City hires tribal liaison to strengthen ties with local natives
At the time of the 2010 fatal police shooting of Native carver John T. Williams, the city of Seattle lacked a liaison to the area’s Native people.
That has changed, now that a Seattle native and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has filled a position vacant since 2007.
Nicole Willis, who started working for the city July 18, will work to foster better communication between the city and tribes and help tribal groups address issues related to land use, natural resources and sacred sites. Her annual salary is $80,000.
Before joining the McGinn administration, Willis, 29, served as special assistant to the secretary for Indian Affairs in the u.s. Labor Department. She also worked as deputy director for First Americans at Obama for America and for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. A lawyer, she served at a firm specializing in federal Indian law.
Willis said returning to Seattle, which she left in 1993, will allow her to reconnect with tribes “that I consider my home community.” Local Natives have experienced big changes during her absence, she said: Urban Indians, whose members hail from numerous tribes, have become less cohesive as a group, while tribes outside of the urban core have become wealthier and more politically active.
Tribes operate as independent governmental entities, Willis said, so as tribal liaison she will work to reinvigorate relations between municipal and tribal governments.
“There have been difficult times,” she said.
Specifically, she spoke of the August 2010 death of Williams at the hands of Seattle Police Department officer Ian Birk. The officer fired four shots into Williams as the Native man, holding a closed pocketknife and a piece of carved wood, entered a downtown crosswalk.
The King County Prosecutor’s Office announced in February 2011 it didn’t have sufficient evidence to charge Birk with murder. Birk resigned from the force shortly after the announcement.
The shooting led Natives and non-Natives alike to call for police reform. On July 27, 2012, after a 2011 Justice Department report found that Seattle police exhibited a pattern of excessive force, the city and the Justice Department agreed upon comprehensive reforms.
Willis said that the murder of Williams brought many local Natives together. “It’s awful that it took that event to spur it,” she said.
Willis said serving as tribal liaison, a position that was created before the Williams shooting, will allow her to bring together urban Indians and those on nearby reservations to focus on issues that will improve the lives of all Native citizens. She’ll spend the next few months listening to community members and city officials, she said, with a goal in mind: “to improve relations with tribes.”
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