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Bill calls for Duwamish recognition

SEATTLE – Duwamish leader Si’ahl was the first to sign the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, which made millions of acres of land available for settlement in exchange for certain guarantees.

His people are still waiting for those guarantees to be fulfilled 154 years later; and they hope a change in presidential administration, as well as a bill introduced by a local congressman, will see the treaty’s promises become reality.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, introduced a bill June 3 calling for federal recognition of the Duwamish Tribe. He introduced the bill the same day the House voted to extend federal recognition to the Chickahominy Tribe, Chickahominy Indian Tribe Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Indian Nation and the Nansemond Indian Tribe.

That bill awaits a vote by the Senate. The Duwamish bill has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“Despite the Treaty of Point Elliott the Duwamish signed in good faith with the United States in 1855, federal recognition has not been extended and this is wrong,” McDermott said. “Promises were made to the Duwamish, but not kept. And it is time to correct this injustice for the Duwamish, just as we are doing in Virginia.”

The Duwamish are the First People of what is now known as Seattle, and early testimony states that they had 90 longhouses and six potlatch houses in 17 villages throughout what is now King County.

Although Si’ahl – later anglicized to Seattle – signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, the treaty wasn’t ratified in time to keep homesteaders from claiming the land that now comprises the city, and those residents lobbied to keep land from being set aside for a reservation. In 1865, Seattle’s city council passed a law banning the Duwamish and other Native peoples from living within the city limits. The Duwamish were evicted and their longhouses destroyed by arson.

While some Duwamish went to area reservations, many never left. They adopted a constitution in 1921 and in 1926 filed suit before the Indian Claims Commission for compensation for their land. But it wasn’t until 1963 that a land claims judgment was awarded in the amount of $62,000, and that money – $64 per person – wasn’t distributed until 1971.

On Jan. 19, 2001, in the waning hours of the Clinton administration, the assistant secretary of the Interior formally recognized the Duwamish Tribe, but the decision was reversed by his successor Sept. 26, 2001.

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On Sept. 17, 2002, Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the Duwamish received federal services and exercised their treaty fishing rights until 1975. That’s when U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt settled the western Washington fishing wars by ruling that treaty tribes were entitled to half the annual salmon harvest; however, he excluded so-called “landless” tribes, among them the Duwamish. “Landless” became synonymous with “unrecognized.”

‘‘We have never been terminated by Congress,” Hansen testified in 2002. “Now the BIA is telling us that we are not federally recognized. This is a grave injustice to the Duwamish people and other treaty tribes like us.”

McDermott hopes his bill brings justice to the Duwamish.

“It is my hope that the new day dawning across America is bright enough to shine enough light for us to see and correct the injustices endured for too long by the First Americans,” he said.

Hansen is the great-great grandniece of Si’ahl; she has served as Duwamish chairwoman since 1975 and is the sixth chairperson since the 1921 constitution was adopted. She feels “highly optimistic” that recognition will come soon, but she works daily to pursue all avenues.

While McDermott’s bill is reviewed in committee, the Duwamish are appealing the Bush administration’s 2001 decision. Events at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center have raised $25,000 toward the $100,000 expected to be needed for the appeal.

“We were granted a six-month extension to raise $100,000 to hire an expert witness to review 31,000 pages provided by the BIA,” Hansen said on the Duwamish Web site. “Our attorneys who are working pro bono tell us this is our last chance.”

Events at the longhouse have included Hansen’s Fry Bread for Justice, and the annual Duwamish Tribe Gala Dinner and Art Auction. The longhouse, which opened this year and is the first to grace Seattle since the 1890s, also hosted the “Duwamish Longhouse Presents” series with 15 cultural presentations between January and May. Among them: A world premiere of “Angeline,” a documentary on the life of Chief Seattle’s daughter; and exhibits and performances by northwest coast Native artists.

The Duwamish Tribal Council is the elected governing board of the Duwamish Tribe. Duwamish Tribal Services is a nonprofit organization which manages the money Duwamish raises to provide services to its members, which includes a variety of cultural, educational, health and social services.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at