When white settlers arrived at Alki Point 170 years ago and began to build what would become a city called Seattle, they weren’t working with a blank canvass. On the land we now know as King County, they found at least 17 villages, with nearly 100 buildings between them, that were home to a rich community of interconnected families known together as the “People of the Inside” – the Duwamish. They had already lived on this land for more than 12,000 years.
But in just three years more, the Duwamish would be forced off their ancestral land by our federal government with the promise of a reservation that was never delivered. Their villages were attacked, and their longhouses burned. A law was passed banning them from being in the city of Seattle – a city named after their own chief – after sundown. Their ancestral rivers, once abundant with salmon, were drained dry. Their children were forced into boarding schools that sought to smother their language and culture.
Today, the U.S. government claims the Duwamish Tribe ceased to exist many years ago. But the truth is that the Duwamish are still here, in this city that bears the name of their late chief, despite every attempt to eradicate their people and erase their culture over the last 17 decades. And they demand to be recognized.
The tribe, with 600 tribal members, is now waging a renewed fight to force the federal government to legally recognize it. With official recognition would come a variety of rights and benefits that would allow the tribe to do much more to look after the health, education, and wellbeing of its people. And it would allow them to practice their traditions and customs without restriction, and to claim back ancestral artifacts taken from them.
This is a legal fight¹ – one that hinges on decades of legislation, litigation, treaties, court decisions, and an arbitrary colonialist system for determining who is considered a “tribe” in the eyes of the U.S. government. But it will also require a movement, because the Duwamish have fought this fight before, successfully, only to have federal recognition snatched away from them again.²
Solid Ground is proud to be a part of that movement.
This blog post, the first in a three-part series, explores why recognition matters to the Duwamish Tribe and why they’ve fought for it for so long. Later this summer, we’ll explain why Solid Ground supports the tribe in this fight, what we’re doing to help, and what you can do to support this movement.
These are the first people of Seattle. They never left.
When the United States began to expand its territories into the West in the 1800s, it encountered countless Indigenous peoples persevering despite the decimating diseases brought by earlier European explorers. But the U.S. wanted land for white settlers, so it employed violence, coercion, and harassment to force Indigenous peoples into tiny, remote reservations, far from the land and waters that had sustained them for millennia.
“We’re demanding justice long overdue. The Department of the Interior seems to think that the Duwamish that signed the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855 somehow ceased to exist in the last 167 years. But we’re still here.” ~Tribal Council Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, a descendent of Chief Seattle
That’s exactly what happened in 1855, with the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliot. The Indigenous families that had lived together in villages across Western Washington were grouped together into different legal tribes by U.S. agents government, and various leaders among them were assigned as their chiefs. A leader named Si’ahl, known as “Seattle” to white settlers, was designated the chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish and forced to sign a treaty giving the U.S. the more than 54,000 acres that had been their home for thousands of years.
In exchange, the tribes were told they would be given land where they could live in peace, and that they would be free to fish and hunt as they always had. But the Duwamish were never given a reservation.
Instead, as white settlers cleared their forests and dammed their rivers, some Duwamish families seeking to escape violence and discrimination on their own ancestral land moved onto established reservations with other tribes, some of them former enemies. Many of the descendants of those Duwamish still live there today, as members of the Muckleshoot, Tulalip, Suquamish, and other federally recognized tribes.
But other Duwamish chose to stay on their ancestral land, in and around what was becoming the city of Seattle and elsewhere around Puget Sound, despite the harassment and discrimination they faced there. It’s their descendants that make up today’s Duwamish Tribe.
What recognition would mean for the Duwamish
Even without the many resources that come with federal recognition, the Duwamish Tribe has worked for decades to preserve the culture and language of its people and support their health and education.
The tribe now has a longhouse, built across the street from where a Duwamish village once stood along a river that now bears their name. The tribe, through the Duwamish River Community Coalition, has also led the environmental cleanup of that river, which was poisoned by decades of industrial abuse. And it holds regular cultural programs, allowing a new generation of Duwamish children to learn the Lushootseed language, perform traditional songs and dances, and make hand drums, beads, and other crafts just as their ancestors did.
“The government, when we signed that treaty, was supposed to take care of the health, welfare, and education of the Duwamish. Those are the reasons we are looking to be recognized. That’s it: the health, welfare, and education of our people. That’s what we will see change.” ~Tribal Council Member James Rasmussen
But Indigenous people in Seattle still struggle under the weight of 17 decades of violence, racism, displacement, generational poverty, and cultural extermination. Today, Indigenous children in the Seattle area are three times more likely to die in their first year of birth than white children, and nearly four times more likely to live in poverty.³ One in five Indigenous adults in the Seattle area do not have a high school diploma, compared to one in 30 white adults. And across Washington state, Indigenous people have the shortest life expectancy and highest rates of infant mortality, asthma, and colorectal cancer among all racial groups.⁴
With federal recognition, the Duwamish Tribe could do so much more for its people. It would allow the tribe to take advantage of federal benefits for housing, health care, and education. Its members would be eligible for health coverage under the Indian Health Service, as well as a variety of other education and social services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In recent years, Congress has set aside $43 billion in assistance for tribes through COVID-19 relief measures, but the Duwamish didn’t receive a penny because it’s not federally recognized. When COVID-19 vaccines were distributed to the tribes, the Duwamish didn’t receive any. Some members died.
“The government, when we signed that treaty, was supposed to take care of the health, welfare, and education of the Duwamish,” says James Rasmussen, a tribal council member. “Those are the reasons we are looking to be recognized. That’s it: the health, welfare, and education of our people. That’s what we will see change.”
Federal recognition would also allow the tribe to practice its customs and traditions without restriction, such as a prohibition on using eagle feathers in ceremonies. And it would allow them to reclaim their ancestral artifacts from museums that receive federal funding. Currently, it’s illegal for them to own their own artifacts.
“As an unrecognized tribe we have limitations. We cannot fully practice our culture traditions, history, and language,” says Desiree Fagan, a member of the Duwamish Tribal Council. “We have to ask permission to display our own artifacts and care for our ancestors’ bones. We have had to buy back the land that our longhouse stands on.
But federal recognition is also about dignity and a right to self-governance for the Duwamish people. It’s about the federal government acknowledging that they did not cease to be Duwamish just because they chose to stay on their ancestral land. It’s about recognizing that the first people of Seattle are still here.
“We’re demanding justice long overdue,” says Cecile Hansen, Tribal Council Chairwoman and a descendent of Chief Seattle. “The Department of the Interior seems to think that the Duwamish that signed the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855 somehow ceased to exist in the last 167 years. But we’re still here.”
- Duwamish Tribe: Lawsuit for Federal Recognition
- Indian Country Today: 10 Things You Should Know About the Duwamish Tribe
- Urban Indian Health Institute: Community Health Profile – National Aggregate of Urban Indian Organization Service Areas
- American Indian Health Commission for Washington State: Disparities and Challenges Facing American Indians and Alaska Natives: How Clinicians Can Help Reduce Inequities