As the tribal chair of the Duwamish Tribe, my story, and that of my people, has been defined by struggle. I’ve spent years working to restore the rightful status of the Duwamish, which means “People of the Inside,” as we’ve become assimilated into mainstream culture and pushed off our indigenous lands.
This spring, the Duwamish received some good news in our decades-long journey to gain federal recognition: A U.S. district judge vacated a 2001 decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to deny us recognition. Now the department must reexamine our status.
This could mean our tribal members will receive the recognition we feel we deserve — or maybe it won’t. Time and again, the Duwamish have been told one thing by government officials and court judges, only to be told something else later.
In the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, the Duwamish Tribe gave up more than 54,000 acres — in essence, all of the land acreage of Seattle — for the disgusting price of $1.35 an acre. The federal government took more than four years to ratify this treaty and then, to rub more injustice into our wounds, granted settlers land allotments the size of entire towns: 312 acres per person or 640 acres per couple. Suddenly, we became squatters on our land.
Other tribes were told to move to temporary reservations, but our people, faced with inadequate provisions that could have led to starvation and death, moved back to their traditional river villages to hunt, gather food and fish. If we went downtown after dark, we were forced out; if we went to other parts of town, people would shoot at us.
In 1926, the Duwamish, along with other tribes, petitioned for compensation with the Indian Claims Commission.
In 1963, the Duwamish were awarded a land claims judgment of $64,000. The money was distributed in 1971 to tribal members who could prove Duwamish descent — some 1,000 people. We each received $64. Our elders went to their graves knowing that broken promises led to a loss of land and a pitiful sum of money. My aunts and many others cried. I took my $64 and brought groceries for my family.
The injustice continued with the 1974 Boldt decision, where U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled that signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty had the right to half of the area’s fish, including in the Duwamish River, Seattle’s only waterway. But the ruling denied this right to four “landless” tribes, one of which was the Duwamish. And our people lost legal fishing rights on a river that bears our name.
So began the quest, in 1975, to regain federal recognition through the office of Federal Acknowledgment Project (FAP). Government officials proclaim the office was designed to provide a systematic process to gain recognition.
The Duwamish experienced countless delays and then two negative determinations.
I called the FAP office in 2001, on the last day of Bill Clinton’s term, to check the status of our petition. I was told someone would call back. At 6 p.m. — that’s 9 p.m. in D.C. — the phone rang in the Duwamish tribal office. I was told the federal government had decided to recognize the Duwamish. It had taken 25 years.
But the following Monday we received an email saying that decision had been put on hold.
Eight months later our status was taken away because the office refused to follow its own rules to review this petition.
We began a legal appeal process in 2002, but the law firm we hired quit when we couldn’t afford to pay them big bucks.
Since then, another firm has stepped up. It’s taken three years, but a federal judge decided the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) ruled incorrectly on our petition and must review its decision. But now the BIA has new rules for tribal recognition.
The only politician who’s helped to correct this injustice is Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Seattle), who always presents another bill to recognize the Duwamish. Other elected officials offer no help and seem to not even care for the original people of Seattle. It’s a shame.
So where does that leave us? Waiting, like my people have done for more than 150 years.
Unless the broken promises end and more leaders step up to help us, the People of the Inside may find themselves on the outside for many years to come.