Hansen, Cecile: Tribal Chairwoman of Seattle's Duwamish Peoples

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/21/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8963
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Cecile Ann Hansen -- a descendant within the family of Chief Si 'ahl ("Chief Seattle") -- has served as the elected chair of her people since 1975. During those decades the Duwamish (or in the Salish language of Lushootseed: the Dkhw'Duw'Absh) have made much progress in the ongoing efforts to nurture their arts, language, and culture. But Hansen's original goal -- and the driving imperative behind her sustained efforts ever since -- has simply been to "correct an injustice." Or more precisely: a multitude of injustices that have faced the Duwamish -- ranging from the initial loss of their traditional lands (the town site of Seattle and much of King County) via the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855, to the loss of their fishing rights along the Duwamish River, to the even more tragic refusal of the federal government to grant them official recognition as a legitimate historic tribe.

Seattle's First Peoples

When the first Euro-American settlers first arrived in this area in the mid-nineteenth century, Chief Si 'ahl (178?-1866) was among the Duwamish / Suquamish people who befriended the newcomers and helped them meet the trying challenges of surviving in the Northwest. Si 'ahl was one in a long line of hereditary chiefs, and he held that position from about 1840 until his passing in 1866.

It was about one century after Si 'ahl's period of leadership began, that Cecile Oliver -- who is a direct descendent of his brother (and therefore the great-great-grand niece of the famed chief) -- was born on the Tulalip Reservation (near today's Marysville). Her parents -- Charles H. Oliver and Margaret K. Oliver (Holmes) -- bore four daughters and one son, Manny Oliver (d. 1998), who attended the Tulalip Indian School. Charles worked as a fisherman and logger -- jobs that took the family to a series of different towns over the next years, including: Taholah, Pacific Beach, and then Seattle's Holly Park housing projects where Cecile could walk to her third grade classes at Van Asselt Elementary School (7201 Beacon Ave S). But the family soon moved on to Aberdeen, Grayland, Tokeland, and then South Bend (where they lived with Charles's mother).

Back Home in Seattle

Charles eventually got a job as a longshoreman in Seattle and the Oliver family upped and moved once again -- this time to Burien where they settled into a small two-bedroom home (3425 4th Avenue S). Cecile first attended Puget Sound Junior High (12825 Des Moines Memorial Drive), and then she graduated from Highline High School (225 S. 152nd Street) in 1955.

Cecile and her girlfriends had, for a few years by then, been volunteering with the USO -- going to chaperoned dances on various local military bases (from McChord Air Field near Tacoma to Seattle's Fort Lawton) where they chatted and danced with grateful servicemen. And although she had harbored dreams of studying law in college, Cecile went out on a double-date one night and ended up falling in love with a U.S. Army soldier (and member of the Quileute tribe), named Charles Williams. The two married later in 1955, and eventually moved out to the reservation in Queets, and had the first of several children.

But, Cecile's hopes to attend college were lost -- and she grew ever more dismayed over the appalling living conditions endured by the people on that reservation. In time pressures mounted on the young family, and when Cecile wound up alone with her kids she upped and moved to Auburn where she took on a waitress job at the Flower Drum restaurant. It was there that she was eventually charmed by a frequent customer -- Port of Seattle employee Doug Maxwell -- who proceeded to woo her. After acquiring her divorce, they married (in 1968) and she bore her final child in 1969. Years later the couple parted ways and from 1993 until his death in 1999, Cecile was married to Howard Hansen.

The Fish Wars

The Duwamish were among the tribes whose fishing rights -- as specifically guaranteed in the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty -- had long been actively denied by Washington State officials. It was in the 1960s that what became known as the Fish Wars broke out and Hansen's younger brother Manny was among the many local natives who kept getting cited by the Washington Department of Fisheries and arrested for "illegal" fishing on the Duwamish River. Then in the early-1970s, Manny -- in order to provide for his family -- found it necessary to relocate and join the Suquamish people who did enjoy fishing rights.

But at his request, in 1973 sister Cecile began attending meetings and working with the Duwamish tribal council and then-Chairman, Willard Bill Sr. (1938-2007), in their dealings with the state. That activity ultimately led to her being elected chair in 1975. In an effort to determine what the tribe most needed, a survey was done in 1976 and she says it revealed that the people wanted "their recognition [by the government], their land-base, and their culture." The filing of an appeal to the U.S. government in 1977 marked the beginning of what has proven to be an exceedingly long and arduous process of proving that the Duwamish are still an intact tribe -- although admittedly one whose existence is increasingly threatened by the forces of cultural assimilation into the general population.

The many news-making skirmishes between Indian fishermen and unsympathetic sports fisherman (backed for years by state law enforcement officials) finally came to a head in 1974 with the legal case of United States v. Washington (384 F. Supp. 312) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington State. And although Federal Judge George Boldt's (1903-1984) controversial ruling did affirm the treaty rights to continue harvesting salmon "at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations" (as typical treaties stated), the Duwamish -- as a tribe not yet recognized by the government -- were (along with the Samish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, and Steilacoom peoples) excluded. As James Rasmussen, a Duwamish tribal council member, recently outlined the core problem: "This is our river. But we don't hold treaty rights to it."

Duwamish Tribal Services

The great challenge for Hansen, the tribal council, and the Duwamish people in general was to attain official federal recognition -- an onerous process that numerous other tribes would also undertake over the following years, some with greater luck than others. For example: in 1996 the Samish tribe succeeded -- as did the Snoqualmie in 1999, and Cowlitz in 2000 -- but the Snohomish and Duwamish peoples' efforts have thus far been stymied. But not for lack of trying, and not with any sense of capitulating to what they feel is capricious decision-making back in Washington D.C.

The Duwamish forged ahead with Hansen leading the effort to establish their first-ever tribal headquarters -- albeit in a modest storefront office wedged between a McDonald's and a hair salon down in Burien. In in 1983 Duwamish Tribal Services was formed to help address various members' pressing needs. Over the following years Hansen worked tirelessly to raise the public profile of her people. In the late-1980s she accepted the position of Protocol Officer for Seattle's Burke Museum and their efforts to develop the ambitious 1991 exhibit, "A Time Of Gathering"-- a role that saw her serving as a liaison to many Northwest tribes. On the political front, Hansen also got involved with a coalition of unrecognized American tribes who convened in Washington D.C. and she testified eloquently before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Then in 1996, all those efforts were finally answered with a decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) -- one which denied the Duwamish petition for recognition, concluding that (among other factors) they lacked historical continuity with the original tribe.

A Glorious Moment...

Among the central reasons why the unrecognized tribes have sought official acknowledgment are: the reestablishing of specific traditional fishing and hunting grounds and the reception of federal grants for assisting with tribal government, housing, healthcare, and social services. Interestingly, the Duwamish have not pushed for the granting of reservation lands (as was promised them in their century-and-a-half-old treaty). Both Hansen and Rasmussen agree that as a tribe of "urban Indians" they have no desire to relocate to some suburban or rural acreage. On the other hand the tribe does not rule out the idea of eventually creating tribal employment opportunities and an income stream via a Duwamish casino or other business enterprise should the government ever choose to honor the treaty and provide the tribe with some land.

After so many years of toil, political jousting, and legal petitioning, the Duwamish did finally receive a bit of glorious news in the waning hours of President Bill Clinton's administration. Mere hours prior to George W. Bush's inauguration on January 20, 2000, word broke out of Washington D.C. that the BIA had suddenly granted the tribe recognition. The administration had ruled that all the legal criteria had been met, including one "requirement that the tribe show an unbroken continuity of social and political structures" (Seattle P-I). Hansen and her people were ecstatic. It seemed as if all those years of struggle against the odds had apparently stuck a chord back east and the tribe's future once again looked bright.

Political reality hit the Duwamish hours later when the newly empowered Bush administration stepped in, cited "procedural errors," and overturned the previous decision -- essentially declaring the Duwamish tribe as "extinct" and not eligible for federal assistance. Hansen understatedly decried this cruel act of snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory as "shabby treatment" by Bush's BIA -- and then redoubled her efforts anew. She reached out to the state's legislative delegation: Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell expressed concern, and Democratic Representative Jim McDermott went on to introduced a bill to right the situation in 2003, but it failed to gain momentum.

But the Republican Whitehouse was far from the Duwamish people's only adversary. Another reality is that various other, more-fortunate, local tribes apparently felt an economic threat by the Seattle-based tribe's dreams. As The Seattle Times noted: "With so much at stake, some recognized tribes with casinos have tried to thwart those seeking recognition, fearing a smaller stake in the $23 billion-a-year Indian gaming business." In particular, the Tulalip and Quinault tribes were known to "flood the BIA with information arguing against recognition for a new tribe."

"We're Still Here"

These many years later, Cecile Hansen's stubborn motto of "We're still here" is uttered with a sense of beleaguered pride in her people's fortitude. But back in 2004 an exasperated Hansen confessed to The Seattle Times that "'I'm tired of the process. I was a young woman' (when the tribe first filed for recognition in 1977). 'Now, I'm an elder.'"

Yet, under Cecile Hansen and the Duwamish Council's leadership major steps continue to be made in the betterment of the Duwamish people's state. In 2004 they moved their tribal offices to a tiny rental house on Seattle's West Marginal Way (across the street from their ancestral lands along the river for which they are named) where they mounted and managed a sustained fundraising drive which culminated in the acquisition of a larger plot of land next door, and finally the construction of the glorious new Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center (4705 West Marginal Way SW), which opened in December 2008.

Meanwhile, the Honorable Chair, Cecile Hansen -- a tribal elder, the proud mother to five daughters, 15 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren -- carries on with efforts aided by a quartet of savvy pro bono attorneys who still maintain hope that the U.S. Congress, or the new President, Barack Obama, will find a way to "correct the injustice" of governmental denial of a self-evident truth: Chief Seattle's own people are indeed "still here."


Author interview with Cecile A. Hansen at Duwamish Longhouse, Seattle (February 25, 2009), and telephone conversation (March 10, 2009); author conversations with James Rasmussen (January-February, 2008-2009); "Culture and History," Duwamish Tribe website accessed February 27, 2009 (http://www.duwamishtribe.org/culture.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Princess Angeline or Kikisoblu, daughter of Chief Seattle, dies on May 31, 1896" (by David Wilma), "Chief Seattle (Seattle, Chief Noah)" (by Kenneth Greg Watson),  and "Duwamish Tribe Wins Recognition on January 19, 2001, but loses it two days later (by Priscilla Long)  http://www.historylink.org/  (accessed January 20, 2009); Paul Shukovsky, "Decision is Death Knell for Duwamish: Bush Administration Reaffirms Earlier Ruling that Tribe Is Extinct," Seattle Post-Intelligencer May 11, 2002 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/70052_duwamish11.shtml);  Alex Fryer, "Some Tribes Still See Promises Broken, Dreams Thwarted," The Seattle Times, May 3, 2004, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Lia Steakley, "The Tribe That Would Not Die," Seattle Metropolitan magazine, March 2009.

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