Life drastically changed for the indigenous Duwamish people after European arrival and settlement at Alki starting in 1851. When the Europeans first arrived, the Duwamish people lived in more than 90 longhouses in at least 17 villages spread throughout the area that is today known as King County. The Duwamish worked with the European settlers to help protect them, share knowledge of the land, and resources and skills for survival. This kindness, however, was not returned by the European-American settlers.
White settlers did not have much understanding that all of the native people in the Puget Sound region were not the same and in fact belonged to many different tribes and villages. An example of this for the Duwamish are the People of the Inside and the People of the Large Lake. Prior to European settlement, there were indigenous people who lived in the area surrounding Elliott Bay, Duwamish River, Cedar River, and Black River. These people were known as doo-AHBSH or the People of the Inside. There was a related, but separate group of people that lived in the area surrounding Lake Washington. These people were known as the hah-choo-AHBSH or People of the Large Lake. After European settlement the two groups were collectively identified as the Duwamish and are the People of the Inside.
One of the most damaging events for the Duwamish and many other tribes in the area was the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. There was a lack of understanding by the European-Americans that the Coast Salish tribes did not have the same political structures as them, and so in an attempt to reach the goals of his administration, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens appointed chiefs or leaders of many tribes. Si’ahl, who was a leader and of both Duwamish and Suquamish decent, was the Chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. On January 22, 1855 at Point Elliott, the Treaty of Point Elliott was signed and was later ratified in 1859. Based on verbal assurances, it was believed by the involved tribal leaders that in signing this treaty they would receive reservations of land for their people to live on, and retain their rights to fish and hunt and gather at their accustomed lands. This was not in fact the case for the Duwamish tribe.
The Duwamish did not receive a reservation of their own and the European-Americans asserted that the Duwamish were to move onto the reservations that were established for other tribes. While some of the members of the Duwamish tribe finally moved onto the Suquamish or other surrounding reservations, many of the native Duwamish people refused to leave their homeland. However, as white settlers burned down each longhouse and took over the land, many of the Duwamish people were forced to relocate to other areas. For some time, these people lived on Ballast Island where they made do with what they had just so that they could be near their ancestral land and continue to live their traditional way of life. In 1865 the now incorporated City of Seattle council passed an ordinance to remove Indians from the area and to punish those who might harbor them. Still without a recognized land of their own, the Duwamish fought for a reservation again in 1866. This attempt was unsuccessful as all of the white settlers in the area signed a petition to not allow the Duwamish reservation. Shortly into the 1900’s all of the Duwamish longhouses had been burned down and there was very little remnants of native life in the area.
European settlers forced the indigenous people to change their culture and traditional way of living. They brought foreign illness and disease which was introduced to the natives and resulted in vast numbers of death. People were forced off of their lands and their rights to fish and hunt and gather from the land as they had always done were taken away. Villages and longhouses were burned to the ground. Potlatch was banned and natives were forced to assimilate to the white mans’ way of life.
Still today, the promises made to the Duwamish tribe in the Treaty of Point Elliott have not been upheld or followed through on. Since the treaty was signed in 1855 the Duwamish nation has fought for recognition as a tribe, land and rights. In the 1980’s and again in 1996 the Bureau of Indian Affairs denied the Duwamish recognition as a “tribe” due to the fact that they had no land and for lack of evidence that they had an active existence. Near the end of the Clinton administration in 2001 the Duwamish tribe finally received federal recognition. This victory was short lived, the Bush administration took over in 2002 and the ruling for federal recognition of the Duwamish tribe was voided. Although they are not yet federally recognized, the Duwamish tribe has built a governing body, purchased land near their ancient settlement, provide tribal services and even rebuilt the Duwamish longhouse and cultural center. They have continued to uphold their cultural beliefs and teachings, with 572 current tribal members they are constantly working to further develop the traditional heritage in younger generations. It has been a lengthy and hard-fought battle, the Duwamish have not given up and continue to fight for recognition and the rights that were promised to them so long ago.