Sunday, July 31, 2016

Cecile Hansen. Duwamish Tribe Chairperson

I’m talking with Cecile Hansen, Chairperson and Activist for the Duwamish people and their rights at their Longhouse. First though, I should state the obvious, not only is Seattle named for the Duwamish Chief but without the gifts of the tribe to the first white settlers, the city would not even exist as it did. And the Central Area was a part of their territory

Cecile Hansen. Photo: Madeline Crowley ©

This interview has been edited and condensed.

I thought we would start the interview briefly discussing the ongoing fight for the federal government to officially recognize the tribe. You’ve been involved in a legal fight for how many years?

We started the legal work in 2001, no, actually 2002.

And that fight is ongoing?

It is ongoing. This fight is ridiculous; it’s ridiculous that the federal government does not use their intelligence. Our tribe signed a treaty in 1855. That treaty is still intact, it’s not void. As I always say, we’re still alive, we’re still here, we are acknowledged. We are acknowledged (as direct descendants of the Duwamish).

Duwamish LonghousePhoto: Madeline Crowley

Oh, yes. That’s very nice. We certainly appreciate could use it. We just paid a retainer to a large Seattle law firm. I’ll probably never see that money again. I told them, if you’re not going to use it, give it back because we need the money. They just kind of laughed at me.

Could you explain where the Duwamish homelands were?

Oh, we gave up about 54,000 acres that would comprise Seattle, north of Shoreline, up to Edmonds, and all through South Park and over to roughly where that Freeway 167 is (in Renton). That is our territory; that is all the land that we gave up.

Our people travelled by canoe so back then it was all along waterways. We’re talking: Lake Union, Elliot Bay, Lake Washington, the Duwamish River and the Black River from Tukwila over to Redmond. When they made the Locks (in Ballard, the Hiriam Chittendon Locks) that dried up the river and our villages at that time.

It also destroyed the means of sustenance and fish habitat.

Photo from Collection Duwamish Longhouse

Well, at the time everybody laughed about it, because when the river went down there was all kinds of salmon there for the taking. It must have been quite a thing everybody was laughing and they was taking up the fish. What they did, though, was they killed that (Duwamish) village (on the Black River) in Renton because you couldn’t live there (anymore). Well, they could live there but their river was gone. The Black River was gone.

So it took away not only a source of water but also the entire livelihood of a people. It was an enormous ecological and cultural tragedy.

It was but we survived.

Do you know where the burial grounds were?

There were burial grounds by that village and up the hill. I’m certain it’s under houses now. There’s another burial ground in Renton, well, a lot of our people are buried there on the ridge. There’s a cemetery up there where a lot of our people are buried.

Is there one on Foster Island in the Arboretum?

I’m sure there is. It sort of drives me crazy, it bothers me a lot (hits her hand on the table) that they’re building bridges there (520 expansion) and tearing up the territory (in the Arboretum). That was part of our territory too. I am very sure that there are remains and spirits there too. I believe that even though no one thinks there’s anybody there. The spirit of our people is there.

Andrew Morrison. Painting of Seattle Seattle

Yes. Actually that segues nicely into something I wanted to discuss. There’s a famous quote from Chief Seattle, your Great-Great-Granduncle:

"Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred..."

So if every rock, every inch of land and every stream contain your ancestor’s memories – I wonder how do you relate to that statement? You live in Seattle how do you feel about the spirits in the land here?

Well, I really do believe. Across the street from where we are sitting in this Longhouse is a documented National Historical site. There was a Duwamish village there. When our people passed they were buried up on the hill (above the longhouse) somewhere.

I find this story amazing. We tried to find a place to have our own home, we tried in Renton but couldn’t find a space. Someone offered us a little tiny piece of acre but you couldn’t build anything, well, maybe an outhouse. Then, we tried at Fort Dent (Renton).

Duwamish Longhouse, Main Room. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Meanwhile we were going through the process of documenting not only our history but trying to work with the city to build a longhouse, our own home. That fell apart because they said we could build but we’d never have the land.

I told this gentleman that we’d been renting and that I’d always hoped was we would find a place where we could have headquarters and an office. So this gentleman friend of ours asked if he could look for some land for us. I said, sure go ahead. He said, it’s time you have some property. I thought nothing of it. Then he helped us secure two-thirds of an acre. This gentleman was an elder, a white man who owned a lot of property. He was the landlord of a lot of houses across the street, this was all a development of houses here. There were a lot of houses and a little tiny dirt road here. A man named George and his wife gave 10,000 dollars of his own money to buy the two-thirds of an acre. So through their efforts, the two-third of an acre is paid for and the building is paid for. That gives you the dream and the vision. We did it.

Duwamish Longhouse. Canoe & Carving. Photo: Madeline Crowley

At that point did you know that there were the remains of a village and the middens over there?

Yes, we knew that. In fact, the Port of Seattle owns that land there and we wanted to build over there and they said no.

Yeah. Well, that’s the heartbreaking part of this story the intertribal fights have cost the Duwamish.

I believe as Indian people we’re all supposed to all work together. Just because you have some casinos doesn’t make you brilliant. Still, I always hope. I don’t have any problem
with tribes having casinos if they in fact do use the money to take care of whatever they need on the reservation. However, I know they use the money to lobby against us. I know
it must go on.

I don’t go back to DC (anymore) I did that for many, many years lobbying (knocks on
table) and knocking on doors trying to get support as we were going through the process
of our acknowledgment. Finally, we went to the National Congress of American Indians,
a national organization and lobbied there. We went to Affiliated Tribes too. Eventually, I decided I don’t want to go to these meetings anymore because they’re not supporting tribes anymore. When I go involved in the 1970s there was 13 tribes trying to prove their identity. Today I don’t know why any Native American has to prove their identity if in fact they were here first.

Duwamish Longhouse, Main Room, Ceiling. Photo: Madeline Crowley

In the case of the Duwamish it’s been determined that you’ve been here, you are direct descendants and you have proved that in court.

Yes. Yes.

It is heartbreaking. (pause)

James Rasmussen gave a really great quote ("These salmon and critters here are my brothers and my cousins," he says. "I care about them that much. And our ancestors are still here. They see what's going on, and they hold you responsible. But my ancestors know that I'm trying")*.  Can you explain to children how the Duwamish see animals differently that other people in Seattle; can you speak to that?

Duwamish Longhouse, Main Room, Detail. Photo: Madeline Crowley

I believe that the Creator made animals for us to take care of and to honor. This is especially true of the eagle. We have high regard for the eagle. I notice when I am traveling with my sister that the eagle always shows up. We say if the eagle shows up we are being blessed anytime we’re traveling.

I believe even though we existed on the deer and the fish and everything you have to respect that gift of sustenance. Today what really concerns me is that the fish is disappearing from the sea. I guess people don’t care. I don’t just mean the Indian tribe, I mean everybody. The fish is not plentiful anymore.

It’s true; we haven’t seen it as a gift to which we owe reciprocity. You can’t poison the air and the water and expect those gifts to continue. You have to give the fish what the fish needs too - not just take and take.

You don’t like to look forward (to the future) and wonder, gee, what’s going to happen? You just have to be positive and worry about today, today.

You aren’t supposed to worry either, be concerned instead. We’re not supposed to worry; we’re told not to worry .

Duwamish Longhouse. Floor, Detail. Photo: Madeline Crowley

By whom?

The creator. I don’t say I’m worried, I say I’m concerned. (laughs)

When you walk through places like Pioneer Square where there was a Duwamish village there for 10,000 years what do you think about?

It makes me imagine how they were surviving, about every day of survival and how it was to live at that time. I can’t go anywhere that I don’t think about how my people lived here, especially along the rivers.

Today, our Duwamish River is a Superfund. Still, I imagine the villages where they all traveled by canoe from place to place. They survived but it must have been pretty tough. We’re so blessed today, we got a roof, we run to the store and we can cook at home. You know they cooked outside. They smoked their fish and meat. They survived by taking the cedar off the cedar trees and then making garments and hats and then using the wood to make paddles. It was hard work. It wasn’t easy, not like today, you walk into a store and buy what you need. They were so intelligent, don’t you think? That basket right there it’s a clam basket.

Duwamish Longhouse. Floor, Detail. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Yes, it’s lovely. Woven to drain beautifully with just enough space woven to get the water and sand out.

Is the tribe is involved in trying to clean up the Duwamish River?

The tribe is not on the River Coalition. The tribe though isn’t involved in it. If we were, there would absolutely be no fishing on that river. No nothing. It really irritates me 100%, maybe even more, that the Muckleshoot are allowed to fish in that Superfund river. We would really dig into all those who might have been messing up the river. 

I would imagine that as the tide goes in and out there are still artifacts being discovered. Do you go over there?

No, I can’t. That’s the Port of Seattle.

You can’t go over there except as a private person?

No. Well, they’d let us have gatherings there. I have no respect for the leadership of the Port of Seattle because in their stupidity they gave our artifacts away. There reason was ‘we don’t exist’ (without federal recognition). We were told we would be able to have our artifacts back. They should never go to any area other than Seattle. I don’t have any respect for those kind of people. They gave the artifacts that were from the Duwamish village on the river there to other tribes. They belong here in the Duwamish Longhouse, and they gave them away which is disgusting.

Duwamish Longhouse. Main Room, Post, Detail. Photo: Madeline Crowley

I understand. That must be difficult. It’s too bad the tribes can’t work together. (pause)

To return to another thing Chief Seattle said,

"At night, when the streets of your cities shall be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.

The White Man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless. There is no death only a change of worlds."

Well, the spirit goes on. I think his spirit is around. I’ll tell you a story, I haven’t even told this to my kids. Before I got involved with the tribe, I was staying at home taking care of my house, raising my kids, getting involved their sports, cooking for my husband who worked for the Port of Seattle (laughs). That was a long time ago. I was busy. I had my own garden. 

My brother would bring me salmon. I had a smoke house in back yard. I would smoke fish. I love smoking fish. So, in about 1974 our people were fishing in the river here, my cousins and other Duwamish people, tribe members. My brother came to my house very upset because he had been written a citation by the state fishery. They said, You can’t fish here. He responded, I’m Duwamish (who had fished on the Duwamish River for 10,000 years, yet today without federal recognition, they can no longer fish their river).

Duwamish Longhouse. Loom. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Fishing was his livelihood.

He told me, you got to get involved and go to a few meetings. I went with him to the state fisheries and got interested in the issues with the tribe. I joined an organization created to help small tribes called STOW. They helped small tribes with policy and financial (advice) in every which way they could. It was a good organization. We still remember them after all these years. I sat there as a delegate for the tribe. Now, my brother and I are part Suquamish on my mother’s side so he decided he was going to join that tribe so he could make a living fishing or at the sawmill because that’s how he took care of his family. That went on for 20 some years. Then my brother died. It was really devastating to Indian Country when he fell off his boat and drowned in Tulalip Bay.

Oh, no. I’m sorry.

It was really, really sad for everybody but we kind of laughed at his funeral because it was like he belonged to all these tribes so many people claimed him.

Now, to get back to Spirit. The year before he died we went to a powwow in Everett. He got me this chain, I think it has the Lord and the Blessed Mother on it. I have that pendant in my car. I think when he’s there in spirit it flips over. Why does it do that? It’s him saying, I’m here.

Duwamish Longhouse. Wall, Detail. Photo: Madeline Crowley

I really truly believe that’s what happens. The other day I got in my car and it was flipped over. So, I said, Ok. I know you’re here. All right. (laughs)

My point is the spirit of our people; they’re around us. I really truly believe that. When people go into the large room here at the Longhouse, people say it’s so peaceful. Before we ever opened it up, I had this place blessed inside and out.  We don’t want any harm to come to anyone who comes here. We’re here to be peaceful. We have peace here even thought we’re dealing with a lot of injustice. So this place was blessed inside or out and it was said to us after that was done that our people are so happy that we built this place. Isn’t that marvelous? They are thanking us that we’re here. So, they are here.

Yes. And it’s given you an office and home from where to fight for recognition.

The thing is we shouldn’t even be fighting this battle. This has been 42 years for me. C’mon, I’m trying to write my book, you now? I’m trying to tell the story of my involvement and why I got involved. I mean 40 years; it’s a long long time.

It is. Most people would have given up long, long ago.

When my kids were little they’d say, another meeting? Today they know what I was doing. Sometimes I’d be traveling and my husband was there so I didn’t have to worry about the kids also my Dad lived with us for a while. It isn’t as if my kids were left alone. I taught them to be independent, to take care of themselves, to take care of their home and to be respectful of their elders. I think we did a good a job though they’re not perfect. We’re not perfect; we don’t walk on water. None of us. None of us.

What closing advice can you give to young people? There are very few people will be faced with a 40 year fight but in doing that you’ve learned how to sustain your energy. Can you give advice to young people because everyone will face an obstacle they have to overcome.

I believe if you really believe in your vision and mission, you don’t give up. You just continue to come to some resolution. Let’s say that might be, do I need to write a paper? I can do this. It might be difficult but I’m going to get through the process. I will write this paper.

I remember I loved to read as a little kid but when I was high school I was nervous, so nervous when I’d have to give a book report. It was awful, absolutely awful.

Today, I get up and I talk in front of a lot a lot of people. I am not shy about speaking now. But when I think back, when I got involved in the 70s, I thought Oh my Gosh, I’m going to have to speak on behalf of my people.  So I went to this great organization and for 4 months I learned to speak in front of groups. I learned that if you know your subject, you can speak on it. I learned to give speeches because I had to learn to speak on behalf of the tribe.

So you overcame something that made you very uncomfortable and now it’s something you do all the time.

Oh, I don’t have any problem now. I just try to instill some wisdom and knowledge. One time I was speaking up there at some college in Seattle, for a graduating class and the place is full with all these people. I always like to shock ‘em a little bit so I said, I’ve been accused that we want to build casino – that’s what we’ve been accused of wanting our recognition for. The reason we get opposition from the other tribes is that they’re afraid we're going to build a casino.

Duwamish Longhouse. Lighting. Photo: Madeline Crowley

We got funding from the Federal Government when we were trying to get recognition; that was a blessing. They gave us money to prove who we are and we’re very grateful and we’re blessed. However, I wish we’d opened a bingo hall, that would have helped us. We could have hired people not only our people but people in the community. We got bad advice but we could have had a bingo hall and sold fry bread, a little soup. It makes me kind of excited to think about it but we didn’t get to do it. (laughs)

Anything else you want to say in closing that might be inspiration to others?

That there are indigenous people to this day who are fighting for their rights to be who they are as Indian people. That’s not right, we all should be supporting human kind and all other people in the country. I want to plant that seed. I think when we support other people and their communities you get blessed too.

Thank you so much.

* Ian Rith. Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Magazine, October 3rd, 2004

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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