Courtesy Thomas Speer
Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center heritage exhibit signage (text by Tom Speer).

10 Things You Should Know About the Duwamish Tribe

Richard Walker

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.

siɁáb siɁáł, 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. (Courtesy Franklin Sammis, public domain)


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wovokanarchy's picture
Submitted by wovokanarchy on
“In the eyes and mind of our people, the Duwamish Tribe does exist..." Great, you do. So why do you need an agency based on colonization and exploitation of Indigenous peoples to recognize you as Duwamish? Your out from under the control of the B.I.A. and you should count your blessings. The Duwamish existed before the United States and the Dept. of Interior were even created and now just get on with being Duwamish.

stevegriggsmusic's picture
Submitted by stevegriggsmusic on
"Listen to Seattle," a program of stories and jazz will premiere 2pm September 26 at the Duwamish Longhouse. Although I am a "Boston" man, I want to honor the customs and story of our city's namesake. The program was commissioned by a 4Culture Historic Site Specific grant and is free and open to the public.