Most Seattle residents probably know that the name of their city was borrowed — or taken — from the Native American leader Chief Seattle (Si’ahl, in the language of his people). Fewer probably know that Chief Seattle was a member of the Duwamish Tribe and Suquamish people.
Then again, the federal government doesn’t even recognize the Duwamish Tribe. It’s past time that it did.
The United States formally recognizes nearly 600 Native American tribes and bands, but the Duwamish is not among them. It’s one more item in a long catalog of injustices and inconsistencies.
Chief Seattle was the lead Native American signatory of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, which laid the legal foundation for white settlement in the Puget Sound area. Today, the U.S. government’s official position is that his tribe no longer exists. The Duwamish are not alone in the Northwest when it comes to overdue federal recognition.
Formal recognition of Native American tribes tended to accompany the creation of reservations, as was the case with the Tulalip and other tribes that were parties to the Treaty of Point Elliott. But the Duwamish were never given — nor, more accurately, allowed to retain — reservation lands, and for this the tribe is now punished with a lack of recognition.
Recognized tribes obtain federal support for health, education and anti-poverty programs. When Congress passed COVID-19 relief, it set aside $43 billion to help recognized tribes. Unrecognized Duwamish weren’t eligible.
Recognition also brings tribal sovereignty, self-determination and dignity. A recognized tribe is one whose identity, culture and continued survival is acknowledged by the United States. Such dignity shouldn’t be up for discussion.
The Duwamish have survived against all odds. A century of legal and extralegal violence forced them to leave ancestral lands. Because they had no reservation, many Duwamish dispersed. Yet a vibrant and cohesive Duwamish culture remains a durable thread in the fabric of Seattle’s life. That alone should be enough to merit federal recognition.
Advertisements in recent editions of The Seattle Times seek to rally public support for a petition urging federal recognition of the Duwamish Tribe. Readers who agree that the Duwamish are intertwined with the region’s past and present should consider adding their names to it. Our congressional delegation, too, should take up the cause.
In the waning days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, The Bureau of Indian Affairs concluded that the Duwamish merited federal recognition. President George W. Bush’s administration rescinded that decision based on a technicality.
A technicality has stood in the way of Duwamish recognition for two decades. The Biden administration should rectify that without delay.