Competition for casino profits complicates Indian tribe’s effort to gain federal recognition
As the great-great-grandniece of Chief Seattle, Cecile Hansen got a $64 check in 1971, her share of a long-delayed settlement after the Duwamish Tribe ceded nearly 55,000 acres of land to the federal government more than a century earlier.
Today that property is some of the priciest real estate on the West Coast, the land that makes up metropolitan Seattle. With the tribe’s rich history and a membership of nearly 600, Hansen says it makes little sense for the U.S. government to maintain that the Duwamish have gone extinct.
But Hansen, a great-grandmother who has served as tribal chairwoman since 1975, said she understands why the tribe can’t win recognition, a prerequisite for any government benefits: Bigger neighboring tribes, including the Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Tulalip tribes, fear that the Duwamish would use their new status to try to open a casino in downtown Seattle, and they don’t want the competition.
“Indians are Indians, and why aren’t we supportive?” she asked. “Why does it all come to greed? . . . We all should hang together and not be so greedy.”
In Washington state, where 23 tribes operate 32 casinos, the Duwamish are locked out by a system that allows Congress or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pick the winners and losers — and who will get the big-money casinos.
And the state, which trails only California and Oklahoma in the number of Indian casinos, has come to exemplify the growing conflict in the $28 billion-a-year industry.
Although 565 tribes are formally recognized by the federal government, more than 200 are not. Over the years, tribes have won recognition through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential orders or court rulings. In 1978, the Interior Department set up its “federal acknowledgment process,” and most cases go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But Congress retains sole power to restore status to a “terminated” tribe such as the Duwamish.
Kathryn Rand, co-director and a founder of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota, said the system has “needed changes for a long time, before Indian gambling.”
The problems have only intensified since the tribes’ entry into big leagues of gambling more than two decades ago.
“The weight of tribal gaming as a political issue means that we tend to see all tribal issues through the lens of Indian gaming,” she said. “So tribal recognition has become controversial because we’re worried that those newly recognized tribes will open casinos.”
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) is leading an effort to formally recognize the Duwamish, saying it’s a “matter of cultural existence that’s at stake here.”
McDermott said the tribes would be less worried about making big profits from casinos if Congress showed a greater willingness to pay for basic services such as education and health care. That, he said, would make more sense than loosening the rules to make it easier for tribes to open more off-reservation casinos, as the Obama administration did a year ago.
Former Democratic congressman Brian Baird (Wash.) said one of the biggest disappointments of his career came when he was unable to persuade Congress to formally recognize the Chinook Indian Nation, the tribe that helped Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the West in 1805.
Hansen said one of the biggest ironies in the Duwamish quest for recognition is that the tribe has never proposed opening a casino, though she acknowledged that she has been approached by and met with casino investors.
She said she likes to kid about the possibility of building a casino, just to keep people guessing.
“I’ve already told them that if I ever get the status, we’re going to have a floating casino in the middle of Elliott Bay,” she said. “And they kind of laugh a little bit, and then I know I can hear them say, ‘Is she serious?’ ”