Cecile Hansen and the Interminable Road to Justice for the Duwamish

by Judy Furlong

Cecile Hansen’s pursuit of justice for the Duwamish people began in 1974. She was a housewife in her early 30s, living in Tukwila and raising three daughters, when her younger brother, Manny Oliver, came by, mad as all get out.

Oliver, a fisherman by trade, had been cited yet again for salmon fishing in the Duwamish. He told his older sister she had to do something, and she asked him what he wanted her to do about it.

“Just go to a few meetings,” he said.

Hansen began attending a lot of tribal meetings and educating herself on the issue of tribal fishing rights. She learned that fishing rights for the Duwamish had been recognized in the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.

In the treaty, Chief Seattle and allied tribes signed over Puget Sound lands in exchange for reservations and recognition of fishing and hunting rights. However, the Duwamish were never given a reservation, and their treaty rights were never recognized.

In 1974, the chair of the Duwamish tribal council, Willard Bill Sr., appointed Hansen to be interim chair of the tribe as he wanted to return to academia. The following year, Hansen was elected chair and still holds the position today.

Hansen, on her mother’s side, is the great-great-grandniece of Chief Seattle. By becoming chair of the Duwamish, she picked up the fight for justice that Chief Seattle had begun so many generations ago.

Chief Seattle 2
A statue of Chief Seattle in Tilikum Place in Belltown. (Photo: Judy Furlong)

Chief Seattle died in 1866 at approximately age 80, poor and dejected, betrayed by the people he had helped to settle in the beautiful land of abundance, where Native people had thrived for some 10,000 years – until the white man came.

Although the chief was a shrewd and formidable warrior by historical accounts, he chose to cooperate with the settlers because he saw their encroachment as inevitable. He had visions of his people living alongside the settlers in cooperation, and for a short time that’s what happened.

After signing over 54,000 acres of land in the Treaty of Point Elliott, Chief Seattle and his people were discarded and never given the reservation that had been promised. The settlers burned down the tribe’s longhouses and banned Native people from the town of Seattle.

At one point, the tribe was relegated to camping out on Ballast Island, which had been formed on Seattle’s waterfront by ships offloading ballast to make room for cargo.

In 1866, when the tribe was negotiating with the federal government to form a reservation in West Seattle, the citizens of King County sent a petition to Arthur Denny, the territorial delegate to Congress, stating that granting the reservation would be an “unjust and unnecessary action” and “unnecessary to the aborigines and injurious to your constituents of King County.”

The petition was then sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the proposal for a reservation was dropped.

But Hansen grew up unaware of this history. When she was in the ninth grade, studying Washington state history, her mother told her she was related to the chief. When Hansen told her teacher she was related to Chief Seattle, it resulted in an unexpected field trip to the Burke Museum, which at that time was called the Washington State Museum.

“Next thing I knew, they put me in a car and took me to the Burke Museum and put me in front of a tipi and took my picture,” Hansen said. “And you know our people never lived in tipis — we lived in longhouses.”

Hansen’s parents had been sent to Indian boarding school when they were children; her mother was in boarding school from age 4 to 17. During those times, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would take Native children from their families and force them to go to boarding school, where the goal was to “take the Indian out of the Indian.”

Hansen said her mother showed little affection when she was growing up. She thinks it’s because she never received any affection herself growing up at the boarding school.

Since Hansen got involved in advocating for the Duwamish, she has seen the tribe experience countless setbacks, starting with the Boldt Decision in 1974. In the ruling, U.S. District Judge George Boldt recognized fishing rights for Washington tribes; however, in 1979 Boldt ruled that the Duwamish were not eligible for these treaty rights as landless tribes, along with the Samish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish and Steilacoom.

Since then the Duwamish Tribe has continued to fight for federal recognition. In January 2001, at the end of the Clinton administration, the tribe was finally granted recognition by an official at the Department of the Interior, only to have it taken away days later by the Bush administration, citing technicalities with the paperwork. The tribe filed suit against that decision, and the case has been slowly winding its way through the appeals process.

After the reversal in 2001, the Duwamish appealed the decision in federal court. In March 2013 the tribe had a positive turn of events when U.S. District Judge John Coughenor vacated the Interior’s 2001 ruling, saying it was “arbitrary and capricious” in that it was based on an older set of guidelines for determining a tribe’s federal status.

Attorney Bart Freedman of K&L Gates, a Seattle firm that represents the tribe pro bono, said that may have been the only time a federal court has reversed a denial by the Interior.

Freedman said the judge sent the case back to the Interior to make a new decision and then they essentially repeated themselves and denied recognition again in 2015.

“Under regulations, the appeals go first to the IBIA (Interior Board of Indian Appeals) and then back to federal court,” Freedman said. “We’re in that process where the IBIA is considering it, and then likely any decision they make will be taken back to federal court.”

Freedman said if the case ends up back in federal court, he believes the tribe’s prospects for a positive ruling are good:

“I think there are two competing things going on here,” Freedman said. “One, you have an administrative agency that seems committed to their longstanding position that the tribe shouldn’t be recognized.

“On the other hand, their actions in their most recent decision fly in the face of the order that Judge Coughenor has already issued, so I’m hoping that if we wind up back in federal district court, we’ll be able to be successful there on their behalf again.”

Freedman said he believes more support for the Duwamish, both in local government and the public at large, would help the tribe’s case.

“I think ultimately if there was broad interest and concern about the Duwamish, then that would have more effect than probably a lot of legal briefs,” he said.

Hansen began this fight as a young woman and now she calls herself an elder, but she is still determined to win this battle for her people. The Duwamish were fortunate to have a great leader in Chief Seattle, and they are fortunate now to have a great leader in his great-great-grandniece.

SIDEBAR: The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center Celebrates 10 Years

Longhouse interior
Interior of the Duwamish Longhouse. (Photo: Judy Furlong)

This year, the Duwamish Tribe celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, located at 4705 West Marginal Way SW. The 6,000-square-foot cedar post and beam building is modeled after traditional Salish longhouses that the North Coast Indians built for multifamily community dwellings.

The longhouse provides a place for the Duwamish Tribe, currently numbering approximately 600 members, a place to gather and celebrate their culture and heritage. It also provides opportunities for students and the general public to learn about the Duwamish.

Across the street from the longhouse, on the shore of the Duwamish River, lies the site of the Duwamish village where Chief Seattle grew up. The property is owned by the Port of Seattle and is a designated archaeological site and historical landmark.

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Featured Image by Judy Furlong.