Photo depicting the Duwamish Tribal Councilmembers standing in traditional garments in front of a black-and-white portrait of Kikisoblu, also known as "Princess Angeline," inside the Duwamish Longhouse.

OPINION: It’s 167 Years Past Time to Restore Recognition of the Duwamish Tribe

by The Duwamish Tribal Council

Cecile Hansen (Tribal Council Chair)
Desiree Fagan (Councilmember)
Ken Workman (Councilmember)
James Rasmussen (Councilmember)
John Boddy (Councilmember)
Roger Boddy (Councilmember)
Paul Nelson (Councilmember)
Cindy Williams (Tribal Council Secretary/Treasurer) 
Russell Beard (Councilmember)

For at least 12,000 years, the Duwamish people have been living in what is now called King County. The “People of the Inside” inhabited the lands around Elliott Bay, along the Black, Cedar, and Duwamish Rivers, and around Lake Washington. 

As Tribal Councilmember and coauthor of this piece, Ken Workman has often said, “Our people are buried under the streets and the sidewalks and houses of Seattle. Their DNA rises from the roots of the trees, and when the wind blows through the leaves, those are the sounds of our ancestors.” 

After 17 decades of broken promises, cultural erasure, and outright persecution since settlers landed, we’re now experiencing a moment of hope like never before. 

These days, the name “Duwamish” is spoken hundreds of times each day in land acknowledgments at gatherings around the city. 

On the banks of the river that also bears our name, a beautiful longhouse stands to celebrate our culture and serve our community. 

More than 20,000 individuals and organizations have volunteered to pay “Real Rent,” benefiting Duwamish Tribal Services, the nonprofit arm of the Duwamish Tribe, in recognition that they live and work on land the Duwamish people were displaced from. 

Given growing support from the people of Seattle, we believe the moment is right to address a massive injustice: refusal of the U.S. federal government to recognize our tribe. 

When our ancestor Chief Sealth, for whom this city is named, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, he did so on behalf of both Duwamish and Suquamish Tribes. 

After the treaty was signed, however, the federal government broke many of the promises it made to the Duwamish. The government initially promised the Duwamish people two reservations: a temporary one at Holderness Point (Duwamish Head, near Alki Point) and another near the City of Renton. The latter never materialized because white settlers opposed a reservation in or near the city limits. 

Later, in 1865, Seattle leaders passed Ordinance No. 5, a shameful ordinance banning Indigenous people from “residing, or locat[ing] their residences on any street, highway, lane, or alley or vacant lot in the town of Seattle (Passed February 7, 1865).” 

Duwamish homes were burnt to the ground. Violence against the Duwamish, women in particular, was widespread and largely went unpunished. After the Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed in 1916, draining the Black River and robbing our ancestors of their source of food and method of transportation, the last historic Duwamish village was largely wiped out. 

Without a reservation of our own, some of our ancestors moved to other reservations. Many continued to maintain distinct social, cultural, communal, and political ties with other Duwamish members, living both on and off reservations. 

Others defied local ordinances and remained in Seattle or the surrounding region. Chief Seattle’s daughter, Kikisoblu (more famously known as “Princess Angeline”), was one of the first resisters, refusing to leave her waterfront cabin on Western Avenue, between Pike and Pine Streets, where she lived until her death in 1896. 

By 1925, Duwamish leaders established a formal constitution and bylaws and called the tribal government the “Duwamish Tribal Organization of the Duwamish American Indians” (sometimes referred to as “DTO”). 

We are proud that since the signing of Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, the Duwamish Tribe has survived despite all odds. We have been governed by an unbroken chain of leaders, from Chief Seattle to the present-day Chairwoman Cecile Hansen. 

We are still here. 

Today, however, the U.S. Department of the Interior contends that the Duwamish Tribe that signed the Treaty of Point Elliott somehow ceased to exist at some point over the past 167 years. We do not cease to exist. 

The Duwamish Tribe continues to fight for federal recognition. 

The Interior Department’s denial of federal recognition is incorrect both as to the facts and the law. There are very real consequences for our members in the unjust denial of federal recognition: 

  • We’re denied federal support for health, education, and anti-poverty programs. For example, last year our members were left out of the largest investment of resources into tribal communities in U.S. history via the American Rescue Plan Act
  • We’re denied tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and the commitment of the government to our continued survival. And when our identity, culture, religious freedoms, and indeed our very existence is denied, so is our individual dignity. 

In spite of this injustice, we remain organized, supportive of our members, and active in the community. We are stewards of the local environment and of our traditions, and we contribute to the cultural health of our city. 

We want our members to enjoy the same legal rights as those enjoyed by members of federally recognized tribes: to have a tribal vote, to run for tribal office, to receive tribal services and benefits, and to fully realize the treaty promises made to them by the United States government in 1855. 

We believe that federal recognition of the Duwamish Tribe will lift all people up. Turning vulnerable people against each other is a tactic the powerful often use to escape accountability. Pitting other tribal organizations against us is no different. Our fight is with the federal government, not with our brothers and sisters enrolled in other tribes. 

The Duwamish Tribe is the only tribe composed entirely of Duwamish descendants. 

We are grateful that the people of Seattle and King County have embraced our cause. Over 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for federal recognition. We’ve been endorsed by an ever-growing coalition of representatives, faith groups, labor unions, businesses, artists, and community organizations. 

Non-Native people have an essential role to play in helping the Duwamish secure recognition. We can’t win this fight without your help. In addition to signing the petition, you can join Real Rent Duwamish and tell your elected representatives you support Duwamish Tribal recognition. 

The acknowledgment of the Duwamish Native presence in what is now Seattle is vital to everyone who wants to live in accordance with their values. 

We can’t live a more just future if we continue to erase the past. 

We simply seek justice. 

We’re here. We’re ready. It’s time.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

📸 Featured Image: The Duwamish Tribal Council gather at the Longhouse on West Marginal Way, in front of a portrait of Kikisoblu, the daughter of Chief Sealth. From Left: Roger Boddy, James Rasmussen, Desiree Fagan, Council Chair Cecile Hansen, Paul Nelson, Ken Workman, and John Boddy. Councilmembers not pictured are Cindy Williams and Russell Beard.

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