1970, Chief Seattle Club is housed in a three-storied renovated storefront. Over 40 years it has established a solid record for working effectively, quietly, with Seattle’s urban Native American population. The Club’s program operates in collaboration with half a dozen other faith-based mission groups in this rough and tumble neighborhood, offering support programs, shelter, food, and hygiene facilities.

It’s reported that Talbot, Chief Seattle Club’s founder, was a rogue priest of sorts and lived an independent, solitary life. He said Mass daily, often alone, at the center, then set about each morning, as one Spokane newspaper article described it, “making coffee, sweeping the floor and arranging chairs.” He exemplified an extraordinary commitment to the marginalized, specifically American Indian peoples afflicted with addictions and serious illnesses.

Talbot had served missions in Alaska and on Washington State’s Quinault Reservation. He was a realist. It’s said he had little enthusiasm for conventional recovery or rehabilitation programs. Probably because he had seen too many of them fail. A reporter once asked him how he saw his work. Talbot replied, “Taking care of the dying and the dead.”

Sr. Julie Codd, a quiet, intense, disarming Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, met Talbot in 1992. He was then 84 years old, in fragile health. When he discovered she’d worked for an extended time on an Indian reservation north of Seattle, he invited her to consider serving as the next Director. She accepted, carrying on the Club’s mission, expanding its services over the next 10 years.

Currently, some 200 individuals come to the Club each day for basic needs including showers and laundry services. The vast majority are low-income American Indian and Alaska Natives. Most of them are in transition, many are homeless. The agency serves an estimated 60,000 meals annually. At least 75 percent of its members face chemical dependency issues. In 2012, the Club formed a partnership with Harborview Medical Center. Since then, on-site mental health services at the Club are offered four days a week.

Homelessness: The 4 to 1 aspect

There’s no shortage of government studies about homelessness in the United States. Most of those reports attribute the problem to the loss of affordable housing. But statistics also indicate that 30 to 40 percent of homeless persons struggle with serious mental and emotional disorders and studies document that 60 to 70 percent of those individuals live with some level of drug dependency and alcohol addiction. Women and children fleeing abusive relationships, along with youth alienated from their families, add to the mix. In Seattle, a recent “one night count” identified 3,772 individuals without shelter.

Native peoples face special challenges as alcoholism and episodic homelessness weave an insidious, lethal threat. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), four percent of Native Americans are homeless in the United States, yet represent 1 percent of the general population. In 2005, a CDC Prevention report found 11.7 percent of deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives were tied to alcohol. Over 60 percent of those who died were younger than 50. In the general population, by comparison, alcohol related deaths were 3.3 percent.

Healing the wounds of the past

This morning’s liturgy is grounded in Christian tradition and gritty, contemporary context. At different “stations,” part of the Passion narrative is read from the New Testament, followed by a member of our procession reading a few sentences about why that particular site was selected. Each site is linked to a specific incident of violence or compassion that once occurred there. The readings conclude with words from a Native elder or a traditional tribal teaching. Volunteers, randomly selected, carry the makeshift cross from station to station.

A single beat on a ceremonial drum underscores the first scripture lesson, then follows each of the Scripture passages at subsequent “stations” until, finally, at the last site, 12 sharp drumbeats echo through the streets, the liturgy over. Ray Kingfisher, a square-shouldered, tall, 50-year-old Cheyenne leads the procession. He carries a hand-held drum covered by stretched elk hide.

Pat Twohy, the Jesuit priest presiding over the liturgy on this occasion uses no vestments. He has spent his life and ministry among Native peoples.

I’ve known him since we worked together years ago coordinating support from the Church Council of Greater Seattle for Puget Sound tribes. Dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, and a worn plaid shirt, he wears a tarnished western belt buckle, a reminder for me of his 40 years working with Indian peoples in central and northern Washington State. A 20-year old walks next to him, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans with the word “Peace” embroidered on both sides of her leather boots. A 40-year old Ojibwa from Turtle Mountain, raised by foster parents, wears a sweatshirt “Honor the People.” A white-haired elder from Alaska, moving slowly with a cane, wears a traditional bark-woven Native hat. A young, raven-black haired man guides a wheelchair carrying an 80-year old blanket-wrapped relative, her head tilted to one side.

The Cultural Refugee, The homeless

A hard look at history predicts that struggles for identity and autonomy by the 567 federally recognized American Indian tribes in North America and Alaska will continue to be hard-fought, uneven, and precarious. Some say, over the last 30 years, thanks to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and a proliferation of new casinos, it’s been an economic miracle story for tribes. But those who work with and live among Native communities know it’s more a complex riddle of hope, tragedy, and contradiction.

One frequently ignored part of the equation is, unlike other minority populations, members of federally recognized tribes are legally protected by provisions outlined in 389 treaties ratified by Congress between 1796 and I879. Those agreements defined boundaries of reservations (trust lands), pledged a level of support for health care and some level of education opportunities for eligible tribal members. A central theme in the turbulent history of U.S. jurisprudence is the ongoing, persistent challenge to those treaty rights by States, corporations, and other vested interest groups, sometimes including churches.

There are no guarantees. Ron Adams, former Peace Corps volunteer and a veteran of cross–cultural work with Northwest tribes reminds me, “American Indian people have a hard-won inheritance, preserved by formal treaties, protected by the Constitution. But there’s no assurance that this inheritance will not be squandered, as with any of our own, by abandoning their cultural values, unrestricted expansion of a casino economy, or the sale of what’s left of precious natural resources for short-term profit.”

What’s also overlooked is that hundreds of thousands of Native peoples, raised in foster homes and either distanced from their traditional cultures, or because they are children of intermarriage lacking of documented bloodlines, have no legal tribal home, treaty rights, or extended family networks. Attempts to reconnect to their heritage are not always welcomed. Because of limited tribal resources, many are met with rejection, finding themselves cultural refugees. Some become homeless.

Over the last 400 years, European immigrants traveled to North America in search of a home. They were supported by the religious institutions of their times and displaced hundreds of thousands of Native people, imposing treaties and declaring wars on indigenous people in order to build a new country of their own. The irony is bitter. The once proud legacy of that Manifest Destiny has turned sour. Citizens of the United States currently consume 85 percent of all the antidepressants in the world.

Seattle Living

Our Good Friday procession makes its way through littered streets under an overpass known as Seattle’s Skyway. We gather to hear the Scripture and pray. A few feet away is the door to the Compass Center, a homeless shelter known for its work among this city’s poor for more than 30 years. Two men carrying worn duffel bags, part of this morning’s street population, walk by. Briefly acknowledging our presence, they nod their heads, and disappear behind an adjacent door on the Center that reads “Hygiene Facility.” Sounds from trucks and cars passing overhead are deafening.

This morning’s Seattle Times front-page headline announced home prices in the city rose 18 percent in the last year. Huddled together under this overpass, we’re a few miles from the mansions of two of the richest men in the world and a five-minute drive to Seattle’s affluent Mercer Island. One can’t purchase a home there, or anywhere in the University of Washington’s nearby Laurelhurst neighborhood, for less than a million dollars.

The Awakening

Last night, high on a forested cliff overlooking Puget Sound, not far from Skagit County’s Deception Pass, I spent a couple of hours with Ray Williams, a Swinomish tribal elder. My wife Diana joined us for the evening after exploring a potential project with the Reservation’s Early Childhood Development Center. Our Swinomish host points out a beach to the East that serves as a launching area for a portion of the tribe’s fishing fleet. He recalls a time from his childhood when the beach below was used for his community’s annual blessing of the salmon.

Thirty miles North, a fierce political battle is heating up as a small neighboring tribe, the Lummi Nation, is attempting to legally block a terminal export coal port from being developed on Cherry Point, a site for their traditional fishing grounds. Stakes are high. Odds are stacked against them. Tribal leaders from both the Swinomish and Lummi communities are pitted against multinational corporations who have hired the highest paid lobbyists you can find in Washington, D.C. (Since this day in 2015, the Lummi Tribe went on to successfully lead community and tribal efforts that permanently halted construction of the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.)

Williams is a 62-year old spiritual leader among the Seowyn, the traditional smoke house religion of the Coast Salish and a member of one of the smallest tribes on the Pacific Northwest coast. He’s been working under a part-time contract with the Roman Catholic Diocese, bringing back his people’s cultural teaching and seeking to build common ground with the mission led by the Jesuit Twohy. “It’s about “awakening,” Williams tells us. “Awakening to a spiritual world that will connect everything.”

Off to our right, a photographer sets up a tripod. His assistant holds a four-foot reflective screen to reduce the setting sun’s glare. The cliff we stand on is serving as picturesque backdrop for a photo op. A young woman, self-conscious, totters on the edge of a 40-foot drop wearing 3-inch heels. She is posing, wearing a sleeveless blouse and short skirt, her long, salon-styled hair blowing in a light breeze. We acknowledge each other briefly, and nod politely.

Williams, a former Swinomish tribal council member, walks with a slight limp. A victim of a recent stroke, he’s traveled his own “Path of Sorrows.” He leads us over to a ridge overlooking the Sound and gives credit for his healing and sobriety to recovering his own Native spiritual traditions and his work with the Jesuits. Staring off into the horizon, he talks reflectively, candidly, about the complexities of tribal life and politics. For a moment, he mentions the loss of his son who drowned while working on a tribal fishing boat, not far from where we stand. The boy’s body was never found.

Surrounded by groves of cedar, we watch the sun begin to set against dim outlines of the San Juan Islands 20 miles to our Northwest. Three of us talk together, rattle the bones of spiritual beings: ancestors, dreams and the relativity of time and space. He speaks about the Swinomish practice of prayers, sweat lodges, and traditional ceremonies that will soon take place for him, higher in the mountains.

I’m listening to the click of a camera’s shutter. The photographer, 20 yards away, reminding his entourage the sun is setting. He urges the young woman, healthy, attractive, but unsure of herself, to keep her balance on the precipice.

As we turn to begin our walk down the trail to our vehicle, Williams remarks he’s been notified his formal employment with his close friend Twohy and the Church will be coming to an end later in the month. Lack of funding, he says, and a sudden decision from the Diocese, a consequence of increasing lawsuits against priests for child abuse, to suspend all Jesuit supported ministries for Native young people.

The Finale

We crowd our way into an alley for the 12th and final station. Led by a rain-jacketed volunteer carrying the makeshift processional cross, our group moves next to a dumpster. Remnants from a torn mattress are strewn on the littered pavement, a spot where a few years earlier, the driver of a garbage truck had run over, crushing and killing a sleeping homeless man. A passerby shouts, “Don’t you see the ‘No Trespassing’ sign? What are you all doing anyway? The place is full of garbage. It’s where the brothers do drugs.”

The Cheyenne lifts his drum. The last words of the morning’s liturgy are read. “With this final act, and the death of Jesus, we remember the Aztec saying: “’It ended…His body changed to light, a star that burns forever in the sky.’”

Jon Magnuson is the Director of the Cedar Tree Institute in Marquette, Michigan, a nonprofit organization that provides services in the areas of mental health, religion and the environment. He served as an instructor for Native American Studies at the University of Washington and Northern Michigan University and currently is coordinating an intertribal effort, led by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community to restore and protect Native plants in the Great Lakes Basin.

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