Duwamish say tribal rivalry hinders bid for recognition
The possibility of earning big money through tribal gambling has complicated the effort of some tribes to win federal recognition. Meanwhile, two existing Washington tribes want to open casinos off their reservations.
WASHINGTON — As the great-great-grandniece of Chief Seattle, Cecile Hansen got a $64 check in 1971, her share of a long-delayed settlement after the Duwamish Tribe ceded nearly 55,000 acres of land to the federal government more than a century earlier.
Today that property is some of the priciest real estate on the West Coast, the land that makes up metropolitan Seattle.
With the tribe's rich history and a membership of nearly 600, Hansen says it makes little sense for the U.S. government to maintain that the Duwamish have gone extinct.
But Hansen, who has served as tribal chairwoman since 1975, said she understands why the tribe can't win recognition, a prerequisite for any government benefits: Bigger neighboring tribes — including the Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Tulalip tribes — fear the Duwamish would use their new status to try to open a casino in downtown Seattle, and they don't want the competition.
"Indians are Indians, and why aren't we supportive?" she asked. "Why does it all come to greed ... We all should hang together and not be so greedy."
In Washington state, where 23 tribes already operate 32 casinos, the Duwamish are all but locked out of a system that allows either Congress or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pick the winners and losers and who will get the big-money casinos.
And the state, which trails only California and Oklahoma in the number of Indian casinos, has come to exemplify the growing battle in the $28-billion-a-year industry, with tribes fighting to gain advantage.
In Washington state, tribal gaming's gross revenues hit $2.03 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which state-by-state data is available. That's an 8 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the Indian Gaming Industry Report by Alan Meister, an economist with Nathan Associates. Overall, tribes in the state said they were operating 27,358 gaming machines at their casinos, the report said.
On opposite sides of the state, in two cases that are being watched closely across the nation, two tribes are proposing to build off-reservation casinos, locking horns with neighboring tribes who fear it would cut into their casino profits.
In Airway Heights near Spokane, the Spokane Tribe of Indians wants to open a new casino next to Fairchild Air Force Base, a plan opposed by the military, the neighboring Kalispel Tribe and a group called Citizens Against Casino Expansion. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is reviewing the proposal.
While the Kalispels previously succeeded in getting land at Airway Heights placed into trust to build the Northern Quest casino, its situation was unusual. The topography of the tribe's reservation along the Pend Oreille River made locating a casino there nearly impossible.
The Spokane Tribe already runs two casinos on its reservation 40 miles north of the city. Irv Zakheim, president of the citizens' group opposing the tribe's proposed new casino, said the federal government shouldn't allow tribes to simply move to a better location. That prospect, he said, has other tribes "standing around, licking their chops" and could lead to more proposals to move casinos to bigger cities.
In the second case, the once-landless Cowlitz Tribe has bought 152 acres and wants to open a casino and hotel complex in Clark County near La Center. The tribe, which won federal recognition in 2000, is opposed by the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, which worries that competition would hurt its Spirit Mountain Casino 90 miles away in northwest Oregon.
While 565 tribes are formally recognized by the federal government, more than 200 are not. Over the years, tribes have won recognition through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential orders or court rulings. In 1978, the Interior Department set up its "federal acknowledgment process," which has most cases now going through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But Congress is still a player and retains the sole power to restore status to a "terminated" tribe such as the Duwamish.
Indian tribes' entry into gambling 25 years ago has made the system of granting federal recognition much more volatile.
"The weight of tribal gaming as a political issue means that we tend to see all tribal issues through the lens of Indian gaming," said Kathryn Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota. "So tribal recognition has become controversial because we're worried that those newly recognized tribes will open casinos."
On Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is leading a solo fight to formally recognize the Duwamish, calling it a "matter of cultural existence that's at stake here."
McDermott said the tribes would be less worried about making big profits from casinos if Congress showed a greater willingness to pay for basic services such as education and health care. He said that would make more sense than loosening the rules to make it easier for tribes to open even more off-reservation casinos, as the Obama administration did a year ago.
The Duwamish isn't the only tribe in Washington state that's on the losing end.
Former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, a 3rd District Democrat who decided not to run for re-election in 2010, said one of the biggest disappointments of his career came when he could not get Congress to formally recognize the Chinook Indian Nation, the tribe that helped Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the West in 1805.
"I mean it's absurd that the federal government says this tribe doesn't exist — it's just absurd," Baird said. "There's multiple references to the tribe — they helped save Lewis and Clark's butt. This was part of why I was so adamant about it and so passionate about it."
McDermott and Baird introduced their bills after both the Duwamish and the Chinooks won federal recognition in 2001 during the waning hours of the Clinton administration, only to have it overturned as soon as President George W. Bush's team took over.
In the case of the Duwamish, the Bush administration said there had been a temporary lapse in their tribal government and their members had not always lived as a cohesive community. And the Bush team said the Chinooks did not meet three of the seven requirements for recognition, mainly because the tribe had not existed continuously through history.
The Duwamish Tribe has sued the federal government in an attempt to regain its federal recognition.
The tribe, which has never had a reservation, is headquartered on two-thirds of an acre near the Duwamish River. Hansen said President Obama could easily fix the situation by signing an executive order to grant the tribe its status.
In 2009, the Obama administration sided with the Bush administration, saying it would not support recognition for either the Duwamish or the Chinooks.
But George Skibine, then the acting principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Department of Interior, told the House Natural Resources Committee that the administration acknowledged that "Congress has authority to and may have reasons to legislatively grant recognition" to the Duwamish.
When McDermott introduced a bill in 2009 to have the Duwamish recognized, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe sent John Daniels Jr., then its vice chairman, to testify against the plan in Congress. Saying he spoke on behalf of the Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Tulalip tribes, Daniels urged Congress to leave the issue to the courts and the executive branch. He said both had concluded that the Duwamish lacked a "historic community structure."
Virginia Cross, chairwoman of the Muckleshoot Tribal Council, declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement saying "tribal status requires more than descent from native peoples" and that tribes must be able to show that they've been continuously self-governed.
She said the objection raised by the Muckleshoot Tribe has nothing to do with the possibility of the Duwamish opening a casino, adding that the Muckleshoot Tribe "raised no objection to the recognition of the Snoqualmie Tribe, who now operate a thriving casino a mere 30 minutes from our reservation."
With so much opposition, Hansen isn't optimistic. She says McDermott is wasting his time, noting that he can't even find a co-sponsor for his bill and that the state's Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, offer only "lip service" on behalf of the tribe. She said that's because the senators are getting campaign contributions from larger tribes who oppose the Duwamish.
Among all senators who have served since 1990, Cantwell ranks first in contributions from Indian gambling interests, with $434,000, while Murray ranks third, with $299,000, according to the Center For Responsive Politics.
Cantwell, who's running for re-election this year, also leads all senators in the 2012 election cycle, with $106,000 in contributions.
Murray and Cantwell had no response to Hansen's criticism.
Through their spokesmen, they said decisions regarding federal recognition are best left to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That has been the normal process in recent years, though members of Congress intervene on occasion.
Hansen said one of the biggest ironies in the Duwamish quest for recognition is that the tribe has never proposed opening a casino, though she acknowledged that she has been approached by and met with casino investors.
Hansen said she likes to kid about the possibility of building a casino, just to keep people guessing.
"I've already told them that if I ever get the status, we're going to have a floating casino in the middle of Elliott Bay," she said. "And they kind of laugh a little bit, and then I know I can hear them say: 'Is she serious?' "