Skip to main content

10 Things You Should Know About the Duwamish Tribe

The Duwamish Tribe of Indians was recently denied federal recognition, but they know who they are. Here’s 10 things you should know about them.

The U.S. Department of Interior ruled on July 2 that the Duwamish Tribe doesn’t exist – specifically, that the Duwamish Tribe doesn’t meet all of the criteria required for the U.S. to recognize it as an indigenous nation.

Perhaps Interior officials should talk to their counterparts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; that agency’s Administration for Native Americans contributed to the Duwamish Tribe’s efforts to build the first longhouse in the City of Seattle in more than 100 years.

Or Interior could talk to officials from the State of Washington, the City of Seattle, King County, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux -- a federally recognized indigenous nation – and numerous foundations and non-profits that helped raise $3.5 million for construction of the longhouse.

Or Interior could talk to the citizens of the Blackfeet, Haida and Tlingit nations who gathered in the Duwamish Longhouse on July 8 to, as one observer wrote, “sing songs to honor and acknowledge the Duwamish's continued existence.”

The Duwamish Tribe doesn’t exist? Interior should talk to the hundreds of people that the department itself accepts as being descended from Duwamish ancestors listed on earlier rolls and censuses. Sure, the people are scattered throughout the region; that’s because Seattle’s city council passed a law in 1865 banning their ancestors from living within the city limits, then burned their longhouses.

The people of the Duwamish Tribe are the descendants of those who refused to go to reservations at Lummi, Muckleshoot, Port Madison, and Puyallup. Some who did go to reservations later returned to what they knew as home: Along the shores of the lakes and rivers, within view of a landscape that was changing in a way they never dreamed possible.

“Duwamish cultural traditions mandate that the Duwamish live close to the burial grounds of their Duwamish ancestors,” according to Thomas R. Speer, adopted Duwamish of Jicarilla Apache ancestry and a former member of the Duwamish Tribal Services board of directors. “Moving away from their ancestors was forbidden and unthinkable.”

Instead, many Duwamish people remained on their ancestral lands, “in and around their major historic villages in the present-day cities of Seattle, Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland and other adjacent suburban communities, actively resisting relocation by the War Department – and, later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Speer said.

Mary Lou Slaughter, great-great-great-granddaughter of Chief Si’ahl, for whom the City of Seattle is named, added, “The Muckleshoot area is not like what we were used to – near the water, near our livelihood. We are water people.”

The Duwamish Tribe’s efforts to reestablish a government-to-government relationship with the United States is not about benefits (Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen is part Quinault and she could go there) or fighting to catch the last salmon in the Duwamish River (James Rasmussen, Duwamish, is chairman of a federal advisory group that is fighting to save the river’s salmon). It’s about seeing Duwamish take its place among the First Nations of the land. It’s about getting the United States to live up to the promises it made to Puget Sound’s First People in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, through which the U.S. received land that made non-Indian settlement possible.

One hundred and fifty years after their ancestors were banned from the city to which their leader gave his name, Si’ahl’s people are still under siege. But they are not giving up. They know they exist. They know who they are. Now, here are 10 things you should know about the Duwamish Tribe.

Working for restoration, not recognition: The Duwamish Tribe is not seeking “federal recognition,” but rather seeking “restoration of their federal recognition,” according to Speer. “The Duwamish were federally recognized in 1859 when the United States Senate ratified the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty.

“Further evidence of their federal recognition is the 1953 Termination Bill where the ‘Duwamish Tribe of Indians’ was specifically named as an ‘Indian Tribe’ scheduled to be terminated by the Republican Eisenhower Administration. They were not terminated in 1953. However, the Duwamish were ‘disappeared’ by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in the late 1960s -- without public notice.”

Seattle in 1870.

Duwamish listed first on treaty: The Treaty of Point Elliott, which made available for newcomers a vast swath of land between the Cascades and the Salish Sea coast, was signed on January 22, 1855 by 82 leaders representing 23 indigenous nations, and was ratified by Congress on March 8 and April 11, 1859. Speer said it’s significant that the treaty is titled “Treaty between The United States and the D’Wamish, Suquamish and other Allied and Subordinate Tribes of Indians in Washington Territory” – and that the first signer was Si’ahl, or Seattle.

“This titling by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens reflected the importance of the Duwamish and Chief Seattle among Puget Sound’s First Nations in the 1850s,” Speer said.

Courtesy Franklin Sammis, public domain

si?áb si?á?, or Chief Si’ahl, is photographed holding his hand-woven “clamshell” shaped hat, 1864. This is the only known photograph of Chief Si’ahl, for whom the City of Seattle was named.

The Dkhw’Duw’Absh helped the newcomers survive: Si’ahl strived to live amicably with the newcomers and showed them how to survive in an unfamiliar land. Under Si’ahl’s leadership, the Duwamish – or Dkhw’Duw’Absh -- “provided guides, transportation by canoe, and other tangible assistance, including labor for Henry Yesler's first sawmill, and potatoes from the Dkhw’Duw’Absh cultivated fields near Renton, enabling the new immigrants to survive and to thrive,” according to the Duwamish Tribe website.

“The Dkhw’Duw’Absh Tribe burned sections of forest to promote clearings for their crops, and felled trees for canoes and lumber for their longhouses, sharing their skills and knowledge with the immigrants … With no cows available, the new European-American immigrants lacked milk for their children; the Dkhw’Duw’Absh showed them how to [use] clam juice [instead of milk]. The Dkhw’Duw’Absh helped to shelter the newcomers, teaching them how long boards could be split from straight-grained cedar. The Dkhw’Duw’Absh also traded salmon, venison, furs, and even potatoes from Dkhw’Duw’Absh gardens, to the new arrivals.”

Si’ahl and the Duwamish people also protected their non-Native neighbors during the so-called Puget Sound War (1855-56) between the U.S. and the Klickitat, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, and Puyallup nations spurred by dissatisfaction with the treaties and the relocation to reservations.

Courtesy Thomas Speer

Duwamish youth honors the Salmon Chief, with Chinook Tribe Vice Chairman Sam Robinson, 2008 Chinook Nation First Salmon Ceremony.

Betrayal, and an apology: David Swinton Maynard, a founder of the City of Seattle, proposed naming the city after the Duwamish leader in recognition of his leadership, protection and friendship. The name "Seattle" appears on official Washington Territory papers dated May 23, 1853, when the first plats for the village were filed. On January 14, 1865, the territorial legislature incorporated the Town of Seattle with a board of trustees.

By 1865, however, the town’s population had swelled with newcomers attracted by land – first by the Donation Land Claim Act, and then the Homestead Act. The first town council banned Native Americans from living within the town limits, a law revoked when the town reincorporated in 1869 as a city with a mayor-council form of government. But the tone for discrimination had been set.

In 1866, U.S. Indian Agent Thomas Paige recommended to the United States government that a reservation be established in Seattle for the Duwamish (the Treaty of Point Elliott had established reservations at Lummi, Muckleshoot, Swinomish and Tulalip), but residents successfully protested against it in a letter to their representative in Congress, Arthur Denny.

In August 2010, Denny’s great-great-granddaughter and other members of the Descendants Committee of Seattle formally apologized to the Duwamish for their forebears’ discriminatory acts.

Canoes on the Seattle waterfront in 1892.

Witness to Time of Change: According to Speer, the name "Seattle" is an anglicization of Si'ahl. The name "Duwamish" is an anglicization of Dkhw’Duw’Absh, which in Lushootseed means "The People of the Inside."

“This name refers to Elliott Bay, the Duwamish River, and the other rivers, lakes, and waterways that connect the Dkhw’Duw’Absh ancestral homeland,” Speer said.

Si’ahl’s father, Shweabe, was a leader of the Suquamish, from the west side of Puget Sound; Si’ahl’s mother, Sho’lee`tsah, was a Duwamish from the White River in eastern Puget Sound. Shweabe and Sho’lee’tsah’s fathers had been leaders of their peoples as well.

“Differing stories exist about the birthplace of Si'ahl,” Speer said. “According to one tradition, Si'ahl was born at a camping ground on Tátcu' (Blake Island) in Puget Sound. Another tradition says that Si'ahl was born at an ancient site near Suquamish, on what is now the Port Madison Reservation. A third tradition told that Si’ahl was born at his mother's village of Stukw (‘Logjam’), a prominent Duwamish village on the Black River, in what is now the city of Kent.”

(According to the Suquamish Tribe website, Si'ahl was born in 1786 at Old-Man-House village in Suquamish, site of what is believed to have been the largest winter longhouse on the Salish Sea.)

Si’ahl was 6 when Capt. George Vancouver anchored in Suquamish waters off Bainbridge Island in 1792. According to the Suquamish Tribe, Si’ahl rose to leadership in his 20s when he successfully thwarted an attack by an upriver indigenous force. His leadership continued through the settlement era and treaty times. He passed away in 1866 and is interred at St. Peter’s Mission on the Suquamish Port Madison Reservation.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections

A Duwamish saltwater travel canoe on the shore outside a longhouse in the Cedar River village, 1893.

Led by Si’ahi’s great-great-grandniece: Cecile Hansen has served as chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe since 1976. Her great-great-grandfather was Si’ahl’s brother.

According to BIA documents: After Si’ahl passed away in 1866, Duwamish leaders included Chief William, or Stoda, of Black River; and Chief James Moses of what is now Renton.

William Rogers succeeded Stoda as chief in 1896. In 1915, the Tribe reorganized as the Duwamish Tribe of Indians and elected a board of directors led by Rogers and Charles Satiacum. Elected to the board were Duwamish from Auburn, Marietta, Olympia, Renton, Suquamish and Tacoma, including Duwamish living on reservations.

Peter James, a Duwamish living on the Lummi Nation reservation, served as chairman of the Duwamish Tribe from 1917-1945. He was succeeded by George James, 1945-1960; Henry Moses, 1960-62; Ruth Eley Scranton, 1962-65; Willard Bill, 1965-76; and Cecile Hansen, 1976-present.

Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, in 2011. She vows to fight the BIA’s ruling. “In the eyes and mind of our people, the Duwamish Tribe does exist."

First longhouse in Seattle since 1904: Settlers destroyed 94 Duwamish longhouses by fire between 1855 and 1894, according to Speer.

In 1999, the Duwamish Tribe bought a site of nearly one acre, across the street from the site of the ancestral Duwamish village hah-AH-poos, and then embarked on a campaign to raise more than $3.5 million to build the new Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center. The architect was Byron Barnes, Blackfeet.

When the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center opened on January 3, 2009, it was the first longhouse on the Seattle landscape in 115 years.

Slaughter, an artist, designed the longhouse floor, creating patterns using inlayed end-grain cut 2 by 4s and 1 by 2s of red cedar, yellow cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock. The center of the floor is bordered by a zigzag pattern representing the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges within view of the Duwamish homeland. Between the zigzag border is a pattern representing sword ferns, “which represents healing in our culture,” Slaughter said. An emblem in the middle of the floor represents a pattern used in Duwamish baskets.

Mary Lou Slaughter designed the floor of the Duwamish Longhouse. Patterns represent the Cascade and Olympic mountains, sword ferns, and a Duwamish basket pattern.

An active government: The Duwamish Tribe is led by a chairperson and five-member council, and is headquartered in the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center. The Duwamish government provides numerous services for its 600 citizens:

The longhouse is a center of cultural activity, with regularly presentations as well as museum-standard exhibits.

Duwamish Tribal Services provides social and cultural services to Duwamish people. It administers an Emergency Food Assistance Program funded by the state’s Office of Community, Trade, and Economic Development. “The program provides on average 72 Native people and their families with monthly food vouchers and other support services,” according to the Duwamish Tribe website. The Tribe also helps Duwamish people get to gatherings and medical appointments.

Duwamish’s T’ilibshudub (“Singing Feet”) cultural heritage group teaches traditional dance, song, storytelling and ceremonial practices.

Duwamish is represented in the annual Canoe Journey; you’ll find young Duwamish people in the Oliver Canoe Family – Chairwoman Hansen is a niece of Canoe Journey founder Emmett Oliver – and in the Blue Heron Canoe Family led by Snohomish Chairman Mike Evans.

Courtesy Thomas Speer

T!ilibshudub Duwamish Tribe's heritage group) dances to celebrate Seattle Art Museum's Coast Salish Art exhibit.

Notable contemporary Duwamish: James Rasmussen, a former Duwamish Tribal Council member, is coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition’s Technical Advisory Group. The group and its partner organizations have been working since 2001 to ensure a thorough cleanup of the lower Duwamish River.

Mary Lou Slaughter (Sla’da), a direct descendant of Si’ahl, is a recognized master weaver of baskets, blankets, hats, skirts and vests. Her work is exhibited at the Stonington Gallery in downtown Seattle and is featured on the state ferry, the M/V Sealth (another variation of Si’ahl’s name).

Slaughter’s son, Michael Halady, is a noted carver. Among his works: A story pole at Alki Point. The project was funded by the City of Seattle, and the log was donated by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Courtesy Thomas Speer

DeAnn Jacobson's cedar-bark Cape, Mary Lou Slaughter's Chief Seattle Hat, Michael Halady's prize-winning model Longhouse Post, 2009 Duwamish Longhouse Public Opening.

Edie Loyer-Nelson served on the Duwamish Tribal Council, the Shoreline Community College Board of Trustees, and the Shoreline Historical Museum Board of Directors.

“Still waiting for justice”: At a press conference July 8 at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center, Chairwoman Hansen said Duwamish will continue its efforts to establish a government-to-government relationship with the United States. (The Duwamish Tribe could be recognized by an act of Congress, although several recognition bills have failed to advance out of committee.)

Duwamish first petitioned the U.S. for federal recognition in 1976; the petition was approved on January 19, 2001 by Michael J. Anderson, acting assistant secretary of the Interior, the day before the end of the Clinton administration. His decision, however, was held for review by the Bush administration and overturned eight months later. In March 2013, a federal judge ruled the Bush administration denied Duwamish recognition based on outdated rules, and ordered the petition reconsidered.

Two years later, Duwamish’s petition for federal recognition was again denied. BIA claims the Duwamish Tribe has not provided sufficient evidence that it has been “an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900,” that it has comprised “a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times to the present,” and that it has “maintained political influence or authority as an autonomous entity over its members since historical times.”

Hansen responded, “In the eyes and mind of our people, the Duwamish Tribe does exist. We are extremely disappointed – yet again – in the BIA's dehumanizing decision to do away with our existence according to the rulings that were made in the past.

“Please check the history of all Washington tribes who sought to be recognized by the BIA since the ’70s and are now considered to be legitimate tribes. There is room for us all. Unfortunately, the task of conquering the process of proving our own existence has eluded the Duwamish despite our long history dating back thousands of years.

“Chief Seattle’s Duwamish people were friendly to the first pioneers and city fathers. We sacrificed our land to make the City of Seattle a beautiful reality. We are still waiting for our justice. Under this appeal process, we have again been denied our rightful place in the history of Seattle. Shame on the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Slaughter’s confidence that justice will come is derived from a higher authority. One day, while vacationing on Chichagof Island, Alaska, she found a wing feather of an eagle. Holding this rare gift, she said the Creator put in her mind a Bible verse, Isaiah 40:31:

“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Courtesy Thomas Speer

T!ilibshudub Singing-Feet) Duwamish Tribe drummers welcome Annual Gala guests.