Two local tribes that have long opposed federal recognition for the Duwamish Tribal Organization (DTO) filed briefs in court detailing their concerns about the reopened appeal, arguing that the Duwamish are not who they claim to be.
Attorneys from the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes issued “friend of the court” or amicus briefs in mid-November seeking to show that federal officials had already found that the DTO is a loosely connected group that broke off from the rest of the tribe in the 19th century.
The Muckleshoot, whose reservation lies to the south of Auburn, claim title to the Duwamish name. The Muckleshoot describes itself as an amalgamation of other tribes that moved to the reservation after Chief Si’ahl, Seattle’s namesake and multiple tribes’ representative, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.
The treaty signed over Native American lands and established reservations.
In a statement to Real Change, the Muckleshoot Tribe said that the DTO’s petition for recognition amounts to the tribe trying to appropriate the history of the Duwamish that joined the Muckleshoot. It would also undermine the concept of tribal sovereignty, which is given to tribes that can prove their continuous existence as sovereign entities predating the United States, the tribe wrote.
Conversely, the DTO holds that they existed as a political unit prior to 1925, the year that the legal entity was formed and successfully sued the government for money. Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the tribe, descends from Chief Si’ahl, whose position was recognized as a signatory to the Treaty of Point Elliott.
“I don’t look at myself as the leader of the tribe,” Hansen said in an interview with Real Change in November. “I see myself as the person fighting for the tribe that signed the treaty.”
The Muckleshoot would accept members of the DTO that have sufficient Duwamish blood to enroll, a qualification known as “blood quantum,” but it’s not clear that all members would meet that standard.
The group intermarried with pioneers, leaving their traditional villages, the reservations and contact with the larger body of the Duwamish behind, according to the filing by Richard Reich, attorney for the Muckleshoot Tribe.
“With limited exception, the Duwamish families who moved to the reservations are not ancestral to the petitioner,” the brief reads. “Petitioner” refers to the DTO.
The Puyallup brief, authored by tribal attorney Sam Stiltner, tells the same story.
Hansen, now in her 80s, has been fighting for recognition for the Duwamish since 1974. Her brother suggested that the tribe try for recognition after running afoul of the state for fishing without a permit on lands formerly occupied by the tribe.
A tribe can be recognized in one of three ways: an act of Congress, through the petition process and through the courts. The DTO has attempted all three.
Rep. Jim McDermott reintroduced the Duwamish Tribal Recognition Act on April 30, 2015. It was referred to the subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native affairs a month later. While fighting for the bill, McDermott argued that there was “significant evidence to support Duwamish recognition” that was not included in an initial filing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A filing, the second avenue to recognition, is a long, extensive and expensive process that requires a tribe meet seven criteria, including proof of their identity and cultural activities going back to 1900. This standard, which is difficult to meet, is at the heart of the other two tribes’ written opposition.
The Bureau’s process was crafted in 1978, and updated again in 1994 and 2015. The DTO application was evaluated and denied first under the 1978 rules and then under the 1994 rules. The acting assistant secretary of the Interior approved their bid in 2001, but left critical documents unsigned just as the George W. Bush administration took office.
The new administration denied the application.
The most recent denial took place in July 2015, just prior to the adoption of the new standards. The DTO and their attorney Bart Freedman, who is working the case pro bono for local law firm K&L Gates, believe the Bureau should have applied the 2015 rules in their most recent denial in July 2015, just prior to the adoption of the new standards.
That might have been the end, but the DTO received notice that it could appeal to an administrative law judge within the Bureau of Indian Affairs in September. Failing that, the group would have to rely on either congressional help or a parting executive order from President Barack Obama.
The designation as a federally recognized tribe confers benefits including access to funding, health services and land rights. They can also build casinos, which can be a major source of money for the tribe.
Hansen rejects the notion of a casino. This isn’t about money for her, although she said she suspects it is for the opposing tribes (something they have denied in the past). For Hansen, it’s about an affirmation of her community, and the responsibilities that the federal government has for them.
“I’m not asking for money, but it seems to me that we’re the first signers of the Point Elliott Treaty,” Hansen said. “We should be on that list.”