Since time immemorial, the Duwamish tribe has resided along the shores of Seattle’s Puget Sound. The city is named for a Duwamish ancestor, Chief Si’ahl. Today, over 600 members live in Seattle, and these members organize and operate out of the Duwamish Longhouse, located on ancestral lands in what is now an industrial district just west of the city center.
Yet the Duwamish isn’t federally acknowledged as a Native American tribe by the U.S. government.
Since 1978, Duwamish tribal members have filed numerous petitions and appeals for federal recognition, a title that’s been granted to 562 Native American tribes. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Interior gave a final decision denying the Duwamish recognition.
Seattleites have started contributing to the Duwamish’s fight for acknowledgment through a program called Real Rent Duwamish. The project encourages Seattleites to pay rent to the Duwamish as a form of restitution and recognition for these peoples as the original inhabitants of the land.
Real Rent Duwamish began in 2017 by members of the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites. While the monthly payments act as a form of restitution, the tribe sees it as a valuable way to educate more people about the Duwamish and their battle for federal recognition.
Chandra Farlow, a representative for the coalition, said Real Rent is their way of showing solidarity in this fight for federal recognition. The project launched on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2017 and has since gained over 2,500 renters.
“We’re trying to focus on building a movement of people power versus focusing solely on dollar bills,” Farlow said.
Seattleites can sign up for Real Rent through an online platform called Network for Good. Renters can choose how much they want to pay. Their donation then gets sent in a check directly to the Duwamish Tribal Services, a nonprofit run by the Duwamish that works to educate the public about the tribe’s history and culture.
One hundred percent of the renter money goes to the Duwamish. Operational and promotional costs are paid for by the coalition’s membership donations.
“It’s a way for people to look deep inside themselves and think about the ways [Duwamish] families have been harmed from colonialism,” Farlow said.
Without formal recognition, the tribe isn’t eligible for benefits like social services, education programs, health assistance, and sovereignty over their own ancestral lands.
According to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot, the Duwamish is entitled to recognition. Tribes from across the Puget Sound alongside the Duwamish exchanged 84 square miles of land for hunting and fishing rights and a reservation.
The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot granted federal recognition to the tribe. It also guaranteed the Duwamish their own reservation.
Jolene Haas, a Duwamish tribal member and the director of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, said petitioning for the federal government to recognize this treaty has been an arduous journey. Where there are gaps in documentation about the tribe’s history, it’s been the Duwamish’s responsibility to fill in those gaps with records they may not even have.
“The United States government has all the records, but we have to come up with our own. Then they say it’s not sufficient,” Haas said. “When is it ever going to be sufficient?”
And in 2001, when President Bill Clinton finally granted recognition just before leaving office, President George W. Bush reversed the decision just days later.
More recently, in the 2015 decision, the Department of Interior said they couldn’t find enough evidence to prove that the Duwamish has lived in a distinct community and had some form of tribal government.
“Federal recognition is a white man’s designation,” Haas said. “It was never set up to be successful.”
Without that title, the Duwamish faces hardship on the state and city level, too. The state and city must collaborate with federally recognized tribes on legislation affecting tribal interests.
Because of this, Haas said, tribes without recognition must fight to exist within the city.
“We are part of a treaty,” Haas said. “And that needs to be honored.”
Before Real Rent, the Longhouse relied on grant funding, school tours, or individual donations for money. They were operating, but they couldn’t do the kind of outreach they wanted. Now Longhouse organizers can put more money into their advertising budget and hire more staff to work on promotion for Longhouse events.
Haas said that while the money has been helpful in expanding their outreach efforts, it’s been particularly empowering to know Seattleites support the Duwamish.
“Every once in a while, we need to know what we’re doing here is acknowledged by other people and it helps lift us up,” Haas said.
Bean Yogi, a non-Native Seattle resident and Real Rent “renter” since January, said the rent they pay has been a good way to integrate solidarity into their daily lives.
“I appreciate that Real Rent is a reminder to make a monthly payment and ask myself more meaningfully what’s next?” Yogi said.
Yogi hopes Real Rent can inspire more people to think about the ways they can take a more active approach with Native issues. “We should all, as people benefitting from a product of settler colonialism, be participating somehow,” Yogi said.
Farlow said that members of the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites spend a lot of time educating themselves and checking in with each other about their intentions participating in the Real Rent program. She asks participants to reflect on whether they’re acting out of love and connection or guilt and shame.
“It’s about directly checking in and trying to do ongoing self-education,” Farlow said.
For Yogi, it’s important not to remain an anonymous donor and to carefully consider what it means to be in solidarity with the Duwamish. “That’s just as important as the contribution itself,” Yogi said.
Haas said that while the government has given its final decision on the petition for recognition, the tribe plans to appeal.
Haas hopes to find helpful documentation for their appeal through Seattle public records. This documentation could be something like land or baptism records that acknowledge the federal government’s treaty relationship with the Duwamish in 1855.
Despite the barriers to treaty rights, Haas remains hopeful the Duwamish will finally get what’s owed.
“The Duwamish people are still here,” Haas said. “Justice will outweigh whatever we’ve had to go through thus far.”
Correction: September 18, 2019.
This article has been updated to accurately indicate the year that Real Rent Duwamish launched.