Seattle's Fragmented Duwamish Tribe Struggles For Identity

May 21, 2013

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, a strong brew of native tea warms up the crowd at the Duwamish Longhouse in West Seattle. The tribe has hosted this casual tea party every spring since the longhouse opened three years ago, along the Duwamish River bank.

“Are you all happy to be here?” asks Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe.

Hansen thanks the 50 or so people for coming, then she enlists their help in the tribe’s fight for recognition. “I would send a really tough letter to our President just saying, ‘Okay, sign the status back to the Duwamish people’,” Hansen says.

Hansen is the great, great grandniece of Chief Seattle, who once led the Duwamish. She argues the US government failed to honor a treaty signed with the chief more than 150 years ago. It promised the Duwamish reservation land and other tribal rights that never materialized.

Without a home base and federal standing, the Duwamish have struggled for decades to maintain their identity and cohesion. Hansen describes her tribe as “homeless”.

Last Chance in Court

Seattle’s historic Duwamish Tribe now faces its final shot in a decades-long legal fight for federal recognition. The case swung in favor of the Duwamish in March, when US District Judge John Coughenour ordered the Department of the Interior to reconsider its previous denial of status. Coughenour indicated the agency may have handled the Duwamish review differently from similar cases. This week, the US Justice Department filed a notice to appeal a new review of the case.

"It always seemed like a lost cause...one big no after another from the federal government."

Bart Freedman, attorney for the Duwamish, describes the appeal notice as mainly a move to buy the feds more time. He said federal officials have indicated they’re undecided yet whether to appeal the order or go ahead with the review. Freedman expects to have a clearer answer from the Justice Department next month about which direction the case is heading.  

Tribal status would open up federal benefits, like healthcare, fishing rights and the chance to run a casino. It would also likely open up questions about membership in the tribe and who belongs -- an issue leaders of the Duwamish and other tribes are already confronting.

At the longhouse tea party, a huddle of people surrounds Maximus Pearson. At seven-weeks-old, he’s the Duwamish’s newest member. The proud, new mother is Cecile Hansen’s granddaughter, Christina Williams, who says she hopes her son will grow up without this question of federal status hanging over him.

Throughout her own childhood, Williams remembers watching her mom and grandmother lead this struggle for recognition and how it dominated their lives.

“It always seemed like a lost cause,” Williams recalls. “There was always one big no after another from the government. I hope my grandmother doesn't die and have worked her whole life to see nothing.”

The Duwamish petition has been in limbo since 1977. It was even approved briefly in 2001, then denied just days later as the White House changed hands from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush.

Hopes for the Tribe to Flourish

The prospect of renewed consideration for recognition has left Williams optimistic all her family’s persistence will finally pay off.

She hopes a favorable decision would reinvigorate her tribe as a whole as well as events like this luncheon, where the only Duwamish members present belong to Hansen’s immediate family.

Williams says over the years, she’s wondered why other members are not more involved.

“You know, they probably have a good reason where they’ve been,” Hansen says in defense of her absent members.

"If they think we're just going to get rich, I feel that’s the wrong reason."


Hansen explains how some former members have peeled away and enrolled with other tribes to get the benefits that she’s still seeking for the Duwamish. Her own brother joined the Suquamish Tribe years ago for fishing rights.

The Duwamish have nearly 600 enrolled members now, but official status could create a strong magnet for others to join, as other tribes have experienced.

Like a mama bear, Hansen’s got her guard up about long-lost relations who may come knocking on her door.

"They weren’t there before,” Hansen says. “If they think we’re just going to get rich, I feel that’s the wrong reason.”

Hansen says tribal membership would be open to descendants, as it is now. But she’s unclear how the enrollment guidelines might change with federal status, or how her tribal council would proceed. That’s a question some people outside the tribe are also watching closely.

Long-Lost Duwamish Members

“What we want is for them to understand we’re out here,” says Jewell James. “Your family is out here.”

James is a long-time leader with the Lummi Tribe, north of Bellingham. We sit on a bench overlooking the waterfront, near a 15-foot totem pole James helped carve. He’s spent most of his life on this Lummi reservation.

His Indian name is tse-Sealth, which means younger than Seattle.

Like Hansen, James is also related to Chief Seattle, as a great, great grandnephew. James says he’s always considered himself Duwamish, too -- even though he’s no longer an officially enrolled member. James guesses about 2,000 other Lummi members can also claim Duwamish lineage, yet he says they have little interaction with the official group.

This fragmented tribe is partly the result of no federal standing and no land, but James sees another reason. He says Duwamish leaders have failed to reach out to the larger native community.

“I feel sad because they rob themselves –cheat themselves - by not working with reservation relatives,” James says. “They could have a lot more power and strength if formed a council that went from reservation to reservation year after year after year, exploring and reuniting who the Duwamish are.”

James even testified against the Duwamish petition because he disagrees with Hansen’s leadership style. Other tribes have also opposed the Duwamish case for federal status, which may explain Hansen’s protective stance.

"What we want is for them to understand...your family is out here"


James says if the Duwamish do win recognition, he’d move to get involved in the leadership. His interest is to ensure the tribe’s membership would be open to everyone who deserves it.

“Then they’d be doing a justice for Chief Seattle because he wanted his people gathered in one spot, not dispersed,” James says. “That’s why it broke his heart.”

As we talk, a black hearse drives by and James casually mentions it’s intended for his uncle. Nearby, people are gathering shellfish for memorial dinner later that night. Following tradition, the uncle will be buried in the tribe’s cemetery down the road.

This is the kind of deep-rooted reservation life the Duwamish have gone without, as they continue to press for a federal stamp of approval.