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Lawsuit threatens Suquamish sovereignty

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SUQUAMISH, Wash. ? A group of wealthy non-Indian residents who live next to the Port Madison reservation have filed a lawsuit in federal district court that challenges the reservation boundaries and ultimately the tribal sovereignty of the descendants of Chief Seattle's tribe.

Earlier this year the Suquamish tribe submitted plans to build a 24-home low-income housing project along Angleline Avenue, which runs along the Agate Passage on Puget Sound and features spectacular views of downtown Seattle. Adjacent to this proposed development is a string of exclusive homes and many of the non-Indian neighbors were alarmed at the prospect of the Suquamish project.

The Port Madison group also claims it is tired of being subject to tribal laws and jurisdictions and residents chaffed at such things as being pulled over by the tribal police.

The neighbors have formed a group called the Association of Property Owners/Residents of Port Madison which filed the lawsuit against the Suquamish tribe. The suit claims the tribe was not properly recognized by the United States government and that the specific land in question was taken back by the United States military in 1903, though the government gave it up as surplus land in the 1920s.

Furthermore, residents of the area say they are upset with the tribe which has zoning laws that supercede those of Kitsap County which would not allow a high-density housing project like the one proposed by the Suquamish tribe.

The tribe acquired its lands by treaty in 1856 that more or less established current boundaries of the reservation. The problem was their reservation, like many others across the country, later was split up into parcels resulting in a patchwork of American Indian and non-Indian land.

Illustrating the boldness of tribal enemies, the lawsuit itself spells out the tribally destructive intent of the original land parceling policies.

'(The) allotments were intended to discourage Indians from maintaining tribal relations ... to break up tribal land and terminate tribal existence,' it states.

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The result of this patchwork is at the root of today's problem and economic growth of the tribe has resulted in an unprecedented assertion of tribal rights. Many of the area's non-Indian residents moved into the area when the Suquamish had little or no economic power and the main sources of industry were fireworks stands operated by near fiefdoms of a few local Suquamish families.

Today the tribe operates a casino and, despite some internal strife, has had many tribal members returning to the reservation, armed with college degrees. This has resulted in increased revenue and awareness of legal standing.

This new power awakened long underlying hostilities with the area's non-Indians. The Boldt fishing decision did not sit well with many local area non-Indians and in 1995 Suquamish was part of a group that filed a subsequently victorious lawsuit that enforced an old treaty right to gather shellfish around Puget Sound. One of the areas affected was Angleline Avenue.

The proposed housing project has become a new focal point. Earlier this year, Chief Seattle's grave was vandalized and a clipping of a newspaper story about the proposed housing development was found near the site.

Various published reports have tribal members saying that non-Indian residents should have been aware from the beginning that they were moving onto or near sovereign land.

'They chose to move onto a foreign jurisdiction,' said Scott Crowell, a Suquamish tribal official in a published story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Many tribal members see the Suquamish lawsuit as just one manifestation of a growing problem across the nation. United Property Owners, for example, is a group that found its inception in the shellfish lawsuit and has now grown to member organizations in 37 states.

Ron Allen, chairman of the nearby Jamestown S'kallam tribe and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, perhaps best summed up the general feeling of the tribes in regard to this latest threat to tribal sovereignty in the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

'If you make a choice to live within an Indian reservation border, you must learn to be respectful of the tribe, its culture and its authority to protect its own interests. If you have a problem with that, then make another choice.'