Duwamish Tribe fights for federal recognition: ‘We’re still here’

The moment is etched in Cecile Hansen’s mind, first with joy, then with anger. It was the day her tribe, the Duwamish, achieved what they had sought for more than 100 years: federal recognition. They received it in the last hours of the Clinton presidency, in an epic moment of acknowledgement Jan. 19, 2001. But in a matter of hours, the incoming Bush administration reversed that recognition on a technicality. It was a flip-flop that put Hansen’s tribe back to Square One in its fight for the opportunities that federal recognition bring.

Duwamish Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen stands in her tribe’s longhouse

The moment is etched in Cecile Hansen’s mind, first with joy, then with anger.

It was the day her tribe, the Duwamish, achieved what they had sought for more than 100 years: federal recognition.

They received it in the last hours of the Clinton presidency, in an epic moment of acknowledgement Jan. 19, 2001.

But in a matter of hours, the incoming Bush administration reversed that recognition on a technicality.

It was a flip-flop that put Hansen’s tribe back to Square One in its fight for the opportunities that federal recognition bring.

“They call the night before and then they take it away?” Hansen recalls one September afternoon while at the Duwamish Longhouse, from the office where she works as chairwoman.

The anger is still as fresh as it was then, when her tribe’s reaction went from rapture to disbelief.

“What kind of skullduggery is going on?” she demands. “The truth is the truth is the truth. Why does any Native American have to prove who they are?

“Give me a break!”

Today Hansen is just as unswerving in her course as she was that day, when the fate of her tribe hung, as it does today, on the mood of the federal government. You want pretty words and platitudes? Forget about it. Hansen is straight-talking, straight-walking.

“I’m a warrior,” she says, and you know she means it.

Hansen came into her role as tribal chair of the Duwamish in 1975. She did it for brother Manny Oliver, who was fighting for fishing rights as a Duwamish. It was a fight he ultimately lost: the Duwamish weren’t eligible under the Boldt decision, which granted extensive fishing rights only to federally recognized tribes. Oliver went on to fish as a member of the Suquamish Tribe, which had the federal nod the Duwamish so wanted.

“It’s a role I never sought – it was handed to me,” Hansen explains of her chair position for the Duwamish. “My brother (who died fishing in 1998) said I needed to get involved.”

It all happened when Hansen began volunteering in tribal political activities. Before long she caught the attention of Willard Bill, the tribe’s chairman, who started mentoring her. Bill later resigned from position, handing the reins to Hansen. The Duwamish Tribal Council several months later made the appointment permanent.

Hansen said a lot of water has passed under that bridge since those days. She’s raised five children. She’s overseen the development of the Duwamish Longhouse, an authentic cedar building on the Duwamish River that is the epicenter of tribal activities. And she’s been leading the fight to get the feds to see what she says has been there all along: a viable tribal government entity.

She’s tired, says. Thirty-five years is a long time to be in charge and full of fight.

“I’m too cranky,” she acknowledges, a wry grin spreading on her face. “I’ve tried to quit several times and they (the tribe) started crying. So I’m their slave.”

She’s not about to give up going to bat for Duwamish recognition.

“It’s about getting our acknowledgement back.”

Hansen would seem to have history on her side.

Her great-great-uncle was Chief Seattle, leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, and an ally to the first white settlers. In fact, his willingness to help the white settlers resulted in their naming their town after him – Seattle.

It was Chief Seattle who in 1855 signed the first “X” on what became known as the Point Elliott Treaty. It was a document that would cede millions of tribal acres to white control, in exchange for hunting and fishing rights, and other incentives.

Today, that “X” is a rallying point for the Duwamish, who, by the 1900s, had been relegated as extinct by the federal government.

“We’re still here,” Hansen says defiantly, noting she’s got the records showing the tribe continued to operate as an entity.

“I’m looking at the minutes from 1932,” she says, flipping through paperwork on her desk. “And this is from 1925,” she says, pointing to another sheaf of minutes. “We were called the Duwamish Tribal Organization of the Duwamish American Indians. Isn’t this something? It’s still in effect.

“There’s no reason why we’re still dealing with this (federal recognition issue.)”

The Duwamish issue has elicited interest on the political battlefield.

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott sponsored legislation, House Bill 2678, the Duwamish Tribal Recognition Act, in 2009. But the measure, which was opposed by the neighboring Muckleshoot Tribe, never made it out of hearings.

McDermott told the media this summer that the furor over health-care issues wound up putting the kibosh on the bill, which would have identified the “aboriginal homelands” of the Duwamish, to be put into federal trust, and would have extended all federal laws and benefits of recognition to the tribe.

Hansen says it’s not about the money and economic opportunities that federal recognition bring.

“If we wanted a casino, we could have done that privately, a long time ago,” she quips, of the gambling franchises that federally recognized tribes have brought on to their reservations.

At this point, the Duwamish are working on an appeal, having first filed it in 2008.

They’re working with a new law firm, who is willing to do pro bono work for them. Still, the tribe is working to raise funds for the appeal – Hansen says they are trying to gather about $50,000, which would go a long way in offsetting costs for expert witnesses and the mountain of paperwork involved.

Legal appeal

The Duwamish are now working on a legal appeal to the 2001 ruling that overturned a short-lived moment of federal recognition of the tribe. The Duwamish have secured the pro bono services of a law firm in their appeal, but are working to raise money for the incidental expenses that go with the appeal. The tribe organizes fund-raising events for the appeal, as well as cultural events, both which are open to the public. To learn more, visit the Duwamish Tribal Web site at www.duwamishtribe.org. The longhouse is located at 4705 W. Marginal Way S.W. Call (206) 431-1582 for more info.

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