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The decades-old fight by the Duwamish to be recognized as a tribe gained new life in a legal victory last week.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour on Friday vacated the 2001 denial of the tribe’s recognition by the U.S. Department of the Interior and told the agency to take another look.

“I’m in a delighted state of shock,” said Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish.

Last week’s ruling stems from an odd turn of events. In January 2001, an official at the Department of Interior hand-wrote an approval of the Duwamish petition for recognition in the final days of the Clinton administration — but didn’t sign it until three days after leaving office.

Bush administration officials then set the approval aside for review, and in September 2001 overturned it. A 2002 report by the Interior Department’s Inspector General found the handling of the Duwamish petition and five others “highly unusual,” but the Justice Department did not press charges.

The tribe has been fighting for recognition ever since, filing suit in federal court challenging the denial, and pursuing recognition through a bill in Congress.

Now that the suit has succeeded, it remains to be seen if the petition will, too, with a second look.

“It’s insane they took it away,” Hansen said of the tribe’s recognition, which would bring with it the possibility for fishing rights, land for a reservation, federal benefits and, for an urban people such as the Duwamish, a lucrative casino.

The Duwamish lived on the lands that are now South Seattle, Renton and Kent. There are about 600 Duwamish descendants today, Hansen estimated. They first submitted a petition for recognition in 1977 and revised it in 1989.

The dispute went on so long that the rules for recognition changed, from the original regulations, set in 1978, to a more lenient set, adopted by Interior in 1994.

The Clinton administration ultimately approved the Duwamish petition on the basis of both regulations.

But the Bush administration made its decision based only on the earlier regulations. And that, Coughenour ruled, did not make sense.

“Plaintiffs should not be left to wonder why one administration thought their petition should be considered under both sets of rules, but a second did not,” the judge wrote.

The agency’s actions also were unfair, because they treated the Duwamish differently from other tribes in a similar situation, Coughenour found.

When they sought recognition, both the Duwamish and Chinook tribes had asked Interior to review their petitions under the 1978 rules, even though the 1994 rules by then existed. But when Interior denied the Chinooks’ petition, it was doing so under both sets of rules, not only the earlier ones.

In fact, no tribe but the Duwamish has been denied recognition by Interior since 1994 under only the old rules, Coughenour wrote.

Bart Freedman, attorney for the tribe at K & L Gates, said he is hopeful that Interior will consider new evidence of the tribe’s continuity rather than just review the existing record, which is now more than 20 years old.

“We are hopeful people at Interior might be willing to look at this with new eyes,” Freedman said.

Hansen said the ruling is just another hurdle in a too-long process she said tribes should not have to endure.

“It is painful for me for any Native American to have to prove who you are.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or