The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seattle was named after a tribal chief. Now his descendants own less than an acre of city land.

The Duwamish tribe lost its land to settlers more than 150 years ago and has been fighting for federal recognition since the 1970s.

Jolene Haas, executive director of Duwamish Tribal Services. (Greg Scruggs) (Greg Scruggs)
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SEATTLE — The Native American tribe whose former leader inspired this city’s name plans to kick off its celebration of Indigenous People’s Day with a Friday gala on the downtown Seattle waterfront, a central location designed to remind the public that the tribe persists.

The event also celebrates the 10th anniversary of the tribe’s longhouse, a traditional shelter built with Western red cedar that sits on less than an acre of land — all that the Duwamish tribe still owns of its ancestral home.

For decades, the tribe’s leaders have fought for federal recognition and to regain some of the land that their ancestors inhabited along Puget Sound, once populated with more than 50 traditional village sites. But after Chief Si’ahl greeted early pioneers in 1851, the settlers adopted not only his name — Anglicized to Seattle — but also his tribe’s home.

“They took all our land away and kicked us out of town,” said Cecile Hansen, who has served as the elected chairwoman of the Duwamish tribe since 1975. “But we didn’t leave. Just because you don’t see us on some ugly reservation, we’re still here.”

Gaining federal recognition, a process managed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, can take decades. Today, there are 573 recognized tribes, who are eligible for federal benefits such as health care and subsidized housing and have the right to operate casinos. They are viewed by the federal government as sovereign entities, with the freedom to develop their own laws on reservations and not subject to state and local taxes.

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But in July, the Duwamish people’s four-decade battle hit a roadblock when Interior Secretary David Bernhardt declined to review his department’s 2015 rejection of the group’s petition for federal recognition, despite a recommendation from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

“We exist; we don’t need the federal government to tell us,” said Jolene Haas, executive director of Duwamish Tribal Services and Hansen’s daughter. “But without clarifying our status with the federal government we’re not able to have the same kind of education, housing and social service programs that other tribes have.”

There are nearly 700 living members of the Duwamish tribe, which was displaced as Seattle rapidly grew from a frontier settlement into a logging boomtown. During the 1890s, the settlement prospered amid the Yukon Gold Rush, laying the groundwork for the 21st-century region now home to the headquarters of Amazon, Microsoft, Nordstrom and Weyerhaeuser, as well as major manufacturing hubs for Boeing.

In 1855, Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens, working on behalf of the U.S. federal government, negotiated the Treaty of Point Elliott with Chief Si’ahl and dozens of other local tribal leaders, in which the Native Americans agreed to cede land and move to reservations but retain the right to access their traditional hunting and fishing grounds.

Chief Si’ahl is the treaty’s first signatory, listed as a representative of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. But while the Suquamish received reservation land across Puget Sound — where Chief Si’ahl was eventually buried — and subsequent treaties carved out reservations throughout the region for other tribes, the Duwamish were never granted land and have not been acknowledged as a tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We’re the first signers and gave up 54,000 acres,” said Hansen, whose family descended from Chief Si’ahl. “We should be acknowledged by the federal government.”

In 1865, the Seattle Board of Trustees passed a law banning Native Americans from living in Seattle. The next year, nonnative residents blocked a proposal for a Duwamish reservation.

It was nearly a century and a half later, in 2014, that the Seattle City Council designated Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a municipal holiday, in lieu of Columbus Day.

The Duwamish quest for federal recognition dates to 1977, when the tribe filed its first petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They received recognition in the waning days of the Clinton administration in January 2001, but the decision was rescinded when a federal investigation found that the acting head of the agency, Michael Anderson, signed the paperwork three days after Clinton’s term ended. The George W. Bush administration subsequently overturned the acknowledgment.

The tribe filed more petitions and appeals, including a case filed in U.S. District Court challenging which set of rules the agency should use in determining the Duwamish’s status. The effort fizzled in 2015 when the Interior Department issued a formal denial of the Duwamish case, saying the organization “is not entitled to be acknowledged as an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law.”

Among the criteria necessary for federal recognition, the Duwamish did not exist as an “Indian entity” during certain periods in their history and there was a “lack of evidence concerning the continuous existence of a ‘distinct American-Indian community’ and ‘tribal political influence or authority,’ ” according to the department’s decision.

“That’s a big lie,” Hansen fumed, noting that the group struggled to prove it was an “Indian entity” because of the displacement caused by pioneer settlements. “For 10 years, they said that we couldn’t prove we were on this land. Well, they took away our land.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not return a request for comment.

The Duwamish regained a foothold in the city in the mid-1990s, when a local philanthropist donated a $10,000 down payment for two-thirds of an acre across the street from a traditional village site along the Duwamish River, a heavily industrialized waterway that once teemed with salmon and is now a Superfund site.

The Duwamish eventually raised $235,000 to buy the parcel and an additional $3 million to build the longhouse and cultural center, designed by Blackfeet architect Byron Barnes. It abuts Puget Park, a steep, forested hillside that the Duwamish are replanting with native flora that have medicinal and nutritional value to the tribe.

Ken Workman, a retired Boeing employee, remembers exploring those woods as a child growing up in a nearby neighborhood. “The birds, when they sing in the springtime, when the big leaves come out on the maple trees — all of that resonates with me,” he said.

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His family identified as white and discouraged exploration of their Duwamish ancestry, he said.

“My family was hiding in plain sight, because as long as you could be white, you had a higher status in society,” Workman said.

About a decade ago, he consulted a Duwamish family tree and determined, with the help of a Boeing colleague who conducts genealogy research as a hobby, that he descended from Chief Si’ahl. He studied the Lushootseed language and, when he visits the longhouse, uses it to converse with the trees in Puget Park, a form of communicating with ancestors who were buried in the soil that eventually nurtured Puget Sound’s evergreen forests.

“The Duwamish people that have been living and dying in the seven hills of Seattle for 10,000 years are actually embedded in the living structures all around us, which includes trees,” Workman explained.

As the Duwamish struggle to get federal recognition, the longhouse serves as a monument to their identity. For Workman, it is “a gathering spot where the Duwamish people can come together, greet each other once again, and not be ashamed Indians that are not allowed to speak about who they are.”

Hansen, who intends to continue the fight for federal recognition, believes the longhouse’s presence is a reminder that a government designation does not define her people.

“Regardless of that lack of a status,” she said, “we have survived since treaty times.”

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