The name Duwamish (pronounced dew-AH-mish) means “inside people,” referring to Native peoples living inside “the bay,” or the Puget Sound (PYEW-jit), an arm of the Pacific Ocean that stretches up through western Washington state. The Duwamish tribe is composed of two groups: the “People of the Inside” (Dxw’DƏw?Abš; pronounced doo-AHBSH) lived around Elliott Bay and the “People of the Large Lake” (Xacuabš; pronounced hah-choo-AHBSH) lived around Lake Washington. In modern times the people call themselves Dkhw’Duw’Absh.
Formerly the Duwamish lived in the Puget Sound area of Washington state, on the Black and Cedar Rivers and at the outlet of the Duwamish River at Lake Washington. They had at least 17 villages in the area now known as Seattle. In modern times the Duwamish people are scattered throughout the Puget Sound area.
In 1780 about 1,200 Duwamish people were known to exist; by 1856 the number was down to 378. In the 1990 U.S. Census, only 215 people identified themselves as Duwamish. The Duwamish Tribe recorded about four hundred enrolled members in 1991 and about five hundred in 2004. In 2007 tribal sources indicated approximately six hundred enrolled members.
Origins and group affiliations
The Duwamish were one of about three dozen groups called the Coast Salish who lived in western Washington state, in southwest British Columbia, Canada, and on the southeastern side of Vancouver Island, Canada. Their main ally was the Suquamish (or Squamish) tribe.
The Duwamish lived in villages on the east side of the Puget Sound near present-day Seattle. The great Chief Seattle, for whom the Washington city is named, was born to a Duwamish mother. The tribe’s history after contact with Europeans is a sad one: the people separated, lost all their lands, and dwindled in number, becoming nearly extinct. By the end of the twentieth century, though, the Duwamish people had started to reclaim and preserve their traditional tribal culture and to enhance their economic development.
The traditional Duwamish homelands have been inhabited since around 8,000 bce . Sites that are at least four thousand years old have been found at what is now Discovery Park, Washington. Villages found around the area of the Duwamish River that date back to the sixth century ce indicate that the tribe lived in the area for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.
1792: Explorer George Vancouver enters Puget Sound.
1855: Chief Seattle signs Point Elliott Treaty exchanging Duwamish lands for reservation parcels.
1855–56: Some Duwamish fight in Indian Wars.
1925 The Duwamish form a government and create a constitution.
1996: Duwamish tribe is denied federal recognition.
2001: U.S. government recognizes Duwamish tribe.
2002: Duwamish tribe loses federal recognition, ruling is reversed by new administration, citing procedural errors.
Early European contact
The Duwamish and other Native Americans of the Puget Sound first met Europeans in 1792 when British explorer George Vancouver (1757–1798) entered the area. Europeans had little contact with the Native people in the area for the next thirty years because they were primarily interested in trade, and the Puget Sound region had few of the sea otter furs they sought.
At the time of European contact, the Duwamish were involved in ongoing wars with the Suquamish tribe under Chief Schweabe. Schweabe had a son with a Duwamish woman. This child grew up to be the famed Chief Seattle (si’áb Si’ahl in Duwamish; c. 1786–1866). Seattle negotiated peace among the Duwamish, the Suquamish, and other Salish-speaking tribes, but he continued warring with other tribes.
Giving up lands
By the mid-1800s Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862) had become the governor of Washington territory (it was not yet a state) and superintendent of Indian Affairs in the region. He considered the Native tribes an “impediment to civilization”—an obstacle to the spread of U.S. power throughout the New World. Stevens believed strongly in Manifest Destiny, a popular theory of the 1840s that held that the United States was meant to dominate the entire Western Hemisphere. Beginning in 1854 Stevens attempted to establish treaties with nearly every tribe in the region, hoping to take over as much land as possible for settlers. His goal was to place the tribes on reservations (pieces of land set aside for the Native Americans) and convince the Native peoples to assimilate, or adopt the white way of life.
In 1849 the California gold rush filled the Pacific Northwest with settlers seeking the natural wealth of the area. Seattle was then the principal chief of the united Suquamish and Duwamish nations. A religious man who had converted to Catholicism, Seattle encouraged friendship and open trade with whites. He agreed to sign the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855. According to the terms of the treaty, the Duwamish gave up their lands in exchange for seven small reservation parcels throughout the area. No reservation lands belonged to the Duwamish alone; other tribes inhabited the lands with them.
Settlers poured in and took over Native American lands. Chief Seattle tried to maintain friendly relations with the settlers, and when they founded a city on the site of a Duwamish winter village, the grateful settlers named the town Seattle. Other tribes, however, felt the treaty had not been honored, and several of them banded together to attack the new settlement. The loss of their lands and resources also fueled the Indian War of 1855–58. Despite this, Chief Seattle insisted on honoring the treaty and worked for peace between the Native peoples and the new settlers. In accordance with the treaty he had signed, he and his people moved to the Port Madison Reservation across the Puget Sound from the city of Seattle.
A people divided
The Duwamish at Port Madison soon found themselves in conflict with the Suquamish who lived there. Many Duwamish families left and wandered around the area. The federal government pressured some to move to a reservation they had established for the Muckleshoot tribe. By the winter of 1857 most Duwamish had returned to living in two communities on their original homelands along the Duwamish River. After settlers in Seattle burned down their homes, the displaced Duwamish moved to Ballast Island.
Ballast Island had been used as a dumping ground for ships preparing to take on cargo. The ocean-going vessels unloaded heavy boulders and other ballast there before they took on loads of goods for the return trip. By 1885 many displaced Duwamish had set up cattail shelters (later replaced by canvas tents) on the island. They lived among the refuse without a fresh water supply to avoid staying on reservations with their traditional enemies. This location also enabled them to stay close to their former villages and ancestral burial grounds. Soon, though, the island became valuable to the surrounding white community, and the tribe was forced to move once again. By the early 1900s most Duwamish had moved to the growing town of Seattle.
Modern tribal history
In 1910 the only remaining Duwamish village was at Foster, south of Seattle. By the 1920s the Duwamish had surrendered all their land. The people scattered throughout western Washington, losing much of their sense of unity as a group. In 1925 some of the surviving Duwamish people reunited. They formed a government and wrote a constitution, hoping the U.S. government would grant them recognition. Federal recognition would make the tribe eligible for government funds and programs. In 1996 their request for recognition was turned down.
Beginning in 1926 the tribe took legal action, seeking money from the U.S. government for lands taken from them. Nearly four decades later, in 1962, they were awarded a payment of $62,000, only $1.35 per acre. In 1974 the Duwamish joined with other tribes seeking 50 percent of the annual salmon harvest in their region. Although other tribes were granted this right, the Duwamish were excluded because they had not received federal recognition. At the start of the twenty-first century the Duwamish people were scattered throughout the Puget Sound area. They owned no tribal lands. Some, however, lived as registered members on the reservations of other tribes so they could receive services and health benefits from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Led by one of Chief Seattle’s descendents, Celia Hansen, since 1975, the Duwamish have attempted to gain federal recognition and to regain some of the land they lost. In 1977 they filed the necessary paperwork, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs denied their request in the mid-1980s because the tribe had no land; the decision stated that without land they could not be considered a tribe.
In 1983 the tribe established a nonprofit group, Duwamish Tribal Services, to preserve their culture and provide for the educational, health, and social needs of the tribe. Without federal recognition, the tribe receives no benefits from the U. S. government, so the non-profit has been striving to meet those needs. The Duwamish continued to fight for their rights, and in 2001 they received federal recognition. The victory was short-lived, however, as that decision was overturned in 2002 when a new presidential administration took over and declared the previous ruling void. The Duwamish have not given up hope and continue to petition the government for federal recognition.
To help their people in the meantime, they created the Duwamish Management Corporation in 2004. This for-profit organization has been working to create businesses whose profits will fund the tribe’s many cultural and social programs. One of these programs is put on by T’ilibshudub, which means “Singing Feet.” This cultural heritage group teaches traditional oratory, dancing, singing, and ceremonial practices to the tribe and also presents programs for the outside community. By teaching their language and traditional practices, the Duwamish are not only supporting tribal artists, musicians, and elders of the tribe, but they are keeping their culture strong and passing it on to the younger generations.
The tribes of the Puget Sound believed that beings with both human and animal qualities existed long ago. One such figure—called the Transformer—came into the world and defeated the dangerous creatures there—creatures like the soul-stealing earth dwarves, the food-stealing forest giants, and the wife-stealing underwater people. The Transformer, Duk’wibael, then taught the people the right way to live and helped them establish their customs. Like other Puget Sound tribes, the Duwamish believed in a land of the dead and in the possibility of the dead being reborn.
Salmon held a place of importance in the lives of the people. Not only were salmon one of the tribe’s main sources of nourishment, but they also held religious significance. Most of the Salish people believed that salmon were once people and that they willing gave up their lives to become food for the tribe. To honor this sacrifice, the Duwamish held a ceremony of welcome and thanks when they caught the first fish each year.
In the early 1800s some Duwamish, including Chief Seattle, converted to the Catholic religion, although many people still retained their Native beliefs. Seattle had been converted by French missionaries and baptized as Noah. With his new faith, he started morning and evening church services among Native Americans that continued even after his death.
One of the traditional beliefs of the Duwamish was that speaking the name of a dead person would disturb its spirit. For this reason, when Chief Seattle agreed to give his name to the city of Seattle, he asked for a small payment to make up for the trouble his spirit would experience each time his name was mentioned.
In the early 1900s great numbers of Duwamish converted to the Indian Shaker Church, which combined elements of both Christianity and tribal religions.
The Duwamish spoke the Southern Lushootseed dialect of the Coast Salish language family. Many other tribes in the area also spoke this dialect, including the Nisqually, Puyallup (see entries), and Suquamish. Although only a few people were fluent in the Duwamish language in recent years, the tribe has been working to revitalize the language. A cultural heritage group is teaching Duwamish culture and language to the community (see “History”).
Lushootseed Salish Words
The Duwamish spoke a dialect (variety) of Lushootseed Salish, also called Whulshootseed or Puget Sound Salish. Here are a few Lushootseed words; for others see Nisqually and Puyallup entries.
- dƏč’u’ … “one”
- sáli’ … “two”
- łixw … “three”
- búus … “four”
- cƏlác … “five”
- stubš … “man”
- słádƏy’ … “woman”
- łúkwał … “sun”
- słukwálb … “moon”
- alqwu’ … “water”
There was no formal village leader among the Duwamish, but the wealthiest head of a house was usually accepted as the headman. He took charge of making economic and political decisions. In the late 1990s some of the remaining Duwamish people lived on the Suquamish and the Muckleshoot reservations and participated in the governmental systems of those tribes.
The Muckleshoot Reservation has a general council as well as a tribal council. Leadership includes a chief administrative officer, a planning director, a comptroller, and several coordinators who oversee health and human services, community services, education, and natural resources. They also have a tribal court system. On the Port Madison Reservation the Suquamish General Council meets twice a year and is composed of all enrolled tribal members. The seven members of the tribal council are elected to staggered three-year terms. The tribe also has both elder and youth councils to offer advice to the tribal council.
The Duwamish who did not move to the reservations wrote a tribal constitution and bylaws in 1925. In 1975 they organized under the leadership of the great, great grandniece of Chief Seattle, Cecile Hansen. Hansen, the elected chair of the tribe, founded Duwamish Tribal Services in 1983 to administer social service programs for the tribe.
Before contact with Europeans, the Duwamish gathered and fished for their food. In the 1850s they were forced off their ancestral lands and onto reservations. White officials and religious leaders expected the Native people to give up their traditional ways. Although the U.S. government provided some goods and food to the reservation, supplies were limited, and the Native Americans suffered many hardships. Corrupt officials sometimes kept or sold supplies that were meant for Duwamish people. Left with no other alternatives, many Duwamish began to work in sawmills, in commercial fisheries, and on farms, as some still do today.
On the reservation many people are employed in forestry, fishing, agriculture, and tourism. Casinos also bring in revenue for the tribes. The Duwamish Tribe established Duwamish Management Corporation to create businesses to strengthen the economic well-being of tribal members who live off-reservation.
Family was, and is, very important to the Duwamish. Villages were composed of extended families (parents, children, and other relatives). These groups of relatives resided together in a large house where each family had their own section of the house. Homes were one big open area, divided by mats to form areas for the individual families. Family names related to the place where their home was located. Most Duwamish families were made up of a man and one or more wives, their children, and sometimes unmarried relatives and slaves.
The Duwamish built plank houses—a popular style in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the homes were open in the center, with roofs supported by posts. In the summer the tribe constructed temporary campsite structures covered with woven mats. A series of forts surrounded by stake-filled ditches protected the Duwamish from invaders.
After moving to the Port Madison Reservation, Chief Seattle lived in the Old Man House, a community building constructed by the Suquamish. It was 500 feet long (152 meters) and 50 to 60 feet (15 to 18 meters) wide. The Duwamish attended ceremonies at the Old Man House and may have built smaller versions of this structure prior to the twentieth century.
Clothing and adornment
In summer men went naked or wore breechcloths (pieces of material that went between the legs and fastened at the waist). Women donned aprons and skirts made of cedar bark. In cool weather both sexes wore blankets woven of mountain goat wool, adding leggings, shirts, and moccasins as it got colder. Women wore necklaces made of shells, teeth, and claws; they also tattooed their legs and chins. Both sexes wore shell earrings. Hair was usually long and braided. Young men plucked out their facial hair; older men let it grow. People decorated their faces and bodies with oil and paint, and wealthy people wore nose ornaments.
The Duwamish diet centered around fish, especially salmon. The people caught and gathered many freshwater and saltwater creatures, including herring, smelt, flounder, halibut, sturgeon, clams, crabs, crayfish, mussels, and oysters. Overall, the Duwamish relied more on wild foods and game than did the tribes closer to the coast or farther north. Their main prey were deer and elk, but they also hunted and trapped black bear, beaver, raccoon, otter, muskrat, and twenty kinds of waterfowl. Berries, ferns, roots, nuts, bulbs, and sprouts added variety to their diet.
Because they lived on the water and fishing was their livelihood, one of the most vital aspects of a child’s education was knowledge of the rivers and the ocean. Both boys and girls learned to read the tides, knew where rocks and logjams were located, and understood the currents. Canoe building and repair were also important skills.
In modern times many students attend public schools, although some children study at the Muckleshoot Tribal School on the reservation. The tribe also owns and operates the Muckleshoot Tribal College and an Occupational Skills Training Program. Language classes are available both on and off the reservation.
The Duwamish believed that illnesses were caused by the loss of one’s soul or by the presence of a disease-causing object within the body. Some ailments could be cured by the use of plants and herbs, but other diseases required a medicine man called a shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun) to either recapture the missing soul and return it to the body or to remove the disease-causing foreign object through chants and rituals.
Most shaman were male, and their training started at the age of seven or eight. Ultimately, the trainee embarked on a vision quest (see “Customs”)—a search for revelation and awareness about the shaman’s role as healer and as mediator between humans and supernatural powers.
In modern times many Duwamish rely on traditional herbs for healing. In the Pacific Northwest, they have access to hundreds of herbs and use them, along with knowledge passed down through the generations, to prevent and cure many illnesses.
Carving and basketmaking
Like other people of the Pacific Northwest, the Duwamish carved the images of mythical figures onto the wooden posts they placed in front of their houses. They also used their carving skills to build and decorate their houses and to construct their canoes. Women created baskets from plant fibers; these baskets were woven tightly enough to hold liquids and foods for cooking.
Duwamish society was made up of free people and slaves. The free population was divided into upper and lower classes. Only the wealthy upper classes were allowed to take part in ceremonial activities. Slaves were usually women and children who had been seized from enemy tribes during raids.
Like many other Native American tribes, the Duwamish formed secret societies. Members were wealthy adolescent boys and girls called “growling or black tamanawis” (pronounced tah-MAN-ah-wus; meaning power or guardian spirit). New members went through a ceremony lasting several nights. They danced and sang, were possessed by spirits, and fell into trances. On the final night of the ritual, their hosts presented them with gifts.
Festivals and ceremonies
The most important ceremonies among the Duwamish were the potlatch, the winter dance, and the soul-recovery ceremony (known among the Duwamish as the “spirit canoe ceremony”). Potlatches were gift-exchange ceremonies sometimes used as offerings of peace to other tribes. The festivities included songs, dances, and games.
A person who had been cured of an illness by a shaman sponsored the winter dance. During the course of the evening, the cured individual performed the special song that had aided in his or her healing. The spirit canoe ceremony was especially popular among the Duwamish. Several men of the tribe—often, but not always, shaman—acted out a journey to the land of the dead to rescue living souls that had been stolen. The ceremony lasted for two nights.
Like other Coast Salish tribes, the Duwamish had ceremonies to honor the abundant salmon of the region. They held similar festivities in thanksgiving for other animals, such as elk.
Childhood and puberty
No special ceremonies took place at the time of a child’s birth, but within a short time parents began flattening the heads of their infants with boards. Flattened heads were considered attractive among the Duwamish. Girls were separated from the rest of tribe at the time of their first menstruation, and during puberty both boys and girls were expected to embark on their own vision quests. They set out for the forest alone and fasted (went without food or water) until they fell into a trancelike state and received a vision from a guardian spirit. The vision was said to provide the youths with the power to lead successful lives. Spirits usually appeared in the form of animals but could also appear as humans, plants, and events in nature such as thunderstorms.
Courtship and marriage
Upper-class families arranged the marriages of their children, often to members of families from different villages. The families of the bride and groom exchanged goods, and the bride’s relatives gave the new couple gifts. Newly married couples usually lived with the wife’s parents until they had their first child, and sometimes longer. Divorce was uncommon in Duwamish society. Widows and widowers (people whose spouses had died) were expected to remarry within the same family to preserve the benefits they had gained from being linked by marriage.
When a Duwamish person died, a wake (or watch over the body of a dead person prior to burial) was held and gifts were brought for the deceased. Mourners cut the dead person’s hair, prepared the body, placed it in a canoe or a box, and hung it from a tree or buried it in the village cemetery. A feast was held and the deceased’s personal property was distributed among friends and family.
Current tribal issues
In 1996 the Duwamish were denied the recognition they had been seeking from the U.S. federal government since 1925. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Duwamish did not satisfy all of the requirements for federal recognition: they had not sustained a separate community over the years; they had not exercised authority over their people throughout history; and they had not had a continuous Native American identity. Therefore, the U.S. government maintained that it had no responsibility to provide benefits and other assistance to the Duwamish people.
After gathering proof that they did meet these requirements, the Duwamish reapplied. In 2001 their petition was successful, and the tribe received federal recognition, making them eligible for government aid and benefits. A new presidential administration, however, rescinded their recognition the following year. The Duwamish as of 2007 were still fighting for their status as a recognized tribe. To provide for the community’s needs, they started Duwamish Tribal Services in 1983 and Duwamish Management Corporation in 2004.
In the following selection Chief Seattle describes the Native American view that everything is sacred.
Every part of all this soil is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in the days long vanished. The very dust you now stand on responds more willingly to their footsteps than to yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.
Even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season love these somber solitudes, and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits.
And when the last red man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe; and when our children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.
At night when the streets of your cities and villages are 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 powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.
“Chief Seattle - Suqwamish and Duwamish.” First People. (accessed on October 3, 2007).
Chief Seattle (c. 1786–1866), also known as Si’ahl’, was born to a Duwamish mother and a Suquamish father. He became chief of both those tribes and of other Salish-speaking tribes in the Puget Sound area. Seattle maintained peaceful relations with white settlers. In 1854, during treaty talks with Isaac Stevens, governor of Washington territory, Seattle delivered a powerful speech on his people’s future. The speech has become quite famous and remains the topic of discussion in historical circles: at least four different versions of it exist, and no one has been able to determine with certainty which of the four, if any, is the original. Seattle is regarded as the last great Native leader in the Pacific Northwest. He married twice and had six children before his death on June 7, 1866, at his home on the Port Madison Reservation.
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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California
Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University