Duwamish Tribe Renews Hopes For Federal Recognition

Mar 26, 2013

At the Duwamish Longhouse in West Seattle, Cecile Hansen traces her finger down a plaque of names. “Look at all our leaders, starting with the chief here,” Hansen says.

Hansen’s name comes last. Since 1975, she’s served as chairwoman for this tribe of about 600 people.

All along, she's shared the same mission as her predecessors. For Hansen, it boils down to a simple question for the US government.

Hansen asks, "Why don't you honor the treaty?"

Now, this tribe that welcomed Seattle’s first settlers has won a small victory in a much larger battle. The Duwamish people have fought for decades to be recognized as a federal tribe but courts have denied their petitions. On Friday, US District Judge John Coughenour ruled to give the tribe a new review.

In 1855, the tribe’s leader, Chief Seattle, gave the government 54,000 acres of what’s now prime Seattle real estate. In exchange, the tribe was to get a reservation. That never happened.

Hansen says she wants justice and she’s led the tribe’s charge for federal recognition. That legal status could come with benefits such as reservation land, fishing rights and the possibility to run a casino.

It’s been a roller coaster battle. The petition was briefly approved in 2001 then denied days later, as the White House changed hands from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush.

Then, just days ago, Hansen got news about the new review from her daughter, Cindy Williams, the tribe’s secretary. Williams asked, “Are you sitting down, mom? I’ve got good news.”

Hansen burst into tears.

“It really makes me sad that our tribe has had to fight,” Hansen said. “This is not right. We signed a treaty.”

Judge Coughenour has asked the Department of the Interior to take another look at the petition. He faulted the agency for handling the Duwamish case differently than similar ones.

The Duwamish quest for status has also faced opposition from other local tribes, including the Muckleshoot. They’ve filed arguments against the petition, saying the Duwamish don’t meet government requirements to qualify as a tribe. Muckleshoot officials were unavailable for comment on this story.

Hansen says she thinks opposing tribes are just afraid of more competition in the casino business.  She hesitates to say if the Duwamish would even go that route, if granted the right.