VIDEO: From longhouse to courthouse: Duwamish Tribe files lawsuit in new round of longrunning fight for federal recognition

(WSB photos. Drumming/singing at today’s event. At left, an image of Kikisoblu, Chief Sealth’s daughter)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

With this city named after its legendary leader, and home to a river bearing its name, the Duwamish Tribe says its lack of federal recognition makes no sense.

So the tribe is going to court, with a lawsuit launching a new chapter in the fight for recognition, which it says the federal government owes them as lead signatory to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. The lawsuit – which you can read here – was announced during an hour-and-a-half midday event at the tribe’s Longhouse in West Seattle.

The event, attended by members and supporters via livestream as well as in person, featured Duwamish Tribe leaders as well as its lawyers, most of whom are with K&L Gates. The speeches, taken together, provided a history lesson as well as a briefing on the lawsuit itself (which also is laden with history). Here’s how it unfolded:

Duwamish Tribal Council member Ken Workman offered a message of welcome, in both Lushootseed and English. He spoke of Chief Seattle welcoming visitors almost two centuries ago.

Tribe counsel Aurora Martin talked about the “long journey” and said this announcement comes days after the tribe’s annual membership gathering. She mentioned the petition drive supporting recognition, launched a year ago. She said the new fight contains “a message of hope,” seeking “justice … long overdue.” Despite the lack of federal recognition, “the Duwamish Tribe has not ceased to exist.” The Interior Department’s “denial of recognition is incorrect,” she said. “Today has been a long time coming.”

Duwamish Tribe chair Cecile Hansen spoke about what Martin had called “the fight of a lifetime” in introducing her. She spoke of her ancestry (participants from the tribe named their family lineage in an around-the-room introduction; hers was Oliver). That fight, she said, dates back to the ’70s. (We even covered her direct confrontation of then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell here in West Seattle in 2015.) She recalled her brother “getting cited for fishing in the Duwamish River” – to which the tribe should have had treaty rights, after signing the 1855 treaty: “We are still here.” She thanked supporters and vowed to “not give up.”

Speaking again in both languages, Workman returned to the podium to talk about the tribe’s history on the banks of the river across the street from the longhouse. “There were large houses here.” Speaking about the tribe’s role as environmental stewards, he evoked the significance of this time of year, alive with promise and freshness, relevant to the tribe again renewing its long-running fight.

Tribal Council member Desiree Fagan said she is from five generations of Duwamish women. She spoke of the limitations of being a non-recognized tribe, their lack of rights to display their own artwork. (We reported on a fight nine years ago over some art taken away from the tribe.) “I want my sons to experience Canoe Journey … to skipper and lead all tribes … I want my twin daughters to grow up knowing they came from the maternal tribe of Chief Seattle. … Our justice is long overdue.”

Tribal Council member James Rasmussen said he had followed family members onto the council, which was “reinvigorated” almost a century ago. He focused on honoring those who “have gone before.” He spoke of his decades of work with the Duwamish River – with the tribe as well as with the job from which he is about to retire, with the Duwamish River Community Coalition. That work has helped restore habitat for herons, for otters, for other wildlife, “more than any other place in the city of Seattle.” The river “is alive … just like we are. The recovery of the Duwamish River must include the restoration of the Duwamish Tribe.” He reminded everyone that the Clinton Administration recognized the Duwamish and Chinook tribes – and then that was taken away by the (GW) Bush Administration. “The Duwamish Tribe is owed reparations going back to that time.” The recognition is as much “about the people of Seattle” as about “the Duwamish people.”

Lupe Barnes from the Duwamish Tribal Services Board, also a former vice principal from Chief Sealth International High School, spoke too. She quoted the Rev, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Then, about the lawsuit itself:

Bart Freedman of K&L Gates, the firm representing the tribe, spoke of three key points. He said the lawsuit was filed this morning in US District Court in Seattle. He noted that the Department of Interior’s actions rejecting the tribe’s recognition had been overturned previously – but that hadn’t led to recognition, so now they’re going about it another way. “We’re seeking to ask the court to directly recognize the tribe.” He said there is now precedent that “a promise made is a promise kept.” Congress ratified the Point Elliott Treaty in 1859 and that’s a “government to government recognition” – the Interior Department does not have the right to overturn that. They’re seeking to have courts recognize that. Back in 1925, the tribe was successful in a lawsuit, he noted. And the Department of Interior issued identity cards in the ’50s and ’60s to Duwamish people, he noted. “We’re going to ask the court to acknowledge this repeated and ongoing recognition.” Another key point: The U.S. has discriminated by failing to recognize lineage from Duwamish women who married non-Natives. Current tribe members are tied to five historic matriarchal clans, he noted – so denying recognition based on that, he said, is a Constitutional violation.

Tim Hobbs, also from the legal team, declared, “We are confident that justice will prevail.” He recounted their argument of all the ways in which there already was a relationship with the federal government – such as a 1934 court ruling recognizing the Duwamish as the historical tribe that signed the Point Elliott Treaty. Then came another commission’s recognition and a judgment “to compensate the tribe for the loss of its ancestral lands,” Then in 1966 there was a decision appropriating money to pay that judgment. “Denying formal recognition has been a grave injustice.” He contends that all the past recognitions mean only Congress could terminate recognition – and has not. “That is the end of the matter.” The Interior Department, he contended, does not have the authority.

Also from the legal team, Shelby Stoner: “So why won’t the Department recognize the Duwamish Tribe? … It takes issue with the ancestry,” she said, elaborating on Freedman’s point. The feds contend the women “somehow abandoned the tribe,” but, she declared, they did not. “This is discrimination based on sex.”

“The legal commitments made to tribes are commitments that need to be honored,” Freedman summarized. “We are literally standing across the street from a historic Duwamish village. The tribe is not able to hold the artifacts of its ancestors because it’s not recognized.” They had no access to federal health-care help during the pandemic. “The Department of Interior is on the wrong side of history.”

The event also featured speeches from supporters before a brief media-Q&A period. We asked about the ongoing PR campaign by the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and Tulalip Tribes that have challenged the Duwamish Tribe’s legitimacy. Rasmussen replied with a direct message to members of those tribes: “Our fight is not with you – it’s with the federal government … it’s not about a big power grab at all … it’s about our rightful place.” He also urged the members of those tribes to “not listen to your lawyers … support us.” Freedman acknowledged that some other tribes have people of Duwamish ancestry “but that is fundamentally different from whether the Duwamish Tribe exists as a tribe that has a treaty relationship with the United States.” The government, he notes, has found that the Duwamish Tribe’s members are 99 percent descended from Duwamish people.

Asked what recognition would mean to the Duwamish, Rasmussen elaborated on the health-care denial, while Workman elaborated on the lack of access to the artifacts – which he said is “sacrilege.” He also mentioned a freedom to practice religion – being caught with an eagle feather for a non-recognized tribe’s ceremony, he said, could mean prosecution.

WHAT’S NEXT: Now that the lawsuit’s been filed, it will start making its way through the court system.

UPDATE: We recorded video of the Longhouse event; it’s added above as of 6:22 pm.

29 Replies to "VIDEO: From longhouse to courthouse: Duwamish Tribe files lawsuit in new round of longrunning fight for federal recognition"

  • Kelly May 11, 2022 (3:56 pm)

    Thank you so much, WSB, for capturing this important development.  I hope this brings even more recognition to this critical opportunity for the US government to begin to right almost two centuries of injustice to the Duwamish people.  Neighbors: sign here!

  • KT May 11, 2022 (5:06 pm)

    Yes!  Hope they prevail this time.  Bart Freedman and the rest of the legal team are excellent attorneys.

  • skeeter May 11, 2022 (5:12 pm)

    Thank you, WSB, for asking about the position of the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Suquamish, Tulalip, etc advocating against recognition of the Duwamish Tribe.  I remain confused.  Can someone, in an unbiased way, explain why several recognized tribes are opposed to the Duwamish Tribe getting federal recognition?  

    • zephyr May 11, 2022 (7:10 pm)

      7:11 pm. Per that earlier link, aren’t the Muckleshoot saying that the Duwamish are already a part of the Muckleshoot tribe?  If someone can recommend a good book on the subject, please post it.  I certainly feel for the descendants of Chief Sealth but there seems to be more complexity to this issue. 

    • The King May 11, 2022 (9:52 pm)

      Everyone here’s afraid to say it. It’s money. The tribes you named all have casinos, it’s no coincidence. If the duwamish were to open one in the city they’d make Amazon type cash. And then Ferguson would try to take his “fair share”. This state is very predictable. If they do get recognition, which I hope they do, they’ll need a team of lawyers from day one to protect themselves. 

      • skeeter May 12, 2022 (8:36 am)

        Thanks “The King” for your explanation.  I have no idea if you are correct or not, but your explanation could be a factor.  As a friend of mine once told me:  follow the money.  I suspect this issue is tremendously complex.

      • WS Res May 12, 2022 (1:16 pm)

        Who’s “Ferguson”?

        • The King May 12, 2022 (6:33 pm)

          Bob Ferguson attorney general. 

    • Stephanie May 14, 2022 (12:00 pm)

      The way it was explained to me, the people who are trying to be recognized as the Duwamish, once abandoned their Tribe and lived for generations as non-native. This is mentioned in this article also. To meet one of the requirements of Federal recognition you must prove you kept your cultural ways/ties. Most Natives who moved and lived the hard life on the reservation can say they are connected because they were a part of the community. It becomes difficult to prove that if you live away from a reservation and don’t participate in a Native community.Two sections of Duwamish exist. Those who moved to the various reservations in the area and lived as Native, and those who married non-Native and lived as non-Native.

  • Chris elworth May 11, 2022 (5:28 pm)

    I hold my hands up and pray not only for the great grandfather cheif aunt Cecile hansen.that all people understand this is about history of seattle.walk the street of duwamish you see.if it was not for then their would be no seattle.history can not be the duwamish and their rightful place.

  • snocone May 11, 2022 (7:16 pm)

    Skeeter – I am a white person with zero native blood, so personally, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to give any kind of explanation as my answer would be based on the fact that I have very little knowledge of Native American history or tribal politics.  What I can do is point you to links from the Muckleshoot tribe.  I have also read SPL library books about local native Americans and several times have read that some Natives living on the Muckleshoot and other nearby Reservations have ancestors dating back to the Duwamish.  There are very specific criteria to be met to be a Federally recognized tribe, like whether a tribe has existed continually with its own tribal government or not.  These are two issues of contention.  I am not making any judgement or advocating either way on this issue.    Home (        The Real Duwamish

    • skeeter May 12, 2022 (8:29 am)

      Thanks SNOCONE.  My ancestors came from Europe in a boat too.  I read the link you provided and it’s helpful, but what I’m looking for is unbiased arguments from people who have nothing to gain or lose.  I’m trying to figure out if the Muckleshoot opposition is coming from historical and cultural accuracy or some other agenda.  Many people in my community are enthusiastic supporters of Duwamish tribal recognition but until I figure out why existing tribes are so vehemently opposed I don’t know what to make of this situation.     

  • Jenben May 11, 2022 (8:25 pm)

    Agree with snocone was just reading about this issue TODAY weirdly. I grew up near the muckleshoot and they have been outspoken against the Duwamish being recognized federally. There are probably some good resources out there but I don’t know if any. I’ve googled and read some articles and that left me perplexed but with the solid understanding that it’s a bit more complex than I originally had assumed  

    • skeeter May 12, 2022 (8:31 am)

      Jenben – exactly the same as my experience.  I tried to do some research and got nowhere.  I have a feeling there is extraordinary complexity and I’m just looking for the New York Times summary of the issue.  

  • Don Brubeck May 12, 2022 (7:25 am)

    Stand with the the Duwamish!The Tribe’s website offers ways to learn and help.Sign their petition .

  • JS May 12, 2022 (9:42 am)

    I really appreciate that people are asking for more information to better understand this complicated situation. One way to get direct information is to go down to the Duwamish longhouse and ask! They also sell books about the history of the Duwamish nation. And, if you’re reading, prioritize reading books about Native issues  actually written by Native authors. You’ll notice a difference. The US government has consistently engaged in a cycle of violence with Indigenous people, and the current system of federal recognition is a great example. Nations signed treaties, but now have to fight for federal recognition all while the federal government continues to violate treaties. When the government tells nations there are limited resources (and that’s a lie), nations are forced to fight each other to get what their people need/want. Our current capitalist system breeds an us vs. them mentality, so it’s not surprising that nations who are stronger together might not see it that way if they want to be successful in the current system.  As a result, we see nations fighting against one another and even fighting internally. If you really want to learn about Indian Law (it’s complicated and painful, to be honest), you might start with Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States, edited by Ouden and O’Brien (White Earth Ojibeway). The essays are mostly by Native folks. You might also consider reading News Media and the Indigenous Fight for Federal Recognition  written by Cristina Azocar (Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe) if you want to see how media coverage has (negative) impacted federal recognition efforts by different nations. Finally, another good read for broad context around the idea that the Duwamish are now just the Muckleshoot, consider Kim TallBear’s (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) book Native American DNA Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.Nowadays when we talk about Native people we use the same kind of framework we use for nations anywhere else in the world. But borders are artificial, and people aren’t usually all that different. In a resource dense place like what is now called Puget Sound, nations could interact differently compared to people who lived in resource limited areas. At first contact with colonizers, most of the nations around the Sound spoke variations of a common language (usually referred to now as Lushootseed) and shared many common or similar practices and beliefs, so the nations tended to be more interconnected (not that there wasn’t conflict. This isn’t a Disney movie.). Chief Sealth, for example, was both Duwamish and Suquamish. Non-Native folk might think these differences are largely inconsequential, but they are deeply important and should be respected. The government has historically not cared about these differences, and why would they if the goal was to control the land and the resources? Our systems are rooted in power and control. The Treaty of Point Elliott was a chaotic and painful moment and generally ignored much of the nuances between nations. Remember, over 20 tribes were represented at that treaty signing, but the treaty only created a handful of reservations. The US government pushed to move as many different nations as possible onto the least amount of land they could so the rest of the land would be available for white colonizers. Some Native folk had family or other relationship ties to the nations that got reservations, so it was acceptable to move onto what effectively was another nation’s land. Other people had no choice because all of their traditional resources and land were gone. Others chose to remain as long as they could on their traditional lands. Keep in mind that these were not simple answers or even short-term answers. The US government routinely denied people the right to leave reservation land (thus the offensive term “going off rez”), so some people moved onto one reservation thinking it was just a short-term situation or that it wouldn’t stop them from going to see their other family or follow the salmon, for example. These were horribly traumatic times to be making complicated decisions, and people did the best they could. Some leaders also saw the writing on the wall and resisted being moved onto another nation’s land because they understood they would never get back to their homelands. Finally, an important part of the recognition process is the US government’s focus on whether a nation has maintained a government since the time of first contact, generally using the American idea of what a government should look like. When you consider that most Native nations didn’t use written record keeping like the US government does until later on, you can see how challenging it might be to show to the gov’s standards that you have maintained a government. If you consider how many children were forced into boarding schools, removed from their heritage and punished for speaking their language, you can imagine that some nations may not have access to the oral histories that are passed down to tell the story of how they have remained a united people or who may not have reconnected to their nation as a result of the trauma they endured. And when you consider the government’s intentional “kill the Indian, save the man” policies, the government is stacking the deck against nations, especially smaller nations like the Duwamish. Oh, and keep in mind that one of President Clinton’s last acts was to give the Duwamish federal recognition, and one of the first acts of President Bush was to take it away. The Duwasmish have done the work to overcome the previous challenges to their recognition (lost records from around 1915 to 1925, for example), and they did prove their case. The promises made to the Duwamish in the treaties have not been honored, and now that Seattle is a prosperous city, the government will have to give more to the Duwamish, and since when has the government wanted to give anything to Native people? If you want to support the Duwamish, be sure to pay your rent via and spend time at the longhouse! Ms. Cecile’s fry bread really is a special gift. 

    • miws May 12, 2022 (11:05 am)

      JS, thank you so much for your explanation, which makes a great deal of sense to me, and confirms some of the thoughts I have regarding this very confusing situation.  I have a deep respect and love for the Duwamish Tribe, which, if I had felt it already, was clinched nearly 11 years ago now almost to the day. I had just become homeless, and, just 3 days prior the tent encampment, “Nicklesville”, had moved back to Highland Park Way/W. Marginal. One of my first memories is that of Chair Hansen bringing down some food, welcoming us to and giving us permission to occupy that part of Duwamish land. That was one of several times she brought food, often a big pot of soup, down. Many of us were invited and able to attend a  delicious dinner and performance at the Longhouse, around Thanksgiving of that year.  Not only is the Longhouse a beautiful building visually, but It also had, and it’s a little hard to describe, a certain feeling of belonging at that location, and as if it had been there “forever”, despite being only a few years old at the time. Your explanation puts my mind much more at ease that I’m doing the right thing in continuing to support the Duwamish’s position in all of this. Although I appreciate Snocone’s “From the standpoint of law” posting, as I skimmed through part of it trying to decipher the legalese, my thoughts turned to how much of this “Law” was the white settlers’ decision and interpretation, and how much, if any was truly agreed to by the Indigenous, *completely*  free of any duress or deceit. —Mike

  • James May 12, 2022 (11:00 am)

    Real Rent is due. Duwamish own this land. We non-indigenous, just rent. 

  • snocone May 12, 2022 (11:00 am)

    Thank you for all that information and resources, JS!  Skeeter – the wording of the law which I posted is the most unbiased thing that I have found online, but as JS has pointed out, there is still bias, no matter how you look at it!  Perhaps the only people who may be completely objective are some historians or people living in other countries who have nothing to do with America. As soon as you as ask an American, bias will come into play.

    • miws May 12, 2022 (1:55 pm)

      Snocone, I should mention that I wasn’t trying to discredit you or the source you posted. Meant to mention it in my above comment, but, as usual, the brain types faster than the fingers, and by the time the fingers caught up,  I forgot to mention it. :-) —Mike

  • AlkiResident May 12, 2022 (11:13 am)

    The sticking point, from what I have read- as mentioned by another commenter above- is that they did not form a government until 1925, and so, therefore, were not recognized as a tribe (in 1871 by the House of Reps). Here is a link with a timeline: To another’s point- I suspect if they do get federal recognition we will quickly see a casino go up on their land near West Seattle. 

  • Scott May 12, 2022 (2:04 pm)

    It’s been awhile since I was involved in this subject. But as I recall: Tribes with reservations put casinos there. Some are more lucky than others with the location. Tribes can also have land off the reservation held in trust and a casino can be placed there. I think I am correct in saying such a situation exists with the Spokane Tribe. If the Duwamish Tribe gets recognition and wants a casino, you would think it would go the trust route and pick land with high visibility and easy access. I think the tribe needs Interior Department approval for the land in trust and must negotiate a gambling compact with the state.

    • 1994 May 12, 2022 (8:21 pm)

      Most likely the tribe would also need tens of millions of dollars in Interior Department Bureau of Indian Affairs monies to set up a tribal government and then open a gambling establishment.

  • snocone May 12, 2022 (3:38 pm)

    Thank you, MIWS/Mike for sharing your memories with us.  What a touching story!  And, I absolutely agree with you about the fact that the law was written by white former Europeans who had their own agendas, judgements and opinions about people they knew little about.  One question I have is, are the criteria written in stone or is there a chance the federal government would change them?  For example, what about the discerning stipulation that AlkiResident mentions:  (c) Political influence or authority. The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from 1900 until the present. Political influence or authority means the entity uses a council, leadership, internal process, or other mechanism as a means of influencing or controlling the behavior of its members in significant respects, making decisions for the entity which substantially affect its members, and/or representing the entity in dealing with outsiders in matters of consequence. This process is to be understood flexibly in the context of the history, culture, and social organization of the entity.

  • Pessoa May 12, 2022 (9:36 pm)

    My only quibble is the notion that we, non-Native-Americans, are somewhow “renting.”  In Chief Seattle’s own words, no one owns the land.  A semantic technicality, but still an important clarification.  As far as the inter-tribal “beef,” between the Duwamish and Muckleshoot this is not uncommon as there has always much fierce rivalry between proud coastal tribes – and warring.  The large and powerful Haida of British Columbia made periodic slave raids against the Salish people on Puget Sound.  

    • Agree May 13, 2022 (11:35 am)

      The idea of rent due to original “owners” is interesting.  How far back do you go?  Was anyone here before the Duwamish?  Did other people live in the area who would feel like it was their land also?  Lands have been conquered and changed hands since the dawn of time.  Not necessarily with compensation and agreement.  It’s not great, but it’s definitely human nature.  Anyway, it’s just a puzzling concept for me.  I do like the idea of being fair but life definitely isn’t.   

  • West Coast Nomad May 13, 2022 (3:38 pm)

    I’m flabbergasted by the ignorance displayed in the comments  by Pessoa and Agree. I doubt they should be dignified with a response but if these are genuine questions, educate yourselves on the history of the many lands colonized by Europeans. Because Native American  peoples warred among themselves, colonization is OK, then? I guess the same goes for Africa and many other lands whose people have been decimated, destroyed and changed forever by colonization. I suppose what’s happening with Ukraine is good to go, too? We can’t deflect or make excuses for the ugliness that has happened and continues to happen. So yes, those of us who are not native to an area are renting, at best. Because it has happened for so long does not make it right. And even though many may believe might is right or think concepts like manifest destiny mean they have a right to take whatever they want of the world, it’s absolutely wrong. 

Sorry, comment time is over.