Duwamish chairwoman Cecile Hansen has been fighting for Duwamish recognition for 40 years.
Duwamish chairperson Cecile Hansen has been fighting for Duwamish recognition for 40 years. Alex Garland

Last week, the federal government denied recognition to the Duwamish, the first people of Seattle (a city named after the Suquamish-Duwamish Chief Sealth). Unlike other tribes that signed treaties with the white settlers of Puget Sound, the denial means that, to this day, the federal government doesn't see the descendants of Chief Sealth as their own legitimate community.

Without recognition, the Duwamish cannot access the educational, health-care, and economic rights that are supposed to be guaranteed to descendants of the people who ceded the majority of their land to the United States.

The reasons why are fucked.

On Wednesday morning, Duwamish chairperson Cecile Hansen led a press conference responding to the federal government's decision in the Duwamish Longhouse in West Seattle. She held a talking stick made for her by her grandson.

"I think there should be an uprising from the citizens of this city [because] their indigenous people are not acknowledged by the federal government by some insane regulation that was not made to help anybody," she said.

What about Washington's federal delegation, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray? "These two ladies, Murray and Cantwell—I got a letter one time in 1989 from Murray, long time ago, and the letter didn't say anything," Hansen said.

What about local politicians? "I have many times tried to meet through the years with the mayor, the governor... nothing," Hansen added.

The Seattle City Council? "I know a few of them, but [none that] come here and talk about the acknowledgement process."

Hansen asked those in the room to send letters to the president, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs.

The federal recognition decision is supposed to be final, but the Duwamish could also be recognized through an act of Congress. In the meantime, the tribe will be exploring other options—and potentially an appeal.

"My prayer is one day that you are recognized," Hyram Calf Looking, an off-reservation delegate for the Blackfeet Nation, told Hansen. "And I want you to know we recognize you guys, we see you guys. It's not formal. We see you, we want you to know that. We love you guys."

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Florence Kay Fiddler, Ojibwe, also spoke up. "There's a lot of tribes, 400-some tribes of people, in Seattle," she said. "That's huge. Part of that genocide plan was to take us away from our identities, our land, our home. I don't need to be a senator or a PhD. I'm a mother, I'm a grandmother, I'm a great-grandmother, and that is all the authority I need to recognize what the Duwamish tribe has done for my family."

Nahaan, who is Tlingit, shared a similar sentiment. "I just want to note that I acknowledge you, and I recognize you," he said. "And for Native people, that's probably the biggest thing you can do, is to acknowledge somebody and thank them for allowing us to even be here."

Hansen thanked Nahaan after he finished speaking. "Isn't it wonderful that we might have to fight for recognition with the federal government, but we get recognition here?" she asked. Hansen's daughter, Jolene Haas, wiped tears away from her eyes. "Isn't that wonderful?" Hansen asked the audience again. "It is wonderful."