Oh, no big deal, the entire citys just NAMED after a Duwamish tribal chief
Oh, no big deal, the entire city's just NAMED after a Duwamish tribal chief 400TMAX / GETTY IMAGES

If you’ve been in Seattle for any length of time recently, you’ve probably seen a land acknowledgement on a building, at an event, or in artwork created here: “We are on the traditional land of the first people of Seattle, the Duwamish People past and present, and honor with gratitude the land itself and the Duwamish Tribe.”

Nice words to say! But when it actually matters, will Seattle honor them?

Senate Bill 5161, currently working its way through the legislature thanks to primary sponsor Lisa Wellman of Mercer Island, would make sure Washington schools incorporate local indigenous history into social studies and history curricula.

There’s just one little problem: The bill specifies that only “federally recognized” tribes are to be included. The Duwamish were recognized under the Clinton administration, but they lost federal recognition under the Bush administration. That means that if SB 5161 passes in its current form, the Duwamish would be excluded. Not exactly “honoring with gratitude,” is it?

(You remember Bush, right? The guy who everyone was posting soft uwu memes about last week despite having started a bunch of oil wars?)

The Bush-administration decision was upheld by a court in 2015, which found that the Duwamish did not have evidence of a “distinct American-Indian identity.”

Fortunately, this little oversight isn’t slipping under the radar. At a remote hearing on the bill last week, Senator Jamie Pedersen (whom we've endorsed) raised an immediate objection to the exclusionary language. Wellman responded swiftly: “I will certainly address that going forward,” she said.

Senator Sam Hunt (whose district includes Olympia) raised a cautionary flag about making any changes, though, and urged consultation with Governor Inslee’s office “to make sure we aren’t crossing very sensitive lines.”

The need to adjust that language was noted by other parties testifying on the bill. Paul Benz, of the Faith Action Network (which supports the bill) proposed a "friendly amendment” and suggested that the bill should refer to “historic treaty tribes” rather than federally recognized tribes.

Rodney Cawston, Chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville, offered his support as well, along with Jon Claymore, Executive Director of the Office of Native Education.

“These teachings from our first teachers, elders, will benefit all K-12 learners,” said Cawston. “The twenty-nine federally recognized tribes, the seven non-federally-recognized tribes, and 61,119 Native learners are asking for your support of SB 5161.”

The bill’s scheduled to be heard a second time by the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education tomorrow morning at 10:30 am, and has not yet been revised.

And if you're looking for evidence that a bill like this is needed: During public testimony last week on the bill, several tribal leaders called in to testify in support. Officials on the call stumbled repeatedly with the pronunciation of their names. It's maybe not the biggest issue facing Native people, but it sure is a red flag that so many of us don't even know how to speak the names of the people whose land we're on.