Some 36 acres of valuable, waterfront property on Suquamish land in Kitsap County are slated to revert to tribal ownership...

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Some 36 acres of valuable, waterfront property on Suquamish land in Kitsap County are slated to revert to tribal ownership in 10 years, but the changeover will come at the cost of untold thousands of dollars to members of the tribe and after yet another example of bungled federal oversight.

The once-pristine land overlooking Puget Sound has been subdivided into 80 lots, known as Suquamish Shores, and showcases beautiful homes, all built by non-Indians.

I have talked to residents and tribal members, and little recrimination is evident on either side. The current occupants seem resigned to the fact that when their leases expire in 2017, all properties return to tribal management. The Suquamish, meanwhile, feel they are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel in their 50-year lease imbroglio.

But, how did all this come to pass, and what lessons are to be learned?

First, everyone needs to be reminded that all of what is now the United States was once the property of the people indigenous to this continent. The vast majority of Indian-occupied land was bought or taken from them. By the 1960s, long before the Boldt fishing-rights decision or the advent of Indian casinos, the Suquamish were struggling to maintain their tribal identity.

In 1967, a real-estate deal presented itself to the tribe. In return for the lease for 50 years of 36 acres fronting the Sound, a non-Indian corporation, Chief Seattle Properties, would pay the tribe approximately $7,000 a year, and, under the provisions of the lease, would be allowed to transform the acreage into a housing development that came to be known as Suquamish Shores.

The principals of Chief Seattle Properties reaped their profits by subleasing lots to people, all non-Indians, who were eager to build homes in choice locations on or near the Sound.

Needless to say, the lease was much more advantageous to Chief Seattle Properties than to the Suquamish people. Not only did the tribe receive only a fraction of what the lease should have been worth, but it lost control of its land for the next half-century.

The federal government, through its Bureau of Indian Affairs, had the responsibility to act in the best interests of the Suquamish people, but in the matter of this lease — as with the billions of dollars currently missing from BIA-managed tribal trust accounts and the huge loss of Indian land under BIA stewardship — the agency failed. It failed to stop a disadvantageous lease from going through, and it failed to advise the tribe to, perhaps, even develop Suquamish Shores itself.

This is all the more ironic, and grating, because the federal government viewed the BIA as the legal representative of tribes, and the tribes as its “wards.”

How that came to be is a revealing chapter in American history, one with direct ramifications for the Suquamish lease issue.

From the earliest days that the U.S. government began forcing tribes to surrender the bulk of their property and move to smaller plots of land — so-called reservations — it became clear that they would become abjectly poor. How could peoples who lived by subsistence feed themselves when the very hunting and fishing grounds upon which they relied were taken from them?

The late Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, in a decision that recognized this impoverishment, labeled American Indians as “wards” of the federal government, whose care, through treaty obligations, was then bound to the people of the United States; hence, the subsequent creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA assumed two roles. As legal representative, it was trustee, without whose approval tribes could not enter into contracts. It was also an administrator. Because treaties were negotiated and signed between the federal government and tribes, individual states ruled that these federal “wards” were ineligible for state resources. The BIA was assigned the responsibility of delivering to Indians on reservations resources — education, social services, health care — that states provided to non-Indians.

The dual roles have led to countless conflicts of interest and abrogation of duties. No better case in point than the BIA allowing its “ward,” the Suquamish Indian Tribe, to enter into its contract with Chief Seattle Properties.

The federal government had the responsibility to act in the best interests of the Suquamish people. It didn’t, and its shortcoming must be made known.

Andrew P. Lawson is an Alaskan Native, a member of the Tsimshian Tribe. He taught social studies in public and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, was a high-school administrator in Seattle Public Schools and was a professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He is the former executive director of the National Indian Education Association. E-mail him at