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This tribe has fought for years to get federal recognition. It's about their identity

Duwamish Tribal Services Executive Director Jolene Haas holds up her hands, a traditional gesture of gratitude, on the banks of the Duwamish River in Seattle on Sept. 21, 2019.
Thomson Reuters Foundation/Gregory Scruggs via Getty Images
Duwamish Tribal Services Executive Director Jolene Haas holds up her hands, a traditional gesture of gratitude, on the banks of the Duwamish River in Seattle on Sept. 21, 2019.

When Ken Workman looks at the skyline from across the bay in West Seattle, he sees something more than the space needle or the Mariner's ballpark.

"This is the first place where the white people would have come around and seen native people," says Workman as he gazed across the water recently.

Workman traces his lineage all the way back to Chief Seattle, the Native leader known for welcoming the first white people to these shores more than 150 years ago. Workman sometimes questions what his grandpa of many generations ago was thinking. Chief Seattle signed a treaty with these colonizers in 1855 called the Treaty of Point Elliott. The terms of the treaty granted benefits to the signatories in a nation-to-nation contract.

Workman is an elder in the Duwamish tribe, which he says comprises about 600 people. The Duwamish have been fighting a legal battle for decades with the federal government make good on treaty. They're asking for federal recognition.

Federally-recognized tribes can be eligible for benefits including land, health care, revenue streams from casinos, and education. The Duwamish say that these resources would be game changers for them.

"I could have gone to school to be a teacher," says Desiree Fagan, a Duwamish tribal member. Fagan attended a technical school after high school; as a young, single mother, she says didn't have resources for a four-year degree. But she's always wondered how things might have gone differently if she had more access to college financial aid through tribal enrollment.

The struggle persists with the next generation as well, she says. Her eldest son is in his first year of college. Fagan says he did receive one private scholarship for $2,500. "But 2,500 dollars versus fully paid tuition with federally-recognized tribes, that's a huge difference."

Fagan's family trace their lineage back through her great grandma.

Proven lineage or unfulfilled treaties are not enough to get federal recognition

But proven lineage or unfulfilled treaties are not alone enough to meet the federal government's requirements for federal recognition. "Where the problem sits is that they [the criteria] don't account for historical reality," says Josh Reid, a historian of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington.

Reid says the longer tribes go unrecognized, the more elusive recognition becomes. That's because in order to earn recognition today, the U.S. wants tribes to show long-standing records of things like land or internal government. "That can be really challenging when you are burned out of your homeland or your lands are just simply taken," Reid says.

That's exactly what the Duwamish argue happened to them after colonization.

"The BIA and the Department of the Interior have consistently been hostile to the recognition of the tribe," says Bart Freedman. An attorney with the firm K&L Gates, Freedman has been working for the tribe for over a decade on their legal battle.

Freedman wears a T-shirt under his suit coat that says, "I Stand with the Duwamish." The cause has been taken up recently by social justice warriors across the city. Much of this is galvanized through a project called Real Rent. It's an effort to facilitate people to voluntarily pay reparations to the tribe directly.

Rosie Wilson-Briggs helped to start Real Rent in 2016. She says there is no need to wait for the federal government to take action when people can take up the issue themselves. "Oh, you live and work here now in Seattle currently?" says Wilson-Briggs. "You should be giving money to the Duwamish."

Wilson-Briggs says the project has taken on a life of its own since they started it a few years ago. More than 20,000 people are now giving monthly.

The Duwamish say Real Rent has helped them keep the lights on in their organization's longhouse, which serves as a community gathering space and place for visitors to learn about the Tribe. "It's been a godsend," Workman says.

In the years since Real Rent started, the Tribe's federally reported annual income has gone from just over $100,000 to more than $1 million.

Still, this money is nowhere near the benefit some federally recognized tribes receive. The recently passed infrastructure bill alone provides more than $13 billion for tribal communities.

Attorney Bart Freedman is hopeful the Duwamish have reached a turning point through legal action they've taken with the federal government. He says federal recognition is still very possible. The recent public support the Duwamish have received has also helped elevate this conversation across the city and with leaders at all levels of government.

The Tribe says the fight for federal recognition is about far more than money. Fundamentally, it's about preserving their identity and laying a claim to the land of their ancestors. Ken Workman says he has a deep connection to this land. "This is what it means to be Duwamish," says Workman of the bay where he grew up with his brother. "That you're attached to this place. Imprinted on this beach." Workman says it's long past time for the federal government to acknowledge that fact as well.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Neighboring tribes object to Duwamish federal recognition

Not everyone in the Native community agrees with the Duwamish interpretation of history. "It's a box to check that says I did my good deed for Indian people," says Donny Stevenson, vice-chairman of the Muckleshoot Tribal Council in Auburn, Washington. "The problem is it's based on a falsehood."

The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe has long enjoyed federal recognition. About 4,000 of its members live on the Tribe's reservation southeast of Seattle. The tribe and a number of others in the area argue the Duwamish don't have adequate historical evidence for federal recognition — and arguing as much is offensive to tribes like theirs.

While Duwamish members acknowledge the lack of solidarity from other tribes hurts, they say it's not surprising. "The continued hostility between tribes is just a natural thing," Workman says.

Native people, he says, were fighting with each other long before white people showed up.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Katia Riddle
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