A bust of Duwamish Chief Si’ahl, better known by his anglicized name Chief Seattle. Photo by Kelton Sears

Duwamish tribe keeps fighting for federal recognition

Despite a lengthy process that has seen the federal government flop on its position, the Duwamish tribe of Puget Sound is continuing its legal challenge to be officially recognized.

The Duwamish tribe and its leader, Chief Seattle, were the principal signers of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott that handed over 54,000 acres of land, along with many other tribes in the region. In return, they were supposed to receive a reservation.

Recognition now also includes gaining hunting and fishing rights and access to grants that would help with governance, health care, housing, education and more, according to the Seattle Weekly.

More than 150 years later, the Duwamish do not have their own reservation.

Since 1855, and despite a concerted effort stretching back 100 years, the federal government still refuses to recognize the Duwamish people as a tribe.

Historically, the Duwamish had lived all over the Seattle area and the Eastside, and had close relations with neighboring tribes.

Cecile Hansen is the chair of the Duwamish tribe and has been fighting for recognition for her people since she was elected in 1975.

She described the hand dealt to the tribe as the one of the “nastiest injustice dealt to the indigenous people.”

Hansen herself is a descendent of Chief Seattle, whom Seattle is named after.

The history of the Duwamish’s struggle to gain recognition stretches back to the signing of the 1855 treaty, said Bart Freedman, the Seattle attorney who has represented the tribe in court pro bono in recent years.

“There’s certainly no question that the Duwamish tribe, through Chief Seattle, signed the treaty with the United States,” he said.

But following that, he described the Duwamish as being hit hard with the impacts from the westward expansion of the U.S.

This included watching one of their key rivers, the Black River, dry up when the Ballard Locks were constructed and Lake Washington’s water level dropped several feet.

Dozens of their traditional longhouses were burned and laws were passed by Seattle to limit the ability of the Duwamish to be in the city after dark.

“The Duwamish were at ground zero for the full brunt of what it meant for the development of Washington state,” Freedman said.

Freedman said the tribe brought the federal government to court in the early 1900s for a breach of contract and won some financial awards but were still dispossessed.

Later, in the 1960s when Native American activism was blossoming across the country, the federal Department of Interior began developing a more formal system of regulations it used to determine which tribes they would recognize.

While the Duwamish pressed for recognition, they had been so dislocated by actions of the U.S. government the tribe didn’t meet the qualifications the Department of the Interior had set, Freedman said.

In his view, Freedman said the government basically said “we think that you were so blown up, as it were, by the development of the city that we don’t think you meet our criteria.”

This was overturned briefly during the final hours of the Clinton administration by an order from the outgoing president.

According to the Seattle Weekly, Michael Anderson, Clinton’s Bureau of Indian Affairs secretary, forgot to sign a document when granting the Duwamish recognition and signed it illegally on the new administration’s first day.

Their decision was promptly overturned by the Bush administration.

The Duwamish filed a lawsuit against this decision, but it laid dormant until around five years ago, when the tribe asked Freedmond to represent them and decided to attack the initial decision not to grant them federal status.

“We argued that the process by which that evaluation was done was not fair,” he said.

A federal judge agreed and overturned the Bush administration’s decision.

But like most legal battles, this didn’t settle the issue as the Department of Interior changed its footing for denying recognition and reissued the same decision.

The Duwamish filed an appeal which is working its way through the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

Freedman is contending that the evaluation criteria the Department of Interior used to make their most recent decision was based on outdated guidelines from 1994, which was updated in 2015.

“The challenge is that these decisions have been made by administrative agencies that seem very committed, have been very committed, to their position that have been negative to the Duwamish tribe,” Freedman said. “I think that it’s a long battle. I’m hoping that it ends sooner rather than later because they’ve waited long enough for recognition.”

The Duwamish have also taken steps to meet criteria, such as building a cultural center and longhouse in Seattle near the site of a historical Duwamish city.

A nonprofit, called the Duwamish Tribal Services was established in 1983 to help provide for the roughly 600 enrolled members, according to the Duwamish tribe’s website.

They also help preserve the tribe’s history and culture.

Washington state Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs serves as a liasion between tribes in the state and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

Craig Bill, executive director for the office, said they did not have a position on the status of the Duwamish, but that they have provided some state funding to the tribe.

Despite not having federal recognition, the Duwamish are often referenced during political rallies or protests in Seattle, with speakers often saying that they are on stolen ground before addressing the crowds.

Freedman said posters also periodically pop up around the city reminding residents of the land’s history.

“I think people are really oblivious to what happened to the Duwamish people,” he said. “We literally kind of forced these people out of Seattle, dried up the river, burned the houses, pushed them off sandbars, barred them from being here, and yet it feels to me like it’s kind of invisible and we’re oblivious to it.”

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