Courtesy Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen
Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen has been fighting for federal recognition for her tribe for 36 years. On March 22, a federal district judge ruled the tribe was wrongfully denied federal recognition under the Bush Administration in 2001 giving them another chance.

Duwamish Chairwoman Speaks About Fighting for Federal Recognition and Getting Another Chance

Vincent Schilling
March 28, 2013


Nearly 36 years ago in 1977, the Duwamish Tribe, the people of Chief Seattle, petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition. Originally told their quest to be recognized would probably take only about five years, the Duwamish tribe fell victim to multiple changes in the BIA’s process ultimately ending in denial in 2001. However, the Duwamish now have a second chance at gaining federal recognition.

On Friday March 22, 2013, Seattle federal district court Judge John Coughenour ruled that the Bush Administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs wrongly denied the Duwamish Tribe of Seattle’s petition for federal recognition in 2001. Citing the denial was “arbitrary and capricious” Judge Coughenour ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs to re-evaluate the petition.

According to Chris Stearns, (Navajo) Chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and former Attorney for the Federal House Committee on Natural Resources who has followed the progress of the Duwamish, “After a decade-long battle in the courts to get the Bush Administration’s 2001 decision thrown out, Duwamish Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen has won. She didn’t win federal recognition outright, but she now has a shot at least. The Obama Administration will now get a crack at deciding whether the Duwamish should be a federally recognized tribe in Seattle.”

Throughout the entire 36-year quest to be federally acknowledged, the Duwamish have faced several ups, downs and broken promises in the process.

In 1996, Clinton Administration’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Ada Deer, issued a preliminary ruling against the Duwamish. As the Administration was preparing to leave office in January of 2001, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover reversed a preliminary finding of Ada Deer against another Washington tribe, the Chinook. His Deputy, Michael Anderson took over for Gover and on January 19, 2001, the last day of the Clinton Administration, Anderson reversed Deer’s preliminary finding against the Duwamish and ordered them recognized.

Anderson personally called Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen to tell her the tribe was recognized. However, Anderson did not sign his approval statement and returned three days after the Bush Administration had taken over. While waiting in a car outside the Interior Department, Anderson retroactively signed the approval statement which was dated January 19, 2001.

Unfortunately for the Duwamish tribe the new Bush Administration put a hold on all new regulations and determinations that had not yet been published in the Federal Register. The Duwamish approval was held, never made it to the Federal Register, and thus never took effect.

On September 25, 2001, the Bush Administration’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Neal McCaleb, reversed the Anderson approval and formally issued a final decision refusing the Duwamish’s bid to be recognized.

Since 2003, Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott has introduced a bill every two years to restore recognition to the Duwamish which has never made it out of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

According to Nedra Darling, Spokeswoman at the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, when asked about their stance on the issue, she stated ‘It is the Department of the Interior’s policy not to discuss matters that are currently under litigation.”

In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Chairwoman Cecile Hansen shared her thoughts of a nearly 36-year battle in seeking recognition for her tribe.


How did the petition for recognition begin?

We were fighting for fishing rights and we naïvely believed that we were going to get recognized and get our fishing rights given back. That was the whole point of us getting into this process.

I became involved in 1975, when I was elected chair. You didn't know what you were supposed to be doing, but I was bright enough to say 'Let's just ask the tribal members' we came back with a survey and sent it to all of the tribal members we could get a hold of, on top of the list was acknowledgment and recognition. The idea was we would get all of our rights returned to us from the treaties to include fishing rights, land rights, a land base or reservation – and a bucket of gold in the rainbow.


How does it feel to have gone through all of this?

It is disgusting to me. I always say now when I go around speaking, and I have done this for about 35 years for the tribe, I just don't understand why any Native American tribe has to prove who they are. If you know anything about this country, we have invited everybody to come in here – but are they standing at the line having to prove who they are?


How do you feel about the decision of the judge?

I have mixed emotions about this. I was shocked and I have always heard he was a fair judge.

It is common sense that our tribe should be acknowledged by the federal government. It offends me that we have worked so very hard, and talked to historians and worked with volunteers and paid petition writers to help pull this together, but then to sit through this awful, awful process?

We were told over 30 years ago, that we should be able to get through the process within five years. That was a fib.

We now live on a 2/3 of an acre reservation. We gave up 54,000 acres which is Seattle, and then we buy back the 2/3 of an acre. I'm not complaining because I'm grateful for this land but we want to raise money because parking is really tough here when we have big gatherings.


Why has it taken nearly 36 Years?

We once received a letter of deficiency, which told us something was missing, we took care of that, we waited and waited and then we received another letter of deficiency, and that's just the way it went. They said they were dealing with all of these tribes in California and they always had excuses why they couldn't work on this process.

I don't know how these people get jobs and not do their work. Then they complain too many people are seeking acknowledgment. It goes back to our wonderful government. I say, just come back and recognize us, because we want to help the community here in Seattle.