Embarrassing Injustice: Proposed State Education Law Omits Teaching Duwamish History


On Monday, January 18, the Washington  Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education held a public hearing on Senate Bill 5161, “An Act Relating To The Teaching of Washington’s Tribal History, Culture and Government.”  The Act would require all school boards in the State to incorporate the history, culture, and government of the nearest federally recognized tribes in their social studies curriculum.  This seems enlightened except for one jarring fact.  In Seattle and King County most of Native American history and culture deals with the Duwamish Tribe, which is still not federally recognized.  

The city and citizens of Seattle are largely responsible for this embarrassing injustice.  Since its history presumably could not be taught in Seattle schools, let me recount the history of this local tribe, including its long, still-futile pursuit of federal recognition..

The Duwamish have inhabited the Seattle area for thousands of years. They were the first signatories of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott in which they gave up their land in exchange for mostly unfulfilled federal promises.  An earlier treaty council for native groups in the south Puget Sound was led by Isaac Stevens, Washington Territory’s first governor. This council was held in a proceeding completely unfamiliar to Native groups at Medicine Creek at the mouth of the Nisqually River. The date was December 26, 1854. 

In one day, the entire treaty, translated into Chinook Jargon, a rough trade patois of a few hundred words, was read to the stunned audience who were directed to sign it. The tribes did so, apparently out of a desire to be polite.  A month later, on January 26, Stevens and his entourage gathered at Point Elliott, modern-day Mukilteo, for a repeat performance.  

According to the council, Seattle would be the paramount chief.  On the east side of Puget Sound, Seattle had been Duwamish head chief since 1850. When Washington Territory was officially established in March, 1853, splitting off from Oregon, the Suquamish on the west side asked him to represent them to the Americans.  At some point both tribes learned that Stevens planned a reservation for them on the east shore of distant Hood Canal along with the S’klallam people, creating a combined reservation population exceeding 3,000.  But this was in a resource-poor area that never supported even a large village.  Seattle and his Duwamish Tribe let it be known that they would boycott the council.  

To avoid this disaster early in the treaty-making process, hurried negotiations followed during which the Duwamish leader, Studa (William), is reported to have told Michael Simmons, the Indian Agent Stevens appointed for the Puget Sound region, that William wanted a reservation on the western shore of Elliott Bay and the lower Duwamish River.  Simmons put him off but promised to continue negotiations, whereupon Seattle and his Duwamish agreed to go to Point Elliott.  

On the Treaty document, Seattle is listed as chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes.  Of the 20 Duwamish sub-chiefs appointed earlier by Seattle and approved by Simmons, only three traveled with him to Point Elliott negotiations.  Studa/William did not attend.

The Treaty identified three reservations. The Suquamish received one, Fort Kitsap at Port Madison on Bainbridge Island.  The Duwamish received none.  Seattle and the Duwamish sub-chiefs signed, but the general native assumption appears to have been that more negotiations would follow.  Indeed, only a few months later native headmen protested that they had given their names to the treaty, not their lands.  

Native consternation and anger soon led to war between Americans and Indians in the fall of 1855, a war fought bitterly on both sides of the Cascade Mountains.  To keep the Duwamish from joining the fight carried on by the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes and the Duwamish’s up-river kin, a sub-agency was set up for the Duwamish at Holderness Point (Duwamish Head) on the shore of Elliott Bay — land William asked be reserved  Sub-agents were hired to administer, build infrastructure, and distribute supplies.  

During this violent time Seattle shuttled between Fort Kitsap, Holderness Point, Seattle town, and the territorial capital of Olympia. His mission was  to carry out his responsibilities as head chief and to keep the peace.  Meanwhile, on their respective reserves, native people were harassed by northern raiders and suffered malnourishment and disease from administrative neglect and internal dissension. Life became more difficult as wards of the federal government.  Native people assumed they would soon receive their copies of the treaty, but the U. S. Senate had yet to ratify them.  The Medicine Creek Treaty was ratified in a year, but the Point Elliott treaty languished until 1859.

In March 1857, Seattle angrily confronted Simmons, expressing fears primarily for the Duwamish who had not yet received a reservation.

“Oh Mr. Simmons, why don’t our papers come back to us.  You always say you hear they will come back, but they do not.   …I fear we are forgotten or are to be cheated out of our lands.  …When I die my people will be very poor–they will have no property, no chief and no one to talk for them….We are ashamed when we think that the Puyallups have their papers.  They fought against the whites, whilst we, who have never been angry with them get nothing.”

In the summer of 1857, Isaac Stevens held another treaty council with the Duwamish’s warring up-river kin, and promised them a reservation. That effectively split the Duwamish into two groups, the Duwamish proper and their up-river kin who became known as the Muckleshoot Tribe.  Gradually a coherent plan to deny the Duwamish a reservation in their homeland becomes evident. 

In April 1859, the Point Elliott Treaty was ratified by Congress. Holderness Point and other sub-agencies were abandoned and native people had one year to move to their respective reservations.  Fort Kitsap became the Port Madison Indian Reservation.  But the Duwamish — who had invited Americans to settle among them and who befriended them during the war —  had no reservation to go to.  They became aliens in their own homeland.  Why?

It had to do with the value of land.  In treaty negotiations throughout American history, title to the vast lands relinquished by native groups passed to the federal government which sold it or gave it to white settlers. To develop the West, the 1850 Oregon Donation Land Law Act gave husbands and wives a square mile of land free. 

Seattle pioneers came intending to found a town and get rich selling lots to subsequent settlers.  By 1853, the little hamlet, recently named after Chief Seattle, who had invited Americans to settle among his people so both could prosper, was already barging coal from mines up the Duwamish and Black Rivers to San Francisco at $30 a ton.  On January 11, 1854 Gov. Stevens told white residents that the neighs of the iron horse would soon be heard in western valleys announcing that Seattle would be a metropolis as great as London and New York.  The next day Stevens told Seattle and his people that they would give up their lands to a government that would take care of them.   

The last thing Seattle’s white settlers wanted was for land near them withdrawn from the public domain and set up as an Indian Reservation.  George Paige, the Indian Agent at Fort Kitsap and Holderness Point, wrote to his superiors that a reservation should be set aside for the Duwamish at the outlet of Lake Washington (today’s city of Renton), where their major native village stood.  But this was now coal country and whites would soon build a railroad there to bring it out, making rich landowners even richer. 

When word arrived that the federal government planned to create a reservation there, virtually every voting white male in Seattle and King County sent a petition to Congress demanding the idea be abandoned. They argued that there weren’t that many Indians and the whites treated them very well.  These white settlers prevailed.  That same year of 1859 the territorial legislature granted Seattle a charter, and Ordnance #5 drove Seattle and his Duwamish out of town.  Old Chief Seattle, the Americans’ benefactor and protector, moved to Port Madison and died a year later. His vision of racial cooperation and co-prosperity had been extinguished.  

But the Duwamish refused to leave their homeland, despite being murdered with impunity.  Should a white be tried for killing an Indian, his white neighbors would chip in to hire good attorneys who would get him off on a technicality.  When an accused white in Seattle testified that, “Yah, I suppose I killed him judge,” the judge told him to reconsider what he just said. On those rares occasions when even a white jury had to convict a drunken killer, an “escape” was arranged.  Duwamish were driven from their homes, left to starve on mudflats. In defiance of treaty rights, they were arrested for hunting and fishing “at usual and accustomed places.” 

But they persisted, with many becoming successful farmers and businesspersons.  When their native language was taken from them at government-funded schools, they still found ways to celebrate their culture and identity.  By the 1920s, native population on Puget Sound fell to about 5,000, barely a tenth of what it had been before westerners arrived. 

 The Duwamish brought suit against the U.S. government for damages to their property, in the case Duwamish et al. Tribes of Indians, versus the United States in the Court of Claims in 1927.  They and the groups they helped organize won a pittance, but they won.  

The Duwamish also persisted in bringing cases against local, state and federal governments regarding fishing resources.  This culminated in the Fish Wars of the 1960s when federal and state officers beat, shot, and imprisoned native people demanding government honor treaty promises.  Mannie Oliver, the brother of Duwamish Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, and many others were jailed for protesting.  Finally, in the 1974 decision written by federal judge George Boldt, native people retained 50 percent of the catch.  Washington State argued that such rights no longer existed, but the Supreme Court disagreed.  

Even that victory proved another cruel blow to the Duwamish. Because they and several other groups still had no reservations—thanks to whites who made sure they never got them–these tribes were considered landless. Boldt judged that, as such, they were not eligible for the rights promised in the treaties.  Recognized tribes were able to access federal funds and grants to finally improve health care, education, housing, and employment opportunities. 

Such were the often-empty promises made in exchange for land — 75 percent of the continental United States — that made America the richest nation on earth.  Over and over the Duwamish were blocked.  Many gave up and became Suquamish, Muckleshoot, or Tulalips. Most did not because they were Duwamish, living in their homeland, waiting on and reminding Americans to honor their promises.

Repeatedly the Duwamish have sued the federal government to gain recognition.  The government argues that the Tribe showed continuity of government and social organization until 1916 when a gap occurred.  It happened when construction of the Lake Washington ship canal lowered the lake’s level and that of its outlet, the Black River, causing the destruction of the river’s fish runs.  

For millennia fish made the Duwamish a wealthy and influential people.  The disappearance of the river and its resources meant that Duwamish noble families could no longer invite their people to potlatches and feasts.  A few years later the Tribe reestablished and resumed its tradition of leadership.  But once the continuum was sundered, however briefly, the tribe no longer legally “existed”—even though it did.  

Meanwhile, the federally recognized tribes had become fearful that the small pie of federal benefits would become one slice thinner. One fear was that a recognized Duwamish Tribe might build a casino that would compete with established casinos by being much closer to Seattle’s population. Another fear had to do with fishing rights.  Even so, the Tribe gained recognition at the tail end of the Clinton Administration in 2001, but Republicans under President George W. Bush quickly overturned it.  

Now comes the state bill requiring school districts to make the recognized tribes arbiters in planning social studies curricula.  An improvement surely, but the act should be amended to allow the Duwamish, Seattle’s first people, equal participation.  Seattle officials and arts institutions say the right things, mouthing acknowledgment that they occupy and have gotten rich selling Duwamish land.  Seattle School District officials are curiously silent in this case, fearing reaction from recognized tribes, even though the immediate past and current presidents are both Native Americans.  

Seattle’s First People are not the Suquamish, Tulalips, or Muckleshoot Tribes, but the Duwamish.  Schools tasked with educating our youth will be complicit.  Recognized tribes who should know better will be accomplices.  It will be one more chapter in a cultural genocide allowed by supposedly decent people who keep their racist blinkers handy. 

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  1. Fascinating and tragic history that too many of us don’t know. You make a strong case for teaching it to all students,

  2. Allow me to add a plug for David Buerge’s wonderful 2017 book on Chief Seattle, published in Seattle by Sasquatch Books (now owned by Penguin Random House). That book recounts the curious ambivalence of the old Chief, part warrior, part real estate promoter, friend and admonisher to the pioneer whites. He was torn between worlds in many ways, one of the gulfs being between the Suquamish Tribe on western part of Sound and the Duwamish on the Seattle side. Seattle’s parents come from the rival tribes, and the old chief led both of them and kept the peace.


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