Cecile Hansen just wants to write her book.
The chairwoman of the Duwamish tribe figures she has enough material to fill one — she’s been fighting for federal recognition of her tribe since the 1970s when her brother came to her after getting cited for fishing on land once inhabited by the Duwamish people.
“He says, ‘You know what?’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You should get involved.’ I said, ‘And do what?’” Hansen recalled. “And he said — and this is 1974 — just go to a few meetings.”
More than 40 years later, the tribe has yet to be granted federal recognition, a status that would open the door to some resources and rights, including the ability to open a casino, which Hansen maintains is not the endgame. And, after many attempts to win that status — and getting tantalizingly close in 2001 — the effort took a major blow in 2015 when Hansen received a letter from the Department of the Interior denying the petition and declaring that her tribe had run out of appeals.
As it turns out, that’s not the case.
A judge in the Department of the Interior granted the Duwamish another chance, saying that the previous decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was flawed. The two sides will submit their cases this month, said Bart Freedman, an attorney with K&L Gates, who has represented the tribe pro bono for almost 15 years.
Talking to Freedman, you can hear the frustration that has built up around the Duwamish’s fight.
“These were a people that got pushed out like no one else,” Freedman said. “Now they’re being told that because we disrupted your lives so thoroughly that you don’t fit these boxes we made 100 years later.”
The story of the tribe’s quest for recognition is long, complex and a bit arcane.
There are three ways to achieve recognition as a Native American Tribe: an act of Congress, an administrative procedure with the Bureau of Indian Affairs or through the courts. The Duwamish have tried them all.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) reintroduced the Duwamish Tribal Recognition Act on April 30, 2015, which was referred to the subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs a month later. Two months after that, the Bureau of Indian Affairs updated its rules on achieving recognition and denied the Duwamish’s appeal in rapid succession.
In his remarks to Congress, McDermott pointed out that 160 years had passed since the Duwamish signed The Treaty of Point Elliott with the federal government, ceding 54,000 acres of land that now houses five cities, one of which bears the name of the Duwamish’s chief, Si’ahl.
“There is significant evidence to support Duwamish recognition that is not included in the current record filed over 20 years ago,” McDermott argued, according to congressional records.
McDermott was referring to the second method of achieving recognition, through an administrative process with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s a long and usually expensive affair that requires that a tribe meet seven criteria, including proof of their identity and cultural activities going back to 1900.
It’s not easy to meet this standard, which encompasses a time in which a tribe may not have had a written language to facilitate records-keeping and, in some cases, when it was literally illegal for Native Americans to practice their beliefs or culture.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs established the initial set of rules for recognition in 1978. Those have since been updated twice, in 1994 and 2015.
The Duwamish actually made it through that process. As recorded in the 2016 documentary about the tribe, the acting assistant secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration approved the tribe’s petition, but didn’t sign it. The tribe was then denied when the Bush administration took over.
The thing about that denial, Freedman says, is that the government used the 1978 criteria to judge the tribe’s application rather than the newer, less restrictive rules from 1994. He successfully argued that the tribe should have been reviewed under the 1994 rules, and they went back to the grindstone.
At that point, the Duwamish had been working their way through the system for more than 20 years, and they asked to update their original application with new materials to better satisfy the requirements.
When the 2015 denial came, it was déjà vu all over again.
“In the summer of 2015, a couple of funny things happened,” Freedman said. “In the same week in July, the department adopted new rules and denied the Duwamish under the old rules. They did the exact same thing that they’ve been told not to do, again.”
The new court action will focus on whether or not the decision not to recognize the tribe was proper under the older set of rules and that they should have been assessed under the 2015 rules anyway, Freedman said.
Support for the tribe is mixed.
The Seattle School Board voted in October to support the Duwamish, and also emphasize education for Native children in the schools. But included in the agenda item were multiple documents from other local tribes voicing their opposition to recognition for the Duwamish, and a “pros and cons” list for the district that included upsetting relations with the other tribes.
The Muckleshoot, Suquamish and Tulalip tribes sent a letter to Sally Jewell, head of the Department of the Interior, in March of 2016 objecting to the reopening of the Duwamish recognition process saying that the final decision reached in July 2015 should be considered as such.
They contend that the 600 members of the Duwamish do not constitute a tribe that’s eligible for federal recognition. In fact, the Muckleshoot claim Duwamish heritage, saying on their website that it is composed of the Duwamish and Upper Puyallup peoples. The tribe takes its name from the Native name for the prairie where the Muckleshoot Reservation is located.
Hansen believes that the other tribes are motivated by money and a desire to prevent another casino creating competition. Although tribal representatives did not return calls by press time — with the exception of the Puyallup, which gave no comment — the Muckleshoot pointed out that they did not object to the Snoqualmie tribe’s bid in a 2012 Seattle Times article, despite the fact that the Snoqualmie did get a casino that is close to the Muckleshoot reservation.
In the meantime, Hansen and the tribe will move forward with the new appeal to see if they can get the recognition that they feel they deserve.
“Do you have to prove who you are, honey?” Hansen asked. “Then why should the Duwamish? That’s where I’m coming from.”