The U.S. Department of Interior issued what it called a final decision in denying federal recognition to the Duwamish Tribe.
The Duwamish Tribe’s decades-long quest to gain federal recognition hit a massive roadblock this week, as the U.S. Department of Interior issued its final decision denying such recognition to the tribe.
In a letter to Cecile Hansen, tribal chairwoman, the department said it had determined the Duwamish “is not entitled to be acknowledged as an Indian tribe within the meaning of federal law,” and emphasized that the decision was final for the department.
Benefits of federal recognition include funding for housing, education and health care, and the possibility of land for a reservation and the ability to run a casino.
Hansen could not immediately be reached for comment.
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Bart Freedman, attorney for the tribe at K&L Gates law firm, said Friday: “I’m certain there’s going to be an appeal” — perhaps through the courts.
Hansen, he said, is “absolutely committed to seeing her tribe be recognized as it should be.”
The Duwamish, who lived on land that is now South Seattle, Renton and Kent, have been called Seattle’s first people. Their leader, Chief Sealth, lent Seattle his name.
Chief Sealth, along with co-signers from other tribes, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, relinquishing their land to the U.S. government, in return for land for reservations, fishing and hunting rights and a settlement of $150,000.
But while other tribes that were co-signers to the treaty were granted fishing rights and reservation land, the Duwamish were never given those.
There are about 600 descendants of the Duwamish.
“There’s something really painful as a community about being the first people here and not being recognized,” Freedman said.
The Duwamish first submitted a petition for federal recognition in 1977 and revised it in 1989.
The fight has seen many twists since. In January 2001, an official at the Department of Interior approved the Duwamish’s petition for federal recognition in the final days of the Clinton administration — but didn’t sign it until three days after leaving office.
The recognition was overturned by the George W. Bush administration, which said the Duwamish had a temporary lapse in tribal government and did not always live in a cohesive community — thereby not fulfilling two of the criteria for federal recognition.
The tribe filed suit in U.S. District Court, a move that brought temporary victory when a federal judge in 2013 vacated the Bush administration’s denial of the tribe’s recognition.
The judge also ordered the Department of Interior to take another look at the petition, reviewing it under new rules for federal recognition that the department had adopted in 1994. Those 1994 rules were more lenient than the original regulations, set in 1978, that the Bush administration had used to deny the tribe’s petition.
Thursday’s decision was the result of that second look.
The department, in a news release, said the Duwamish did not meet the requirements for federal recognition under either the 1978 or 1994 regulations.
Specifically, the department said in its decision, there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate, during certain periods, that the Duwamish had been identified as an “Indian entity.” It also said there was a “lack of evidence concerning the continuous existence of a “distinct American-Indian community” and “tribal political influence or authority,” as required by the 1978 and 1994 rules.
In its letter to Hansen, the department said the Duwamish would be informed of alternative ways to achieve the status of federally recognized tribes, or other ways that tribe members can become eligible for services and benefits as Indians, including by enrolling in other federally recognized tribes. (Some Duwamish Tribe members have already done this in order to receive federal health-care and other services.)
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, has tried unsuccessfully, several times, to push a bill through Congress to grant the tribe federal recognition.
The Interior Department’s decision on the Duwamish came during the same week that it issued new rules by which tribes can seek federal recognition.
The new rules could make it simpler for tribes to meet certain evidence requirements for federal recognition — and could be part of the basis for an appeal of the department’s decision on the Duwamish, said Freedman, the attorney for the tribe.
“It’s a cruel irony that (the Interior Department) denied the Duwamish under the old rules. … The Duwamish were the only tribe after the 1994 rules were adopted that didn’t get the benefit of the new rules,” until the court ordered the department to take a second look, Freedman said.
“Now we have a set of new rules and again, the Duwamish find themselves the only pending party who’s not being considered,” he added.