Photo depicting the Suquamish Tribal Council in 2022 standing in their office.

OPINION: Suquamish Tribe Opposes Congress’ Recognition of Duwamish Tribal Organization

by Suquamish Tribal Council


Citizens of the Suquamish Tribe, located across Puget Sound from Seattle, have always fished, hunted, and lived in the central Salish Sea, including on lands that now make up the City of Seattle. 

More than half of our tribe is made up of Duwamish people. Many of them have expressed their dissatisfaction at the case made by a select group of Seattle and King County residents who claim to represent all Duwamish people in a recent call on Congress for federal recognition of the Duwamish Tribal Organization (DTO). The claim by these residents discounts the identity and contribution of the Duwamish people who are full citizens of the Suquamish Tribe and other area tribes. 

We are frustrated that many Seattleites are joining this call knowing little of the history and circumstances that led to today’s impasse. Those who wish to demonstrate respect for Native people should start by learning the full story from area tribes.

Here Is the History That Is Important Context for This Debate: 

Chief Seattle lived much of his life at Old Man House, a winter village on the Agate Pass shoreline across from Seattle now known as Suquamish. Seattle’s father, Schweabe, joined Chief Kitsap in leading the construction of Old Man House, which is well-known for being the largest traditional cedar longhouse in the Pacific Northwest. This is where Seattle, his family, and tribe lived and hosted large, intertribal ceremonies. Today Chief Seattle is buried in the Suquamish Tribal cemetery here on the Port Madison Indian Reservation. 

In 1855, Chief Seattle signed the Treaty of Point Elliott on behalf of the Suquamish/Duwamish people. The treaty, and the negotiations with federal officials that followed, made provisions for reservations at Port Madison (Suquamish) and elsewhere in the Puget Sound region. The United States established and later enlarged the Port Madison Indian Reservation to accommodate the Suquamish and Duwamish people. Many Duwamish families joined us here on the Port Madison Reservation while others chose to live on the Tulalip, Muckleshoot, or Lummi reservations to join relatives and support the tribal governments on each reservation. This was not unusual — many tribes are confederations made up of multiple peoples. 

Suquamish Citizens Today

Today, the majority of our elected Tribal Council of seven are Duwamish people. All of our Suquamish citizens, including those who are Duwamish, are fully recognized by the federal government and by our own governance, and enjoy treaty fishing and hunting rights, full constitutional rights to vote and run for office, and they receive the services that the tribal government provides to all of our citizens. We have many respected elders who are Duwamish people — including Cecile Hansen, who has carried the title of DTO chairwoman since 1975, while also receiving the full benefits of Suquamish citizenship. 

Similar stories play out on other reservations where Duwamish people are citizens.

Our opposition to the DTO’s current campaign for congressional recognition grows out of this history.

We resent that this campaign discounts and ignores the multiple ways the Suquamish Tribe incorporates and acknowledges our Duwamish citizens within our social, cultural, economic, political, and spiritual activities.

This frustration is further sharpened by the lack of transparency in the governance of the DTO. When asked, DTO leaders refused to give us any assurances that they would permit our Duwamish citizens to join their Tribe if they are recognized. We are disappointed that DTO claims to be “the host Tribe for Seattle” and discounts the legal, cultural, and historic presence the Suquamish and other area tribes have always had on the lands and waters of both sides of Puget Sound.  

Campaign for Congressional Action

To be clear: The Suquamish Tribe did not take a position when the DTO made their case for recognition before the Interior Department. 

The Interior Department process is better equipped to weigh the important legal and historic nuances of such a decision, and we stayed out of the process believing it would be thorough and fair. Indeed, after many years of examining the DTO’s application, and hearing appeals, the Interior Department rejected federal recognition. 

Congress, on the other hand, is not the right place for this decision on federal recognition due to the technical nature of DTO’s recognition, especially when neighboring tribes are in opposition. Federal recognition should not be granted based on emotion, charity, or the latest political movements. It must be evaluated through analysis by the federal government’s historic and cultural expertise, with court review as needed. The Interior Department process concluded that the DTO is not an Indian Tribe. The Suquamish Tribe does not support relitigating the question of DTO federal recognition through Congress. 

We hope that those who support the nonprofit aims of the DTO understand that recognition is not necessary for many of the initiatives the organization seeks to accomplish. Moreover, for those eligible for enrollment, the Duwamish people have opportunities for recognition through their enrollment in other area tribes.

In addition to DTO, those who want to provide meaningful support for Native people might consider supporting the Chief Seattle Club, American Indian College Fund, Native American Rights Fund, and our own Suquamish Foundation. 

Blind support for congressional recognition of the DTO has serious consequences for the Suquamish and the other neighboring tribes who are the original inhabitants of Seattle and the surrounding area.  Perceived justice for a few, at the expense of the region’s sovereign tribes, is not justice for all.

Signed, Suquamish Tribal Council

Chairman Leonard Forsman
Vice Chairman Joshua Bagley
Secretary Windy Anderson
Treasurer Denita Holmes
Sammy Mabe
Luther “Jay” Mills Jr.
Rich Purser


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📸 Featured Image: Suquamish Tribal Council. Photo courtesy of the Council.

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