Surviving Extinction:The Duwamish Tribe in Seattle by Kregg P.J. Jorgenson

With the recent and long awaited opening of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in Seattle, Washington, traditional Puget Salish tribal drumming, songs, and dancing once again resonates in their rightful ancestral home. With over 6,000 square feet of strong cedar post and beam design, the Center also shows the strength of a people and tribe that have overcome great odds to maintain their culture, identity, dignity and pride.

It is no coincidence that the Center stands near the mouth of the city’s major river and waterway that bears the tribe’s name or that it is just across the street from the ancient site of the Duwamish village, hah-AH-poos. An archeological dig and carbon dated study of the site revealed that Duwamish Tribal roots reach far back into antiquity, stretching easily for over 1,000 years and well beyond. As a result of this important discovery and findings the dig site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, a number of those recovered artifacts, along with other Duwamish items of historical interest including rare photographs and oral history accounts are currently on display or can be found at the center. Walk among the exhibits and displays and you will not only learn that the Duwamish were the city’s first people but you will come away knowing something too of the helpful role they played in assisting the newly arrived American settlers in the winter of 1851.

Read something more of the city’s history and you discover that the Duwamish supplied the first canoe transportation network for the new community and were instrumental in the local fishing, lumber mills, hauling and hops farming industries in the years and decades that followed.
In fact, they were of such help and assistance that Seattle’s founding fathers named the settlement after Chief Si’ ahl, a Duwamish and Suquamish tribal leader. Si’ ahl, sometimes pronounced Sealth, became the anglicized and more familiar name, Seattle. When you consider too that Duwamps, a variation of the name Duwamish that means `Inside the Bay People,’ was also in serious consideration then you begin to get an idea of the tribe’s influence and significance to the region.
The rest, they say, is history. However, some might add that in it was also a matter of geography as the Duwamish in the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 had to give up over 54,000 acres of what today encompasses the greater Seattle area in return for a government promised reservation; a reservation that failed to appear.
Ten years later , in a local bid to grab prized land, a law was passed making it illegal for Indians to own property while Indian agents pushed hard to move the Duwamish on to reservations of rival tribes away from their traditional longhouse homes. Since Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote until 1924, they didn’t have any official say in the that matter or others which affected them. Those that could stay in the area did, but as the town expanded further depredations continued. One historian estimates that from 1855 to 1904 over 90 of Duwamish Longhouses were burned out or destroyed, forcing the city’s first people to become the city’s first homeless people through blatant land grabs, intimidation or arson.
Even so the Duwamish people survived in and around the Seattle area clinging to their roots and their heritage which brings us back to the Longhouse and Cultural Center and its importance to the tribe. “The Longhouse and Cultural Center is important to us because this is where our people want to be. It is a place to shout to the world that we are still here,” said the Center’s Director James Rasmussen.

The new Longhouse and Cultural Center is here too in thanks to the decades of perseverance and focused efforts led by tenacious Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, Rasmusssen, and other tribal members and a long list of volunteers and supporters whose various fund raising cultural activities, grant writing proposals, and public and private donations made it possible.
Although the Duwamish have been successful in bringing a traditional Longhouse back to their native shores, a larger battle looms ahead for its’ 600 members in their fight to receive Federal recognition; a battle many say they shouldn’t have to fight. Here’s why: In the waning days of the Clinton administration the Duwamish Tribe was officially granted Federal recognition only to have it rescinded in the early days of the Bush Administration.

The reversal of the decision came as a blow to the Duwamish, who were only left with one viable option: take the matter to court in order to prove that they still exist. “We’re still here,” said the Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen. “We always have been, and we always will be.” You don’t have to look very far around the city to see that Hansen is right and that this is their home and long identified or celebrated as such.

In downtown Seattle and not far from the Seattle Center and Space Needle there is a small park where in 1908 a statue of Chief Sealth was put in place to honor the man and his deeds. A bronze plaque on the base of the statue reads, `…A firm friend…’ Across Elliott Bay on scenic Alki Beach a similar plaque can be found on yet another monument recognizing the help and assistance of the Duwamish people to the American pioneer families who first came ashore here.

It isn’t difficult either at fund raising events or cultural ceremonies to find descendents of these pioneer families who tell of sick babies being nursed back to health by Duwamish remedies or other generous acts by tribal members. Many of the descendents of the pioneers today line up in support behind the Duwamish and their claim.
At a popular West Seattle overlook that offers one of the best views of the city you’ll find Duwamish carver, Michael Halady Sr.’s 25-foot tall `Story’ Totem Pole that tells the story of the Duwamish people and the pioneers. The `Story Pole’ by the award winning carver came at the request of the City of Seattle Parks and Recreation Commission.

Check the list of local high schools and you’ll find one named for Chief Sealth while a closer inspection of the official seal for the Seattle’s City Council’s Chambers provides one more visual reminder to the tribe’s contributions and the city’s enduring connection. Even the famed Pike Place Market owes part of its legacy to Chief Sealth’s eldest daughter, Kikisoblu, (better known as Princess Angeline) who sold her hand woven baskets near where the Market sits today until her passing in 1898.

History is on the side of the Duwamish, and the tribe and its ever growing legion of supporters hope the Federal Government is wise enough to recognize the obvious. If you’re visiting Seattle make a point to visit the Longhouse. Admission is free so take in the facility and it exhibits. Don’t overlook the gift shop either where you’ll find some unique items on sale, including impressive and artistic hand-crafted native baskets from celebrated and renowned weaver, Mary Lou Slaughter. Slaughter is the great grand daughter of Chief Si’ ahl.

In addition you’ll find exhibits of rare photographs, tribal oral history tapes as well as Lushootseed language materials on CDs, tapes and video compiled by the late Tribal Elder and educator, Vi Hilbert. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center is located at 4705 West Marginal Way, South west. The Longhouse hours are from 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and is closed on Sundays.