Standing tall for Seattle’s Invisible Nation

Photo by Sydney Bugg
Chief Seattle’s illustration hangs outside of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in west Seattle with the following message: “Chief Seattle is Watching.”

By Sydney Bugg

Chief Si’ahl of the Duwamish Native American people has a name that is known to the world through his namesake that went on to become the largest city in the Pacific Northwest after his death. Si’ahl’s Anglicization is what is commonly known as Seattle. Unlike many other cities in America today, Seattle’s indigenous people are still around in modern times.

They have chosen to live where they have for over 4,000 years, even though doing so meant losing homes that would not be replaced and maintaining an “invisible” status as they co-existed lacking adequate resources while the city around them thrived economically from a booming tech scene. Cecile Hansen, great-great grand-niece of Chief Seattle is one of those people, and she has been fighting for over 40 years to get her home back.

Less than 5-feet tall, Hansen still has taken on giants like the federal government and fellow Native Americans within the Bureau of Indian Affairs fearlessly. Unlike many of today’s Native American tribes, since 1855 Hansen’s tribe has had legal documentation of what her people are owed. 1855 was the year that changed everything for the Duwamish people. In 1855, after years of welcoming and helping settlers, Chief Seattle signed the Point Elliot Treaty, turning over more than 50 acres of land to settlers in exchange for promises to hunting and fishing rights along with other benefits for the Duwamish people. To date, this promise remains unfulfilled.

As a result, today’s descendants of Chief Seattle and the Duwamish people who chose to identify as such are forced to manage without government recognition on a tribal status level, and the benefits that come with such recognition. “I want people to stop saying recognition. We have been recognized and we have a document that proves it! What the Duwamish people need is acknowledgement”, Hansen says.

What comes with federal recognition/acknowledgement? As Hansen says, “Money. We need money. We don’t have a casino like all these other tribes do. We don’t even necessarily want to have a casino. We just want to take care of our people.”

Over time, neighboring tribes in Seattle and Washington began to achieve recognition as soveirgn nations. Hansen believes one of those tribes in particular has played a role in preventing the Duwamish from receiving Federal Recognition through the Indian Bureau of Affairs: The Muckleshoot. The Muckleshoot tribe also has a casino that funds scholarships, benefits for tribal members, and has help build new facilities on their reservation. Unfortunately, outside of these benefits, casinos have highly politicized and economized Native American affairs, birthing what Hansen has nicknamed “SOS,” short for “straight on stupidity.”

Nonetheless, the products of government funding and casino money have been enough to draw many Duwamish people away from invisible coexistent lives in Seattle and on to reservations where they also have a sense of living communicably in addition to quality of live improvements. Hansen’s brother is one of these people. After being cited for fishing in the Duwamish River in the 1970s, he’d decided he’d had enough and moved to a reservation where he would have rights to fish as he originally would have that day in the Duwamish river if the Treaty of Point Elliot had been honored

. When asked about how she feels about the migration of so many Duwamish people over the years who chose to identify with other tribes Hansen says, “I don’t blame them. They’ve got to take care of themselves. Even though there is rivalry between our tribe and others, I still have many family and friends all over the state and country who are a part of other tribes. I’ve got friends everywhere.”

For this reason, there are only 600 or so people who today identify ethnically as being Duwamish as reported to the U.S. Government. Many Duwamish people share ancestry with other tribes and others have chosen to identify with their ancestries that are favored on a federal level. Although as Hansen says, “You can’t go anywhere in this city where [Duwamish people] didn’t live.”

The self-proclaimed Duwamish who stick around in Seattle co-exist in assimilated fashions with no designated land of their own.

In 2009, a small victory in the battle fighting back against broken promises was won. With community help, the Duwamish raised enough money to build the first longhouse in the area since the late 1800s when all of Seattle’s long houses were burnt down by pioneer settlers. Amongst efforts to help build the Longhouse were those from the descendants of pioneer settlers. I think they felt a little guilty,” she says. This symbolic place is the only “home” for today’s Duwamish. The Longhouse welcomes visitors from all around the world to learn about Duwamish culture and history, and the outside of its wooden walls bears the following message in bright orange lettering “Chief Seattle Is Watching.”

This achievement reaffirms the determination of the Duwamish people that has lasted since their first refusal to leave the city and move elsewhere. Working around a need for government recognition, Hansen was able to get 501 (c) (3) non-profit status for Duwamish initiatives. Still, eight years later, there are certain issues only government funding can fix (healthcare being one example). And paradoxically, even with the longhouse, it’s hard to work towards the task of lobbying for government action

. “I don’t have time for pr,” Hansen says, “I don’t have money to pay people to work or even sit at the front desk to answer phones.” At the long house, Hansen points to a young bald white man with a bright red beard and says, “He’s one of our few helpers out here. He’s an anthropology student working here as a volunteer and intern.”

Several visitors from around the world who come to the long house leave with the intent to do what they can to help advocate for the causes of the Duwamish tribe. Many of these small actions come in various forms, whether a charitable donation or a letter to a congressional leader. “A lot of people who aren’t Duwamish care too. In general, most people in the city have a sense of who we were at least and what we did for the city even if they do not care,” says Hansen.

Aside from the longhouse, newcomers to Seattle can also quickly get a sense that the modern city was built on Indian land, more specifically Duwamish land. Downtown Seattle is home to a giant monument sculpture of Chief Seattle, streets and district names bear tribal names accompanied by Native American designs in street art, and even public transit station stop logos. Upon arrival to the airport foreigners are presented with exhibit-like displays with information on Seattle’s first people. Their tales are presented in almost mythical fashion here, with storied accounts of how the Duwamish arrived to the area traveling by canoes. The Seattle-Tacoma airport went as far as placing speakers near this exhibit with tribal melodies of the Duwamish on repeat.

The homage paid to the Duwamish is more than many other tribes will receive as far as being remembered goes. However, the city’s depiction of the Duwamish almost exclusively as being part of a history instead of depicting the Duwamish as also being living breathing people within the city has aided in fostering their sense of invisibility. This invisibility is why Hansen has repeated and adopted the phrase “we are still here” as almost a slogan for today’s Duwamish.

Although invisible to society, Duwamish elders have worked to ensure children grow up with knowledge of their culture. “We know who we are,” Hansen says. “We have pride in being Duwamish. We teach the kids the songs. People still care about this culture.” And as far as the fight goes for everyone else to know who they are today; Hansen isn’t giving up anytime soon. Another denial bears little effect on Hansen’s tenacity. She remains busy every day, planning trips for grassroots lobbying and events for fundraising and awareness at the longhouse. “It’s not over,” Hansen says, “I’m not giving up. I have hope. If I didn’t have hope what else would I do? Walk around downtown sad and drunk with my Indian basket?”

Bugg is a public relations senior