The Duwamish Tribe has filed a lawsuit seeking federal recognition that it is indeed an Indian tribe.
Filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington on Wednesday, the suit is part of a continuing battle for recognition by the Duwamish stretching over 40 years and through multiple presidential administrations.
This time, the group that has identified itself as the Duwamish Tribe argues that the federal government has on several occasions dealt with it as a tribe and now must recognize it as such — a status the Duwamish argue they never lost.
“Beginning in 1859 through at least the 1970s, dozens of acts of Congress and two U.S. courts have recognized the Duwamish Tribe as an Indian tribe and the successor in interest to the Tribe that signed the Treaty of Point Elliott,” the suit contends. “Congress has neither abrogated its recognition of the Duwamish Tribe nor otherwise limited the Tribe’s rights.”
The suit also contends that the federal government has illegally discriminated against the matriarchal tribe by discounting its members, largely descended from marriages between Duwamish women and non-Indian men — a violation of the federal equal protection clause under the Fifth Amendment.
The U.S. Department of Interior also did not use rules more favorable to the tribe when considering its prior filing, according to the suit, which was brought against Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and other federal officials by Cecile Hansen, longtime chairwoman of the Duwamish tribal council.
As remedy, the suit seeks declaration by the court that the Duwamish are a federally recognized tribe. Alternatively, the suit demands the court set aside the denial of recognition in 2015 by the Obama administration, with instruction to reconsider the case under 2015 regulations in a manner “that does not discriminate against matrilineal tribes like the Duwamish, which primarily descend from Indian women.”
Alternatively, the tribe wants the final decision of 2015 set aside with instructions to grant the tribe a formal, on-the-record hearing before an administrative law judge for its claim.
Central to the tribe’s suit is assertion by Hansen that the tribe never disappeared — contrary to findings by federal evaluators in prior petitions for federal recognition and by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt.
In his 1979 ruling on the tribe’s petition for treaty fishing rights, Boldt found the Duwamish Tribe was more of a social organization but did not have governmental authority over its members or others.
“The … Duwamish Tribe is not an entity that is descended from any of the tribal entities that were signatory to the Treaty of Point Elliott,” Boldt found. “The citizens comprising the … Duwamish Tribe have not maintained an organized tribal structure in a political sense.”
Evaluators at the Department of Interior also consistently found that the tribe did not meet all the criteria to be recognized as an Indian tribe — in particular, maintenance of continuous governmental authority since before treaty-making with the U.S.
Federal recognition is more than acknowledgment of Indian heritage. Recognition of a tribal group as a government opens the door to federal benefits; required government-to-government consultation; and privileges including operation of Las Vegas-style casinos.
Federal law allows tribal governments to run such casinos to fund tribal government programs, on the logic that they are no different from state-run lotteries.
The tribe’s latest suit comes amid a heated public relations battle between the Duwamish and several of the region’s federally recognized tribes about just who are the “real” Duwamish.
The Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Tulalip and Puyallup tribes have in newspaper ads, op-eds and correspondence argued that the Duwamish persist indeed — as enrolled members of recognized tribes all over the region, enjoying all the rights and benefits of enrollment.
They also note the U.S. kept its promise in 1855 of creating reservations at Lummi, Tulalip, Swinomish, and for the Duwamish, at Port Madison with the Suquamish. In 1857, another reservation was created at Muckleshoot, where Duwamish people also could go. Today, many of the people enrolled at reservations around Puget Sound have some degree of Duwamish ancestry.
These recognized tribes also point to the finding the Duwamish now challenge, that the Seattle group is a remnant group, without the basis to be identified as a continuous political entity that dates back to before the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.
This, the Duwamish seek to show, is contrary to both the facts, and the law, with real consequences for people enrolled in the Duwamish Tribe, if they are not also enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. For instance, during the pandemic, federal benefits were distributed only to recognized tribes.
No matter how the suit comes out, there is of course more than one way to be identified as an Indian tribe.
Apart from federal recognition, the Duwamish already have a kind of social recognition, with acknowledgment as a tribe and consultation common among all sorts of local and state entities.
However, it is the dignity and stability of federal recognition the Duwamish say they seek for people here since before the city took the name of Chief Si’ahl, Anglicized as Seattle, and born of Duwamish and Suquamish parents.
“For at least 12,000 years, the Duwamish people have been living here,” Ken Workman, Duwamish tribal council member and a descendant of Chief Seattle, states in the suit. “They are buried under the streets and the sidewalks and the houses of Seattle. Their DNA rises from the roots of the trees and when the wind blows through the leaves, those are the sounds of our ancestors.”