RENTON, Wash. - The final days of the Clinton administration proved to be days of celebration as several tribes that waited years for federal recognition received official notification.
Among them was the Duwamish tribe of Seattle.
After 74 years of suits and petitions by the tribe and many agonizing delays, on Jan. 19 Chairwoman Cecile Hansen finally received the phone call the tribe had long awaited.
The recognition in Washington, D.C., reversed a preliminary, negative decision by the Bureau of Acknowledgment and Recognition in 1996. New submissions by the tribe, including additional historical documentation presented by tribal historian Dr. Stephen Beckham, convinced the bureau of the authenticity of the tribe's claim.
The Duwamish is only the third tribe in history to succeed in reversing a preliminary negative ruling by the BAR. The Chinook tribe, recognized in January, and the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut also successfully reversed previous negative rulings.
The tribe, which henceforth shall be known as the Duwamish of Renton, has been formally seeking recognition since the late 1970s. Hansen, chairwoman since 1975, said tribal members were tremendously excited by the news.
"Our prayers have been answered," she said. "A lot of people have supported this effort and been in the trenches and worked in behalf of this moment."
So far the only hitch in the recognition process is a temporary delay instigated by the Bush administration. The new administration froze publication of Federal Register documents of Clinton administration actions that had not already gone to print. The administration plans to maintain the document freeze until government personnel have had a chance to review the actions.
"Since the BAR decision process is not final until it is published in the Federal Register, the Duwamish got caught in the middle," says tribal attorney Dennis Whittlesey. "I am optimistic ... that since this (decision) was formulated on professional legal and factual submissions and not political documents, it will not take them long to review and sign off on the final publication."
Whittlesey says he expects the delay to take no longer than 60 days.
Hansen, who has endured the endless years of the recognition process along with her tribe, says the delay is no surprise.
"Last year I got seven notices and seven delays about them announcing this decision, so I know delay."
As a veteran of the recognition process, Hansen says that, basically, the process doesn't work.
"The Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research doesn't have enough staff money," she says. "They're backlogged. Behind our tribe there are over 200 tribes applying for recognition, still waiting."
Despite the frustration, Hansen says she doesn't expect any other problems to arise once the freeze is over and the mandatory, 90-day appeal period starts. The Muckleshoot tribe may file comments pertaining to fishing rights during the appeal period, she says. But since the Boldt decision in 1974 stripped the tribe of any fishing rights whether it was federally recognized or not, Muckleshoot concerns should be easily assuaged.
Currently, the tribal council is working on developing a Duwamish Tribal Cultural Center and museum on half an acre of land on the Duwamish River. The tribe bought the land in June 1999 to develop a cultural interpretative facility dedicated to preserving and sharing Duwamish Indian history and culture with the citizens of King County. The tribe recently received a green light from architectural consultants concerning potential zoning and planning restrictions for the center and museum.
The tribe is completing a cultural resource inventory, developing a cultural resource management and protection plan and developing a social service delivery plan.
Also on the agenda is flood control in the Duwamish River Basin as well as the restoration of nearby creeks and habitat.
Many of the 550 enrolled members continue to reside in the traditional Duwamish territory which includes Seattle, Burien, Tukwila, Renton and Redmond. Seattle's only Indigenous tribe, the city even bears the name of the famous Duwamish chief, Seattle. But development of a land base in the densely populated, highly expensive suburbs of Seattle will be difficult.
In a strange way, the current recognition delay experienced by the tribe is just a continuation of a history of delays that affected the Duwamish people.
A four-year delay in ratification of the Point Elliot Treaty signed Jan. 22, 1885, permitted most of the tribe's lands to be given away to settlers under the Donation Land Act. Settlers received allotments the size of townships - 320 acres per person. With so many settlers arriving during that period, the Duwamish homeland, with its cultivated camas fields, quickly evaporated.
By the time the treaty was ratified in 1889, there was not enough land available in the area to be set aside for a Duwamish reservation. And the newly arrived town fathers petitioned against having a reservation so close to white settlements.
In 1926 the Duwamish filed suit before the Indian Claims Commission for compensation. But it wasn't until 1963 that a land claims judgment was awarded in the amount of $62,000. Even then there were delays. Land settlement monies were not distributed to tribal members until 1971.
"When they paid off the tribe, we all got $64 apiece," Hansen says. "At that time they were going with what land was worth an acre (historically) which was $1.35."
At least now, Hansen says recognition and all its benefits will begin to defray the many years of injustices the Duwamish people have endured.