From Si’ahl to Seattle: Does A Wealthy City Owe Its First Residents Reparations?

by Marcus Harrison Green

This story is published in collaboration with Bitterroot, an online magazine about the politics, economy, culture, and environment of the West.

When she speaks, Rachel Heaton’s ancestors flourish as they did for millennia, until the 1860s. They flow from longhouses grouped into villages scattered around 54,000 acres of lush marshes near Elliott Bay and the Cedar and Green Rivers. After hunting ducks on the tidelands and harvesting salmonberries in coastal forests, they assemble to feast on the largesse.

“Every time I give an acknowledgement, I intentionally ask people to reflect on what the land looked like — our villages, our people,” said Heaton, a 40-year-old activist of Duwamish lineage and an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Once Heaton crystallizes those images of her ancestral home in her audience’s minds, she moves to darker times — times of lies told by white settlers, of Natives forced off the land that, today, makes up the Seattle area.

“Imagine what this land looked like before the concrete was here and the government came in and burned down our longhouses,” she recently told a group gathered at the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion. “People were forcefully removed so you could reside in this city and exist as you do.”

Today, tribal reservations constitute less than 0.8 percent of King and Pierce counties that hold the Seattle-Tacoma metro. Chief Si’ahl signed the treaty that yielded a city bearing his name, but his Duwamish people never received land within it. The river named for them hasn’t fared better; it’s among the most toxic in the nation.

Heaton, and many others in the local Indigenous community, seek to remind the 99.6 percent of non-Native Seattleites about these involuntary sacrifices, made so one of the nation’s richest cities could take root.

Aiding in that effort has been public recognition of Indigenous land at libraries, churches, city halls, bookstores, coffee shops, poetry readings, and happy hours. Some feel verbal acknowledgment isn’t enough, and have taken to paying a form of reparation rent. To some Native Americans, these land acknowledgments can jumpstart examinations of the complex relationships between Native nations and the United States. Tribes have traditionally used them when visiting the land of other tribes to show respect; they figure non-Native folks can do the same.

Join us for a panel discussion about Indigenous recognition and reparation at Town Hall Seattle on January 22. Click here for tickets and event details.

Such acknowledgments, though, are just a primer for a much larger conversation of what is owed to people pillaged of land, and whose official treaty agreements have been routinely violated by the U.S. government. The question of restitution is absent of easy solutions, and brings no shortage of consternations.

“How do you compensate someone for literally hundreds of years of genocide?” Muckleshoot Tribal Council Member Donny Stevenson asked. “How do you assign some monetary value to lands that have been sacred for thousands of years?”

Growing up in near-poverty in 1980s Seattle, Mary Mathison, 45, credits the color of her skin with lifting her a few rungs on the social mobility ladder. “I put on a suit, and everyone thought I was a college student,” Mathison, who is white, said.

Mathison dropped out of high school at 15, and later entered the real estate business. Years of relocating Microsoft and Amazon employees to Seattle homes left Mathison with the means to pursue a degree at the University of Washington School of Medicine. But the opportunities have also left her with a gnawing obligation to the region’s original inhabitants.

“The history of our country is extremely unjust. A lot of white people think we’re off the hook because it wasn’t our choice,” she said.

White settlers and soldiers were already flowing into Washington before the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott was signed. The agreement guaranteed fishing and hunting rights on “usual and accustomed grounds” for the signatory tribes, and reservations were established for the Suquamish, Swinomish, Lummi, and Tulalip people. In exchange, the U.S. gained legal title to land from Mount Rainier — known to Coast Salish tribes as Tahoma — to the Canada border 150 miles to the north, and from the Cascades to the Salish Sea. Today, that sprawling area incorporates the Seattle metro area. More than 4 million people and some of the world’s most valuable companies inhabit the space.

Point Elliott was one of about 370 treaties entered into by the United States and Native tribes between 1778 and 1871. Like the others, this one was quickly violated by the U.S. Among other indignities, tribes involved in Point Elliott and other Washington treaties were denied their hunting and fishing rights for more than a century.

But it wasn’t just the federal and state governments pressing Indian residents. In 1865, the Seattle Board of Trustees passed Ordinance No. 5, which banished Natives from the town. The ordinance lasted just two years, but was one component of irreparable damage during the era. Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad and a ship canal connecting Lake Washington and the Puget Sound dried up the wetlands near Native villages or demolished them outright; the rest were set ablaze.

By 1910, as the city of Seattle experienced a surge in population to 237,000 and booming economy reminiscent of its modern day, a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent estimated 1,000 to 3,000 Native Americans experienced homelessness in their homeland. Some starved to death during the winters.

“There’s so much history that I wasn’t taught,” said Mathison. Further enlightened, the lifelong Seattleite decided to start giving monthly contributions to Real Rent Duwamish in November 2019. The program, organized by the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites in Seattle, supports educational initiatives and maintenance at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in southwest Seattle. To date, more than 30,000 people have made a contribution.

“What’s happening is a social justice movement, not a monetary issue,” said Jolene Haas, the director of the Duwamish Longhouse.

The Real Rent Duwamish initiative is similar to one adopted near San Francisco, where residents can pay a “Shuumi land tax” to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an intertribal group trying to return Bay Area land to Native stewardship. Five hours up the coast, in Humboldt Bay, residents can make a voluntary payment to the Wiyot Nation.

Washington state has 29 federally recognized tribes, but the Duwamish is not among them. Many people of Duwamish descent ended up living in the nearby Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and Tulalip reservations, but about 600 others maintain affiliation with the separate Duwamish entity. A lack of federal recognition means the tribe lacks reservation land, nor are its members eligible for assistance from the federal government. Members are supported instead by the nonprofit Duwamish Tribal Services. “Because we don’t get federal funds, a lot of our people are forced to go to reservations if they can show ancestry,” Haas said.

A four-decade push for federal recognition came to fruition in 2001, it seemed, when the Clinton administration signed off. But the Bush administration reversed the decision, and Duwamish recognition was again denied in 2015. An appeal is pending with the Interior Department. “We may not have recognition or our land,” said Chairwoman Cecile Hansen. “But we still have the First Amendment right to speak and not be silenced.”

The Duwamish’s predicament with federal recognition highlights just how complicated the idea of universal restitution for the Native population is. Unlike possible reparations for descendents of enslaved Africans, restitution for the Indigenous community would most likely rest on tribal affiliation rather than race or ethnicity. The scheme, and the colonialism it hatched from, lays the cobblestones for intra-community squabbling,  and according to Haas.

“White supremacy and the government has set us up to fight each other over issues of sovereignty,” she said. “Recognition [from the government] wouldn’t be necessary if not for this divide and conquer strategy.”

Indeed, not all in the Indigenous community are aligned with her tribe’s quest to gain recognition, nor with those offering up financial assistance.

“Help isn’t paying rent to a non-federally recognized tribe living in the city limits,” said Stevenson, the Muckleshoot council member. “It’s reaching out to the federally recognized tribes attempting to improve the health of this region.”

The Muckleshoot, a tribal nation of people of Duwamish and Upper Puyallup descent whose reservation sits south of Seattle, has long opposed the recognition bid of the Duwamish. The situation is a delicate one both for the local Native community and for non-Natives who want to support Indigenous communities without causing further divisiveness.

For Mathison’s part, she feels that paying rent to the Duwamish is a starting point. “Now we are not off the hook, because knowing how unequal history has disproportionately benefited white Americans, we are offered a choice to repay some of that inequality,” she said.

Stevenson believes the appropriate starting point in any discussion of reparations is for Seattle residents of all races to inform themselves of tribal history.

“How many of Seattle’s new tech workers know about the first peoples of this land? The only way we can grow from our history and trauma is through communication, education and collaboration,” he said. It’s why he has mixed feelings about the land acknowledgements done at non-Native gatherings. These often occur in the form of signs (on a Seattle church: “We … acknowledge that we are on the unceded ancestral lands of the Duwamish people …”) or public proclamations before events.

“There’s a degree of power we find in public acknowledgements, and that can be profound. But they’re also often historical,” said Stevenson. And it’s that focus on what was, as opposed to what is, that bothers him. “Most [recognition] is very stereotypical. It’s about the ‘wise savage,’ the ‘beautiful princess,’ but not the exploration of three-dimensional human beings.”

Nor do land acknowledgments usually address the systemic hardships and discrimination faced by the Indigenous community. “That history is part of my everyday identity,” said Stevenson. “It created so much multigenerational trauma. That’s the sad and painful truth about our people today. We’re overrepresented in social categories you don’t want to be present in, and underrepresented in ones you do.”

The overrepresented categories? Short life expectancy (5.5 years less than Americans of all other races), poverty rate (one in four), and those experiencing homelessness (highest rate in the city of Seattle).

To Stevenson, remedial education about local tribes is essential to any form of restitution. One such example is coming to the city’s professional football stadium. Beginning next year, Seahawks fans flooding into CenturyLink Field’s northern entrance will find themselves in Muckleshoot Plaza, which will showcase a historical narrative of the tribe. The partnership came about after the Seahawks reached out to the Muckleshoot about honoring the tribe’s identity in a visible way. The Muckleshoot have struck up a similar partnership with Seattle’s soon-to-be National Hockey League team.

Just one generation ago, Stevenson points out, his father, who was adopted by a white family, couldn’t technically live in Seattle’s Normandy Park neighborhood due to racially restrictive housing covenants. So a partnership with the city’s professional sports teams is an improvement, but still not enough.

He gleans hope from Native leaders carrying on the tradition of the successful Indian Rights movement in the Northwest. Beginning in the 1950s, Native leaders like Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, and Puyallup tribal member Robert Satiacum were instrumental in re-establishing tribal fishing rights and instigated the famous Boldt Decision in 1974, which ruled that Washington’s tribes had treaty rights to fish in off-reservation waters, and to 50 percent of the state’s annual commercial catch.

“We stand on the shoulders of the leaders who came before, who have called on Seattle to be the city it aspires to be. Our children are watching us. We borrow the earth from them,” Stevenson said. It’s measures like the Seahawks partnership, he said, that can start to hammer home an important lesson: “This city doesn’t exist without our people.”

The obsidian scrawl was straightforward: By the mid 1860s, as the Seattle area was being settled, these people had been assimilated …

To Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez, the sign in Seattle’s Thornton Creek Park was akin to a Confederate monument standing in an African American neighborhood.

“This is just wrong. These people are still here,” said Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and the city’s first enrolled Native American councilmember. The Seattle Parks Department removed the sign last year. Now it hangs in Juarez’s City Hall office, an artifact of the fiction she’s helping to dismantle.

With assistance from Seattle’s Native community, the removal of this sign and similar ones in the coming months is a step — albeit a small one, she said — toward grappling with Seattle’s history. Juarez hopes to replace the signs with more accurate narratives, and the city has hired Native artists to create iconography celebrating its Indigenous residents.

“It’s decolonizing and deconstructing some of the symbols that are not actually Salish symbols. And working with Indigenous people to say that when you land in the city of Seattle, you should be able to look around and say: ‘This is Salish People,’” Juarez said in January, two days after being sworn in for her second term.

During the swearing-in ceremony, she ceded much of her time to Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman. The scene — a Native woman, elected to a civic body once openly hostile to the Suquamish people, stepping aside for its modern leader to speak — was deliberate.

“Our people died for you and I to sit here, to have a house, to vote, to be called a human being. There’s a real beauty in a strange, raw way,” said Juarez, who previously led Washington’s Office of Indian Affairs. “Just think how amazing we are, that we are still here.”

This idea animates Juarez’s city council work. She has helped pass resolutions that oppose a liquified natural gas facility in nearby Tacoma and take action to curb the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the city.

But Juarez faces one challenge common to people of color in positions of authority. Call it the Obama syndrome — the pressure to represent the thoughts, yearnings, and talking points of an entire race or community. That complexity bore out in 2017, when the city divested from Wells Fargo because it financed the Dakota Access Pipeline. Juarez started fielding calls from tribal leaders; one contingent was ecstatic about the action, but another took umbrage as the bank financed many of the tribe’s vital services.

“I had to hear both sides,” she said. Seattle’s Native community, after all, is no monolith.

The 36,000 or so Native people who live in the Seattle metro area hail from tribes near and far. “Seattle has a ways to go, but it’s ahead of the curve in many ways,” said Russell Brooks, a Southern Cheyenne tribal member who moved to Seattle in 2011 from Montana. The filmmaker is now executive director of Red Eagle Soaring, a theatre serving Native youth in the area.

He points to the city, at least superficially, celebrating Native culture with the National Football League’s Seahawks team insignia, and the increasingly common land acknowledgements. But there is more tangible action. Seattle opened a tiny-home village for Native people experiencing homelessness last fall. In 2015, the state legislature mandated that tribal sovereignty lessons be included in the public education curriculum — a measure that Red Eagle Soaring supported. “You want the greater public to have a basic level of competency when it comes to tribes and their cultural status,” Brooks said. “You want Native students to be able to go to school and not be teased for having braids.”

For Heaton, the Indigenous rights activist, reparation actions must graduate from voluntary to systemic. “Monthly giving is nice, but it’s the same as if you stop using plastic straws to save the environment,” she said. A good place to start, in her mind, is to stop supporting oil and gas activity that isn’t welcome in Indian Country; she advocated for Seattle’s City Council to divest its financial holdings from Wells Fargo (In 2018, the city resumed banking with Wells Fargo after finding no alternatives). To that end, she co-founded Mazaska Talks, an organization that aims to help individuals compel cities and banks to divest from polluting industries.

Fern Renville, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, moved to Seattle in the 1980s. She teaches about Coast Salish culture in Puget Sound elementary schools, and believes the Pacific Northwest can serve as a model not only for restitution, but for how Indigenous leadership can spark societal advancement. Youth, she said, can look to the examples of Frank and Satiacum, the fishing-rights protesters, as well as a growing contingent of modern leaders.

“Our water is cleaner than it used to be because local tribes fought for it. The tribes here have fought and won to take down dams to save the orca and salmon. And the governor appointed the first Native American judge [Raquel Montoya-Lewis] in Washington’s history,” she said.

Renville’s perspective as a member of a plains tribe living in the Northwest gives her a nuanced viewpoint on reparations. She brought up the 1980 Supreme Court case, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, in which the government was ordered to pony up $17 million for taking the Black Hills of South Dakota in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. To this day, the Great Sioux Nation has not accepted the money; doing so, its leaders have argued, would constitute the willing sale of something that was stolen. The account, held in trust, now holds more than $1 billion.

To some, a payout of that size would be a form of reparations. But Renville said repairing historical wrongdoings in Indian Country is far more complicated than cash. Any approach to tribal reparations would have to be done on a tribe-by-tribe basis, and in a different way than reparations have been discussed for other racial groups.

“I understand the economic viewpoint because of the labor aspect for African Americans,” she said. “I’m not averse to receiving financial reparations personally, but I know very few tribal citizens comfortable with it.”

Reparations are often framed as something given from transgressors to those aggrieved. Sorry for taking the Black Hills; here’s $1 billion. But to many Native Americans who spoke for this story, reparation isn’t something white Americans should bestow upon them. Rather, it’s returning to a leadership position in land that was always theirs.

“We should really stop with the white saviorism when it comes to Native issues and this country,” Renville said. “These problems are interconnected, and white leadership isn’t entitled to solve them as only they see fit.”

In her City Hall office, Juarez pointed to a photo of Shirley Chisholm. “For so long, the Native community looked at the African American community for our heroes,” she said, but a sea change may be afoot. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018. Locally, Juarez said Indigenous rights advocates and sisters Colleen Echohawk and Abigail Echo-Hawk (they spell their last names differently), who have been instrumental in addressing Native homelessness and the violence against Native women, are figures the Seattle community can look up to. Maybe it’s their very presence, shaping policy at levels from the municipal to the federal, that will build momentum toward restitution 160 years in the making.

After all, every leader, every land acknowledgement, every uncomfortable conversation, every teachable moment can make a difference, said Brooks. Despite the complexity and magnitude of a topic like reparations for Native Americans, he believes there is actually a very simple question at the heart of it.

“We are all Indigenous to this earth,” he said. “Reparations isn’t about a guilt trip. It’s saying, ‘We’re here now, we may have all been colonized at one point, but how do we live neighborly?’”

Marcus Harrison Green is the founder of the South Seattle Emerald and a former reporter at The Seattle Times.