Courtesy Thomas Speer
T!ilibshudub (Duwamish Tribe's heritage group) dances to celebrate Seattle Art Museum's Coast Salish Art exhibit.

Seattle School Board Calls for Federal Recognition of the Duwamish Tribe

Richard Walker

The Seattle School Board has done what the federal government has failed to do since 2001.

Formally recognize the Duwamish Tribe as an indigenous nation that should have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with whom Duwamish signed a treaty.

The school board on October 12 unanimously approved a resolution calling for the federal government to extend treaty rights and benefits to the Duwamish Tribe, referred to in the resolution as the Duwamish Nation, and recognizing the Duwamish as “the original people of our area.” The resolution states that the school board’s approval would contribute to “a supportive environment for Native education in Seattle Public Schools.”

Copies of the resolution were to be sent to Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, King County officials, state legislators, Washington’s congressional delegation, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (a Seattle resident), and President Barack Obama.

The vote on the resolution came on the second anniversary of the school board’s replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. In a reflection of the district’s diverse Native population, the school board meeting opened with a welcome song by the Haida Heritage Dance Group from South Shore K-8 School.

Federal recognition means the U.S. government would have a government-to-government relationship with leaders of the Duwamish Tribe; recognition would also entitle the Duwamish to the same treaty-reserved rights as others. As it stands, the Duwamish cannot exercise their treaty right to fish in the river that bears their name, although a former Duwamish Tribal Council member is coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition Technical Advisory Group, working with local, state and federal governments to improve the health of the river. And in 2013, Duwamish had to give up ancestral objects on loan from the Burke Museum, which then turned the objects over to the federally-recognized Muckleshoot; the objects had been on display in the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center museum.

Among the contributors to the construction of the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center: the Administration for Native Americans, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

What affect a resolution from the school board in the 18th largest U.S. city will have on Duwamish’s efforts to restore its federal recognition remains to be seen.

Duwamish appealed the George W. Bush administration’s decision overturning its federal recognition, but the case was dismissed on June 9, 2014 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. H.R. 2176, introduced on April 30, 2015 by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, has languished before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs since May 26 that year.

Duwamish recognition is opposed by the Muckleshoot Tribe, which the U.S. government considers a successor to the original Duwamish Tribe. The Suquamish Tribe is also considered a successor to the Duwamish Tribe.

Claudia Kauffman, Nez Perce, intergovernmental affairs liaison for the Muckleshoot Tribe and a former state senator, indicated Muckleshoot’s opposition to the resolution.

“As a [member of a] federally recognized Indian tribe I would never come to you and ask you to recognize my treaty rights,” she told the school board. “It’s important that federal Indian history be accurate in our system and I urge you to review the documents that have been sent to you by the local federally recognized Indian Tribes. Please utilize your resources, your precious time and energy on items [that] promote student success … I encourage you to address real-world problems and challenges that face our students, our communities of color, our Native American students.”

But several residents spoke in favor of the resolution, and education advocate Chris Jackins presented a petition with 150 signatures in support of the resolution.

Seattle resident Charles Davis told the school board: “The Duwamish Tribe has been recognized, then unrecognized by the federal government. That shows that the issue of the Tribe’s rights and benefits is very political. But more than that, recognition of the Tribe’s treaty rights and benefits concerns justice—justice for the people who originally lived on, and considered their own, the land on which many, perhaps all, of this district’s schools have been built. Justice is more important than politics.”

Hansen, a great-great-grandniece of Chief Si’ahl, called the resolution “a wow for all Indian people.”

“The Duwamish Tribe thanks you for your resolution of acknowledgement of the rightful status of the Duwamish Tribe,” she told the school board. “Federal treaties by the U.S. government are valid documents. The Point Elliott Treaty signed by our chief and subchiefs was not implemented as promised for our people. This is a sad historical fact.”

She noted that the City of Seattle was named after her ancestor, the first signer of the Point Elliott Treaty, and yet city leaders since the treaty era have failed to advocate for the Duwamish’s “rightful status.”

She told the school board, “You have planted a seed of righteousness for the City of Seattle, and I want to thank you.”

The Original People of the Land Our Schools Are Built Upon

The resolution was introduced in July by school board member Scott Pinkham, Nez Perce, a lecturer in American Indian studies at the University of Washington.

His resolution notes that the City of Seattle is named for Si’ahl, or Seattle, the leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples during much of the first half of the 1800s. He was the first signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, which made land available for newcomers, but the city’s first city council banned Duwamish and other Native people from living within the infant city’s boundaries, and early residents opposed the establishment of a Duwamish reservation.

As a result, some Duwamish people went to area reservations, but many Duwamish stayed in their ancestral lands and were led by a government established and led by Duwamish living at home and elsewhere, including Peter James of Lummi, who served as chairman from 1917-1945.

Hansen is the sixth chairperson of the Duwamish Tribe since 1917; the Duwamish were led before that by a series of leaders, or chiefs, after Si’ahl’s passing in 1866.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in 1974 in U.S. v. Washington that treaty rights applied only to reservation Indians. The Duwamish Tribe petitioned in 1976 for federal recognition, which would have set aside land for the Duwamish Tribe; the petition was approved on January 19, 2001 by acting Assistant Interior Secretary Michael J. Anderson the day before the end of the Clinton administration. His decision, however, was held for review by the Bush administration and overturned eight months later.

Despite lack of federal recognition, Duwamish Tribal Services provides cultural, education, health and social programs for its 600 enrolled members. The Duwamish Tribe built the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center—the first longhouse in Seattle since the 1890s—and, the resolution states, supports public education in Seattle.

The proposed action report, prepared by school district staff members, states, “The School District needs to support the federal recognition of the Duwamish Nation as the original people of the land our schools are built upon as it would be evidence that the schools are sincere in their race and equity initiative, thus providing a supportive environment for Native education in Seattle Public Schools.”

The resolution itself states that the Duwamish have been “wrongly denied” recognition by the federal government. “They have never left their ancestral homeland and therefore deserve to receive appropriate federal recognition.”

The resolution notes that state law requires schools to teach about the history, culture and governance of local Native Nations, and “It is appropriate that the Seattle School District, as part of our race and equity initiative, acknowledge this history of our community and many of our students and staff by supporting the Duwamish Nation in obtaining the restoration of federal recognition and to also make additional efforts to ensure supportive environments for Native education in our schools by providing an additional emphasis on Native education.”

The resolution also “urges prompt action by the U.S. President and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior to confer official recognition on the Duwamish Nation.”

Pinkham’s voice broke with emotion as he spoke about the resolution, saying it’s “unfortunate” that the state-required “Since Time Immemorial” Native history curriculum is restricted to the teaching about federally recognized indigenous nations. The resolution will “bring attention that there are Tribes out there that don’t have access to their treaty rights and benefits.”

The resolution, he said, “is the right thing to do.”

Watch the Seattle School Board meeting below:

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