To help right the wrongs of history, thousands of people are paying rent each month to the Duwamish Tribe.
Called “Real Rent Duwamish,” the all-volunteer effort — in partnership with the tribe — facilitates monthly “rent” payments to the tribe. Launched in 2017, Real Rent Duwamish has had 4,524 donors so far, now totaling around $20,000 a month.
The struggles of the Duwamish Tribe, Seattle’s original people, are a microcosm of the experience of many Native tribes in the U.S.
Historically, their territory extended past the boundaries of what is now Seattle. But since 1851, when American settlers arrived, the Duwamish people have seen their longhouses burned, lost their land and endured broken treaties and broken promises.
As the first signatories to the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, Chief Sealth, or Si’ahl, the leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes (and Seattle’s namesake) was promised access to hunting and fishing, a reservation for his people, medical care and schools in exchange for 54,000 acres of land.
But those government-to-government promises were not kept. An 1865 Seattle ordinance mandated the expulsion of all Native people from Seattle; in 1866, white residents blocked a federal effort to create a reservation in Renton for the Duwamish once coal was discovered there. These decisions created the Duwamish diaspora in the region.
To add insult to injury, it was this diaspora — created by the racist and exclusionary policies of the settlers — that was then used more than 100 years later to justify denying the Duwamish federal recognition as a tribe.
The Duwamish Tribe’s fight for federal recognition has been long, circuitous and, for now, unsuccessful. After decades of petitions and appeals, the tribe — led by longtime Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen — has been denied recognition multiple times. In 2015, a “final decision” to deny recognition was issued by the U.S. government, but the tribe is fighting on. In addition to opposition by the federal government, other tribes like the Muckleshoot and Tulalip also oppose federal recognition for the Duwamish.
In its decision to deny recognition, the government cited the failure of the Duwamish to remain an “American Indian entity” on a continuous basis as one of the reasons for the denial, despite the fact that it was the displacement of the tribe and exclusion from their own land that created the fractures in the first place.
This kind of Catch-22 is more the norm than the exception, said Joshua Reid, a University of Washington history professor, director of the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest and a Snohomish tribal member.
“The simple fact of the matter is that every single treaty is a broken treaty,” Reid said. “There’s not a single one that has been faithfully upheld with everything that was negotiated.”
And for tribal recognition, Reid said, the colonizing government defined the rules determining how to be recognized, but “unfortunately, a lot of the measuring sticks for recognition do not account for the reality of a settler colonial history that specifically worked hard at undermining our cohesion [and] undermining our tribal governments.”
But the Duwamish are still here.
Now numbering around 600 enrolled members who can trace their ancestry to the tribe, the denial of federal recognition has stymied their ability to provide services to their members, but Real Rent is helping.
Patrick Tefft, a Real Rent Duwamish volunteer and Duwamish Tribal Services board member, said the infusion of Real Rent dollars has allowed the tribe to add about two staff members in addition to other improvements to the tribe’s longhouse on West Marginal Way, which celebrates its 11th anniversary this month. Donations to Real Rent Duwamish go directly to the nonprofit Duwamish Tribal Services through the platform Network for Good.
Tefft, also a member of Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW), said it was critical that the effort was directed by the tribe itself and was the result of deep, long-term relationship building.
“Otherwise it can lead to distrust or more importantly, it can just be seen as a white savior complex where once again it’s about helping people without first asking them, do they want your help? If so, in what ways?”
CARW was inspired to create the project after hearing Chairwoman Hansen say that the tribe would be in a much better place if everyone in Seattle gave $1 to the Duwamish.
In addition to financial support, Real Rent Duwamish prioritizes self education for donors to learn more about Duwamish history and their fight for recognition.
While this type of effort does not absolve the government of its obligations or erase the historic trauma and dislocation the Duwamish face, it at least provides the tribe a slightly stronger foundation to continue its work to serve its people.
It’s a small drop in the sea of debt owed to the Duwamish and other Native people in the U.S., but it’s a start.