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caption: The Duwamish Tribe and Council Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, center, sued the Dept of Interior May 11, 2022 for federal recognition of the tribe.
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The Duwamish Tribe and Council Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, center, sued the Dept of Interior May 11, 2022 for federal recognition of the tribe.
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Duwamish Tribe

Seattle's Duwamish Tribe 'on the outside looking in' as city names new Indigenous Advisory Council

The city of Seattle is named for Duwamish leader Chief Seattle, yet his own descendants say they’ve been excluded from an effort to involve more Indigenous people in city issues.

Duwamish Tribal Councilmember Ken Workman was the tribe's chosen delegate to be considered for a spot on the city's new Indigenous Advisory Council. Workman actually applied for three positions, including as the Duwamish delegate, as a representative of an urban Indian organization and as an Indigenous elder.

He was rejected for each position.

The Seattle City Council approved the nine members of the inaugural IAC on Tuesday; none is a member of the Duwamish Tribe, which calls Seattle home.

The tribe's apparent exclusion has left Workman torn about the new group.

"I'm saddened that we're not included," he said, "and I'm joyful, that there is such a thing as this new committee, this new Indigenous Advisory Council."

Workman said Native peoples have been underserved for years. So, the formation of the IAC represents a move toward more inclusion, a sentiment City Council President Debora Juarez shared during a committee hearing to approve the IAC nominees last week.

"I can't tell you how nice it is to have all these brown people looking back at me in Indian Country," said Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. "It just— you have no idea what this feels like. This is historic. I've never had this feeling in this job, so thank you."

Juarez was not available for an interview, but she did try to address questions around the Duwamish's exclusion during that hearing. Juarez said the city received 48 applications for the nine available positions on the council.

"I want to respect the people that called in that had concerns, because this is a continuing process," she said. "And in Indian Country, we look at our relatives and our relations. ... It's all of our relatives, and we continue to love our people. No matter what."

After hearing from concerned tribal members and supporters, the Suquamish Tribe's delegate, Luther "Jay" Mills, explained he does share Duwamish ancestry.

"My blood lineage is Duwamish, so I don't want people to think that they don't have some representation," Mills said. "I'm just hoping that I can be guided by my ancestors to do the right things and make the right decisions with this group of individuals."

(Read more about the nine people who will serve on Seattle's first IAC here.)

Workman does not dispute that — the shared history, the shared goals of the IAC, or the deep connections among tribes.

"Duwamish ancestry runs rampant throughout the Puget Sound area and around the world, really," he said. "We celebrate the Duwamish ancestry across all peoples, across all tribes. We just happen to be the Duwamish Tribe of this place called Seattle, in this local area, the seven hills that we are caretakers of."

But even the good will Workman feels for the members of the IAC and the city's goals in creating it do not totally undo the hurt he also feels in this moment.

"It's sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting, where a child is looking into the glass of a candy store," Workman said. "In the candy store are all the good things. And as Duwamish, we're on the outside looking in once again."

It's all the more hurtful for his people because the tribe is fighting for federal recognition, which it does not currently have and which some tribes oppose.

Workman spoke with KUOW about the complexities of the Duwamish Tribe's decades-long effort to be recognized — in Washington, D.C., and by its own neighbors here at home.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Angela King: What do you think of the decision to create this council? Is it a significant move in your eyes?

Ken Workman: I think it is. I think that the representation of the Native people on official city roles has been underserved for a very long time. And so, it's an honor, really, to see the City Council with this representation. Unfortunately, for me, the Duwamish people aren't included in that.

Well, tell us about that. Because as we understand it, you fit the criteria for a couple of spots among the nine that were available. But you were not selected, even though you were selected as the Duwamish delegate, specifically. Why? What was the explanation behind that?

There was no explanation. I submitted my application for these many positions, only to receive a phone call that says, "Well, Mr. Workman, unfortunately, you have not been selected for this inaugural Indigenous Advisory Council." And then, there was some explanation about how I could apply in a year's time, because some of these positions will be open again.

Do you plan to apply for a role on this council in the future?

I would like to say yes. Right now, my feelings are hurt a little bit. But I'm older, so I'll be able to to handle it.

So, at this point, the new Indigenous Advisory Council to the City of Seattle will not include a representative of the Duwamish Tribe.

That's correct.

People that have this ancestry are proud people, just as I am proud, but we are Duwamish Tribe. Our allegiance is toward the Duwamish Tribe. Now, we're not saying that because you're a member of another tribe, and you have Duwamish ancestry, you're any less Duwamish. No, we're not saying that at all.

(Watch the full Governance, Native Communities and Tribal Governments Committee hearing, during which the IAC nominees were introduced and approved, below.)

Your people are still fighting, specifically, to receive federal recognition. Why?

We don't have federal recognition because in 1974, the United States government said that we don't have any landmass. And our argument is, well, we don't have any landmass because Seattle is on top of that landmass. We're all over the place. We still recognize ourselves as Duwamish people.

We're still fighting the federal government for that recognition to be included on the federal registry, just like many other 574 recognized tribes in the United States today, and to be the same as all those other tribes. So that we, too, can participate in ceremonies, just like all the other federally recognized tribes, and that we, too, can share in the benefits of the other recognized tribes.

So, that federal recognition would mean a lot to your people.

It would mean a great deal. Correct.

Now, do you think that lack of federal recognition played a direct role in you not being selected to serve on the Indigenous Advisory Council?

Well, that would just be my opinion now, wouldn't it? If you're asking my opinion? This is a good question. I was told, directly, that being a federally recognized tribe was not a requirement to submit an application to be on this Indigenous Advisory Council. And when I see the people that are on the inaugural indigenous Advisory Council, I don't see anybody that looks like me. I don't see anybody that's from a non-federally recognized tribe.

What do you think will be missing on this council without a member of the Duwamish Tribe being a part of it?

My fear is that the Duwamish could go extinct and will be no different than some of the other major tribes around the world that no longer exist. People say, "I have Aztec ancestry," but there is no more Aztec Tribe. And so, my fear is that the Duwamish will go that way. There will be people that have Duwamish ancestry, and every successive generation, it will become less and less and less until it's gone.