Why won’t Seattle Mayor Durkan meet with the Duwamish Tribe?

Sep 26, 2018, 8:58 AM | Updated: 12:13 pm
Barbara Williams, center, holds an umbrella for her mother, tribal chair Cecile Hansen, right, as they prepare to join other members of the Duwamish Indian Tribe in performing an "honor song" Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 near the Pike Place Market. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Duwamish Tribe, whose roots in Seattle stretch back for millennia, are not officially recognized by the federal government. They’ve long sought support from the City of Seattle in their 40-year effort to gain recognition, but haven’t had much luck.

Now the tribe has found a vocal ally in a local historian and author.

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This week marks the 167th anniversary of the arrival of David Denny and two other settlers at what is now West Seattle. The rest of the Denny Party would arrive six weeks later on November 13, 1851, and much of the group would paddle across Elliott Bay in a canoe a few months later and found what would become Seattle in February 1852.

Of course, Native Americans were here long before that. Chief Seattle and the Duwamish Tribe, in particular, were of great help to the region’s settlers.

“If it weren’t for the Duwamish, the settlers would’ve starved to death in the winter of 1852-53,” said historian and author David Buerge. “The Duwamish helped defend the town, they kept the mill running, and they’ve just been treated like dirt by the town and the city.”

David Buerge has studied local history and Duwamish history for more than 50 years. Last year, her published an acclaimed biography of Duwamish leader and city namesake Chief Seattle. He says that the Duwamish, who have not been federally recognized as a tribe since the 1960s, have suffered a great injustice, the reasons for that, and the depth of which is little understood by most people living in Seattle today.

The Duwamish have been seeking federal recognition – and all the rights conferred by such recognition – since the 1970s. Buerge has been trying to arrange a meeting between Mayor Jenny Durkan and Duwamish Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen for the past six months.

Duwamish and the Treaty of Point Elliott

This is a complicated story, but the Duwamish signed the Treaty of Point Elliott at what’s now Mukilteo in 1855, ceding land they’d lived on for millennia, and clearing the way for American settlers to make homestead claims and begin building what would become the region we know today.

Buerge says that the natives thought the signing of the treaty was the beginning of negotiations, and that further discussion and agreements about issues would follow — such as where to locate a reservation for the Duwamish within their traditional homeland of what had become Seattle. The federal government, Buerge says the record shows, saw the treaty as the end of the process.

Ultimately, the Duwamish ended up without a reservation, and without much of anything.

“The Duwamish are unrecognized,” Buerge said. “That means that they cannot receive the same benefits that recognized tribes do, so the Duwamish do not get any benefits of the federal treaties.”

Benefits such as access to education and health programs, and participation in the economic benefits of fisheries, shellfish and even gaming. For the record, Duwamish Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen said earlier this week that the tribe has never sought federal recognition and reservation land in order to open a casino.

The irony of the treaty aftermath and the landless, unrecognized status of the Duwamish, Buerge says, was that “it was their Chief Seattle who signed it, and the Duwamish are the first group listed in the treaty documents.”

Duwamish efforts to gain federal recognition have been rejected multiple times over the past decades, including most recently in 2015. According to a Seattle Times article in September 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said then that the Duwamish failed to meet the criteria for recognition, including not “having a continuous history from early times to today and [not maintaining] a political authority.”

David Buerge says that the roots of the tribe’s failure to meet the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ criteria for federal recognition can be traced to coordinated efforts to deny the Duwamish land for a reservation in Seattle going back more than 150 years.

Buerge says that to really understand why the Duwamish are stuck in what is essentially a landless limbo, you have to go back to the 1850s and 1860s, when Seattle’s white settlers did all they could to keep Duwamish from owning land in Seattle. He points to a specific incident around 1865, when the Duwamish began talks with the federal government about establishing a reservation in West Seattle.

“When word of that got back to Seattle, virtually the entire voting age population, which would’ve been white men over 21 years of age, drew up a petition saying no, this would be unjust … there’s no reason for the government to set up a reservation … so it shouldn’t go forward,” Buerge said.

The petition, Buerge says, was signed by many recognizable figures in Seattle’s pioneer past.

“All the famous names, Yesler, Denny, Maynard, they’re all on the petition. David Maynard was supposedly the friend of the Indians, but he was quite ready to sign the petition preventing the Duwamish from getting a reservation,” Buerge said. “I’m sure there were some people who thought it was unjust [and who therefore didn’t sign the petition], but we don’t know anybody by name.”

“That [petition] was sent to the delegate Arthur Denny in the Congress in Washington, DC,” Buerge said. “[And] the effort on the part of the Duwamish and the federal government was quashed.”

Buerge says that this incident from the 1860s is among the most egregious examples of how the Duwamish were excluded from Seattle, even though members of the tribe actually wanted to take part in the prosperity of building a city and trading with settlers. That participation was also prevented by laws forbidding Duwamish from owning property within the city limits.

“It was assumed that the Indians would just disappear,” said Buerge, though “the Indians never assumed that. They were vigorous participants in the process of town-building, and they wanted the prosperity that came with contact with Americans.”

Duwamish exclusion

 But, Buerge says, the exclusion efforts went well beyond the 1860s.

 “The effort to keep the Duwamish out, to keep their land holdings out of the city was continued, and it continues today, so that the mayor’s office doesn’t even respond to an invitation to talk with the Duwamish,” Buerge said.

Earlier this year, Buerge sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan on behalf of Duwamish Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen in an attempt to arrange a meeting between the two leaders. It went nowhere, and, ultimately, no meeting was scheduled. He sent the invitation again last week, and this time, he shared it with KIRO Radio.

Why is Buerge even involved in this? He says he’s been researching local history for most of the past 50 years, and he’s known many Duwamish personally for decades.  Also, his wife was Jenny Durkan’s teacher at Forest Ridge School in Bellevue many years ago.

Buerge says he’s not sanguine, but he’s hopeful that a meeting between Mayor Durkan and Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen will happen, and that it will be fruitful — in that it could help the tribe get the federal recognition they seek.

Meanwhile, an attorney for the Duwamish Tribe says that the case for federal recognition is currently working its way through something called the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (or IBIA,) after recognition was denied, most recently, in July 2015.

In an email Tuesday, K&L Gates attorney Ben A. Mayer wrote, “In October 2015, we appealed that [July 2015] decision to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA), as well as reviewed historic records and interviewed tribal members to develop new evidence to present to the board … In November 2015, the IBIA accepted review, thereby ensuring consideration of all new evidence. The matter is ongoing.”

Timing for what will happen next is anybody’s guess. Bart J. Freedman, also with K&L Gates, wrote in an email, “[The IBIA] could either kick this back to the agency or affirm the denial in which case we are back to federal court here in Seattle with what I think is an even stronger case … ”

Seattle leadership

Either way, says Buerge, the city’s silence on this issue in the past certainly hasn’t helped.

“They avoid it by essentially avoiding the issue, and this has been going on since the 1850s and it’s going on today, so Mayor Durkan now has an opportunity to do something different,” Buerge said. “[City leaders] often say ‘The Duwamish are Seattle’s native people’ and all that, they make the pronouncements, they talk the talk.  But they don’t go beyond that, and what the Duwamish are asking for is support for recognition, and respect from the city that they helped found.”

“I think it’s long overdue,” he said.

KIRO Radio reached out to Mayor Durkan’s office multiple times by email and then phone beginning late last week to ask about Buerge’s invitation and whether the mayor would meet with Duwamish Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen.

Midday Tuesday, a staffer from Durkan’s office wrote back and provided a statement that said, “The Mayor has met with the Duwamish Valley community several times and has been focused on environmental justice and youth opportunity issues in this underserved area. Mayor Durkan’s administration has not received a request for a meeting from Tribal Chair Cecile Hansen.”

Early Tuesday evening, a member of the mayor’s communications staff acknowledged via email having received last week’s invitation from Buerge. The invitation, however, apparently was not recognized as having been sent on behalf of Duwamish Tribal Chair Hansen, even though Buerge’s invitation states that he extended the invitation at the behest of Ms. Hansen, and he cc’d Ms. Hansen on his email to Mayor Durkan.

“Yes – we’ve received the invite from David [Buerge], but we have not received an invitation from the Tribal Chairwoman for a meeting to the Mayor’s office or to our Director of Tribal Relations,” the email said.

A follow-up email to Mayor Durkan’s office was sent by KIRO Radio around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, asking “if Cecile Hansen reaches out to Mayor Durkan directly on Wednesday, [is she] guaranteed the meeting that Mr. Buerge was seeking on her behalf?”

So far, there has been no response.

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Why won’t Seattle Mayor Durkan meet with the Duwamish Tribe?