Photo depicting Cecile Hansen standing at a podium in the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center speaking to attendees.

Duwamish Tribe Files Lawsuit Against Interior Department in Fight for Federal Recognition

by Alex Garland and Elizabeth Turnbull

As the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center filled with supporters and members of the Duwamish Tribe on Wednesday, May 11, drumming and singing opened the event with ancient songs and sounds that have echoed across the waters of the Puget Sound for thousands of years. 

The tribe’s journey for recognition has been a long one, starting with the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 signed by Chief Si’ahl (anglicized to Seattle), Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, and representatives from Duwamish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Lummi, Skagit, Swinomish, and others. The U.S. Congress in 1859 ratified the Treaty of Point Elliott and “that is a government to government relationship. That is a recognition by the United States Congress of the Duwamish Tribe,” said Bart Freedman, tribal counsel from the Seattle law firm K&L Gates.

In yet another attempt at recognition, the Duwamish Tribe has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against the Department of the Interior (DOI) with the aim of obtaining a judicial declaration as a recognized Indian tribe. Seattle’s oldest law firm, K&L Gates, has been working with the tribe for over a decade and have redoubled their efforts in the hopes the court will reverse the department’s decision to withhold tribal recognition as it is “unconstitutional,” Freedman said.

“We’re demanding justice long overdue,” plaintiff and tribal chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribal Council, Cecile Hansen, said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit on Wednesday. “… I am now the great-grandmother watching my many generations of family and their family members wait for justice.”

Photo depicting members of the Duwamish Tribal Council gathered on a grassy hilltop.
The Duwamish Tribal Council. Photo courtesy of Jack Storms.

Without federal recognition in the past, the tribe has had to make up for a lack of federal funding and health care and educational support that recognized tribe members can be eligible for. In the 1980s, the tribe founded an organization to help provide for community needs and social and cultural services. More recently, people in the wider Seattle area have donated to the nonprofit Real Rent Duwamish, which provides direct funds to the tribe.

Such a need for resourcefulness comes long after Chief Seattle — the chief who led the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes and who Seattle is named after — signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, which was supposed to secure benefits to those who agreed to it. 

Since then, the lawsuit states that, “Congress has repeatedly recognized the Duwamish Tribe and its rights under the Treaty,” in addition to two U.S. courts and other federal authorities, but that “for over 40 years the Department has unlawfully refused to acknowledge the Duwamish Tribe as a federally recognized Indian tribe.”

“The Department of Interior seems to think that the Duwamish that signed the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855 had somehow ceased to exist,” Hansen said. “We’re still here.”

So why then, has the struggle for federal recognition been a journey that started almost 50 years ago? In 1977 the tribe filed its first request with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) but it took until 2001 to finally receive recognition. The BIA in 2001 reversed the DOI decision by stating in a press release that ”the Duwamish were determined to have met the criteria under both the 1978 and 1994 regulations.”

In the final days of President Bill Clinton’s administration, Michael Anderson, the head of the BIA, signed the paperwork. Unfortunately, that was three days after the end of Clinton’s term, and the ruling was overturned under President George W. Bush’s administration.

The Duwamish haven’t stopped their attempts at recognition, filing petitions and appeals, and even bringing a case to the U.S. District Court, but the challenge failed in 2015 when the DOI issued a formal denial. Its reasoning? The Duwamish did not exist as an “Indian entity” during certain periods of history and a “lack of evidence concerning the continuous existence of a distinct American-Indian community and tribal political influence or authority,” according to a Washington Post article.

Photo depicting Bart Freedman standing at a podium in the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center speaking to the gathered attendees.
“The concept that a matriarchal tribe ceases to retain its identity if a woman marries someone who is not Native American is simply false. Those communities have persisted, through cultural identity, persisted as active and dynamic members of the Duwamish Tribe.” —Bart Freedman, Duwamish legal counsel with law firm K&L Gates. Photo courtesy of Jack Storms.

According to the Duwamish website, the Duwamish “successfully petitioned the government for a settlement in 1925 and received a positive judgment in our favor. We were recognized by Congress as the Duwamish Tribe, receiving a settlement from the government for that case in the form of $64 dollars per tribal member in 1971.”

As the U.S. government took over 50,000 ancestral acres of land from the Duwamish in the Point Elliott Treaty, they burned longhouses and banned Indigenous people from living in the city in 1865. Yet, the Duwamish persisted, as Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, refused the decree and stayed in the city. 

“The U.S. has discriminated against the Duwamish Tribe based on their descendancy through Duwamish women,” according to legal counsel Freedman. “It was the practice and policy of the U.S. when the Duwamish women married into what was dismissively called by the DOI ‘pioneer marriages,’ that the Duwamish identity ceased to exist when a Duwamish woman married someone who was non-Duwamish. The children of those families were not ID’ed as Native American.” 

“This tribe, as the DOI acknowledges as over 99% descended from the original tribe and is also descended through 5 primary, female-led, matriarchal clans, is, in fact, completely tied to the historic tribe,” Freedman said. “The concept that a matriarchal tribe ceases to retain its identity if a woman marries someone who is not Native American is simply false. Those communities have persisted, through cultural identity, persisted as active and dynamic members of the Duwamish Tribe.”

Photo depicting the Duwamish Tribal Council seated at a long table in the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center during a press conference. Ken Workman stands at a podium in a traditional Duwamish hat and dark suit and speaks to the gathered crowd. The tribe's legal team and guests are seated behind the council at the table.
Ken Workman, a descendant of Chief Seattle and member of the Duwamish Tribal Council, speaks at a press conference announcing the tribe’s lawsuit seeking federal recognition. Photo courtesy of Jack Storms.

In addition to a general demand for federal recognition, the lawsuit stated that the department’s lack of recognition “violates the tribe’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the laws,” since, it states, the tribe is matrilineal and most present-day members are descended from women.

While members of the Chinook Tribal Nation and Snohomish Tribal Nation were present at Wednesday’s press conference, support for federal recognition of the Duwamish Tribe is not resounding among all tribes.

The Muckleshoot Tribe in particular has taken issue with the Duwamish Tribe’s fight for recognition, as the Muckleshoot claim to be the first people of the City of Seattle and the descendants of Duwamish ancestors. 

“The Duwamish tribal organization, they’re looking to take the identity of people that doesn’t belong to them,” said Donny Stevenson, the vice chair of Muckleshoot Tribal Council, stated in a video referencing the dispute. “It’s a form of cultural appropriation.” 

When asked about why the recognition was so important, the tribal council said it had nothing to do with taking anything from anyone. Instead, according to Ken Workman, a descendant of Chief Seattle, they have three main reasons for recognition: “health, welfare, education of our people.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, recognized tribes were provided funding for personal protective equipment and vaccines, but the Duwamish were left to their own ways of funding. 

Additionally, tribal members are not able to hold or maintain those artifacts that come out of the ground. Being federally recognized would give them the opportunity to maintain their own artifacts in their longhouse and not have them taken away. They would finally have the ability to practice their own religious ceremonies and hold their sacred eagle feathers without fear of serious fines from the federal government.

In response to such disputes, James Rasmussen, a member of the tribal council, spoke out at Wednesday’s press briefing, urging other tribes to show support and stating that the lawsuit was because of issues they have with the federal government, not with each other.

“Our fight is not with you,” Rasmussen said. “Our fight is with the federal government. And you should support this. Don’t listen to your attorneys that say we threaten you. We are your cousins.”

Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

📸 Featured Image: “I am now the great-grandmother watching my many generations of family and their family members wait for justice.” —Cecile Hansen, plaintiff and tribal chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribal Council. Photo courtesy of Jack Storms.

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