The Real Duwamish


A battle has broken out between the Duwamish Tribe and the Muckleshoot, Suquamish and Tulalip Tribes.  Dueling ads between the Muckleshoot and Duwamish have appeared in the Seattle Times and the Muckleshoot have aired TV spots claiming to be the “real” Duwamish.  A recent Sunday front-page feature by Lynda Mapes in The Seattle Times, “Who are the Duwamish?” bravely presents the conflict in a balanced, long-form report.  As an historian who has focused on Duwamish history for 50 years, I would like to expand the narrative.

The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center stands at 4700 West Marginal Way.  Among its treasures, you will find Chief Seattle’s woven hat and a shawl belonging to his daughter, Kikisoblu, a.k.a. Princess Angeline. Unlike its three tribal antagonists, the Duwamish Tribe is not acknowledged by the federal government as successor to the group that signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.  Interestingly, this denial of official status has only been true since 1979.

The leading native figure at the treaty council, Chief Seattle signed the document as chief of the “D’wamish, Suquamish and allied tribes.”  The wording sequence is important: the Duwamish were thought more important than the Suquamish because Seattle had been head chief of the Duwamish long before the Suquamish asked him to represent them in negotiations with the Americans.  A map from the time shows the Duwamish name extended into Suquamish territory.  But while the 1855 treaty recognized the Duwamish as a tribe, it located no reservation in their homeland.  In 1979, this made a difference to federal judge George Boldt.

In the celebrated 1974 case Washington vs. U.S.A., Boldt ruled that, contrary to Washington State’s contention, the Treaty of Point Elliott remained the law of the land in all respects. Boldt interpreted the sentence in Article 5, “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the territory,” to mean that the historically diminished catch should be divided equally between Native American and non-native fishers.

This was a victory for native groups who had resisted state fishing restrictions, especially during the brutal Fish Wars of the 1960s and ‘70s.  However, in a separate 1979 decision, Boldt decided that the Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Steilacoom, Chinook, and Snohomish who had no reservations were not successors in interest to the treaty tribes and, therefore, had no right to fish.   

Before western settlement, thousands of native people traveled throughout the Puget lowland fishing, gathering, and hunting in the warm weather, until congregating in hundreds of villages during winter.  Native land ceded to the government in the treaty represented about three-quarters of this area.  

In 1855, federal officials assumed that four small reservations would house all 22 groups listed in the treaty by name, plus those it neglected to count or were unable or chose not to participate—many thousands of people.  This proved untenable even before the treaty was ultimately ratified when, during the Treaty War of 1855-7, panicked territorial officials tried to concentrate thousands of tribespeople in camps in western Puget Sound that could not be adequately supplied.  Like many, the Duwamish refused to comply.

Because the Suquamish had no salmon river in their homeland and relied on catches from Elliott Bay and the Duw (Duwamish, Black, and Cedar rivers), there was not enough food at the Port Madison Indian Reservation to feed both groups.  The fact that there was a reservation there at all was because Chief Seattle and the Duwamish threatened to boycott the Point Elliott Council when they learned of plans to remove them, the Suquamish, and S’Klallam–several thousand people—to a place on the northeast shore of Hood Canal that had virtually no resources.  

Moreover, there was the glaring contradiction in the Article 5 sentence regarding “usual and accustomed ground,” which meant those in the groups’ broad homelands.  Transporting tons of fish from the Duw across the open waters of the Sound to Port Madison was impossible.

George Paige, Agent in charge of the Duwamish, had enough sense to organize a reservation for them near Duwamish Head, today’s West Seattle, but they still had to follow the fish migrating upriver to gather enough food for winter stores.  The Duwamish remained at peace during the fighting, but in 1857, Gov. Stevens negotiated with groups on the Green, upper White, and Stuck rivers who had murdered settlers and fought American troops. Gov. Stevens organized a reservation for these tribes between the rivers.  A military post at a prairie called Bukw shulh, “Muckleshoot,” gave the reservation its name.

Agent Paige wondered if the Duwamish people could be convinced to go there, but that would have required transporting tons of salmon against the White River current to Muckleshoot.  The Duwamish stayed put.

After the treaty was formally ratified in 1859, the Duwamish had one year to move to the reservations established beyond their homeland.  Another glaring flaw in Article 13 required reservation families to clear, fence, and cultivate enough land to survive on in plots of 40 to 80 acres. 

But there was not enough land and much of it was unfit for agriculture.  Officials blithely imagined it would take about 20 years to turn migratory gatherers into private farmers, and they provided tools, seed, white farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and teachers to bring about the transformation.  But tools, seed, and staff were rarely forthcoming. Most white settlers would have agreed with Treaty Commissioner George Gibbs, who wrote breezily: “But a few years will elapse before a universal escheat [transfer at death to the state] will preclude the necessity of any purchase.” In a few years, he implied, they’d all be dead.

The reservation policy proved a disaster.  Native populations declined from illness and violence, and the landless Duwamish were driven from their longhouses by settlers. Then in 1916, construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal wiped out the lake fishery by lowering the Lake Washington’s level nine feet and eliminating the lake’s southern outlet, the Black River, and its rich fishery.  The largest city in the Pacific Northwest filled the Duwamish homeland, obliterating their society and culture.  It was gradual genocide.

So we return to the key question: Why did the Duwamish receive no reservation in their homeland?  Smelly coal was not used to heat longhouses or cook food, but knowing the Americans lust for coal, the tribes helpfully pointed out deposits to settlers and joined efforts to develop them in East King County.  Because King County settlers planned to get rich speculating in land during the expected post-railroad industrial boom, the settlers refused to let government withdraw land for a reservation and blocked efforts to organize a tribal reservation near Renton.  Despite this aggression, most Duwamish refused to leave. They survived and adapted to a modern future.

Around 1900, a Cedar River Duwamish, Ben Solomon, an environmental activist before that appellation, got local courts to ban whites killing salmon with dynamite. Understanding the value of their rich traditional life, Duwamish informants willingly shared it with the students of Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology.  Learning the value of business practice and jurisprudence in an urban setting, these Natives were the first to develop a tribal constitution and incorporate as the Duwamish Tribal Organization (DTO) in 1925, helping the Muckleshoot and Suquamish to do the same years later.  

They maintained an unbroken leadership, lobbied successfully for government action, and won cases against the United States government for historic damages.  Active in regional and national native federations, Duwamish tribal support of political groups and personal sacrifices during the fish wars of the 1960s and ‘70s helped fellow tribes win in court.

But these were partial victories, leaving the present situation deeply unjust. 

Much of the problem is that governments often operate in ignorance, at cross-purposes and rarely coherently.  For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) refused the Duwamish request for tribal acknowledgement and spent many of its 378-page arguments contending that the Duwamish never had hereditary chiefs.  One of the reasons for its refusal is that in modern times the Duwamish had not developed an ongoing political structure.  When tribal survivors created such a structure in the early 20th century, the BAR claimed it didn’t count because it did not involve Duwamish already on reservations –  who, of course, had no need for a separate political structure.

In 1957 the Indian Claims Commission found that the petitioning Duwamish Tribe was “the successor in interest…to the entity that was a party to the treaty of January 22, 1855.”  In 1979, Boldt decided they were not. 

Despite all this government mismanagement and inconsistency, the Duwamish persisted in efforts to gain acknowledgement that would place them on the federal list by which they could finally access treaty rights promised them 167 years ago.  Perversely. their landlessness, caused by white greed and duplicity, has been made the reason for their present dilemma. 

The government’s case against acknowledgement rests on differences between an enrollment roll made in 1915, and a list the DTO put together in 1926 (“rolls” and “lists” are slightly different).  Many names on the 1915 roll, largely those who left for reservations, do not appear on the 1926 list, and many on the later list appear to be new. 

In a burgeoning non-native population, many Duwamish women married non-native men to survive in an expanding industrial economy.  The DTO argues that government conveniently avoids acknowledging that traditional descent passes through female lines, and that new names do not represent a break but continuity.

Overall, there is something deeply unsettling about how the government acknowledges native people.  Notes kept by reservation agents were haphazard at best, subject to loss and fire.  Duwamish leaders helped draw up the 1915 roll and the 1926 list that includes old names but also reflects a growing diaspora.  (Letters, greeting cards, photos and documents can easily be lost from constant movement.)

Government attorneys use such absences to argue that the old Duwamish tribe disappeared – POOF!  Then, their argument runs, after an environmental cataclysm, survivors with new names joined older families and called themselves Duwamish.  This can be no surprise: There is nothing quite like violence, poverty, oppression, and the lash of racism to incite a clamor to identify with a poor, beleaguered group.

It takes the BAR hundreds of pages to say no.  It sifts through reports, tables, interviews, scraps of data, and inferences to tease out what it claims are breaks in the record that show, triumphantly, that people eventually just gave up trying.  And yet, as Duwamish Tribal Chairperson Cecile Hansen continues to say, “We are still here!”

Clearly, this system is broken.  At the end of Indians In The Making  Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities Around Puget Sound, author Alexandra Harmon concludes: “unquestionably, there are Indians around Puget Sound and there will be Indians around Puget Sound for as long as there are people who believe that their own history has made them Indians.”

Additionally, Yakama Indian rights attorney Ethan Jones observes that power politics threatens governance, and that the BAR “is affected by local, state, federal, and tribal governments vying to protect their own interests….The [tribal]recognition process has become highly politicized and until the nature of this process is addressed, it will remain a highly unjust institution of the federal government.”  

Government appears content to allow political infighting to sort things out.  That means that whoever collects the most money or hires the best lawyers and media consultants wins.  How is this not finishing up the white man’s dirty work?

The political reality is that officially recognized tribes fear what could happen if the Duwamish gain tribal acknowledgement. One fear has to do with further cutting up the pie of fishing rights. Then too, government has provided tribes opportunities to join with international gambling operations that funnel what is left after stockholder dividends into tribal budgets.  As a tax-exempt corporation, what would prevent the legally recognized Duwamish Tribe from building a casino in downtown Seattle that would compete with casinos located farther away from the region’s largest market? 

To be sure, the city of Seattle currently forbids gambling within its limits, but that does not impress tribes cynical about government’s history of corruption, malfeasance, and fraud. Local politicians do not want to upset the status quo or jeopardize generous tribal campaign contributions. 

Is there justice in this long story of injustice? It’s likely that if anyone can sort out this painful tangle to find healing good, it will be the Tribes, recognized and unrecognized. Their tragic history has taught them to cherish justice and equity.



  1. Thank you for this excellent insight. Lynda Mapes’ Seattle Times article definitely left me wanting more details. You have helped, although more obvious information needs to be explored when it comes to the battle among tribes: this is, ultimately, about money.

  2. This is outstanding. The history of the Duwamish is a troubling one; thank you for presenting this information so fairly. It seems to me, this tribe has been treated very unfairly. I understand that it’s a complex history. There are uncertainties. And if I’m being honest, I don’t like the idea of a big gambling casino complex in downtown Seattle. But still. As you wrote, “…as Duwamish Tribal Chairperson Cecile Hansen continues to say, “We are still here!”

  3. Like Feisty Brain, I too wanted more description of all the historical steps that led us to the unfair situation that exists today with the Duwamish tribe. Thank you then for this short description of what happened over many years. Because all students in our state are required to take a class devoted to Washington State History, they deserve to learn what actually happened to our native people as white settlers moved in and took over. I want to get beyond our present practice of just mentioning that we are living on native peoples’ land.


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