People in canoes on the water
Canoeing on the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle Courtesy of the Duwamish Tribe

The Duwamish Tribe says the United States never made good on an 1855 treaty covering land that is now Seattle. So, some people are voluntarily paying them rent.

Since 2017, the Duwamish Tribe in Seattle has received thousands of letters. Some have been a simple “thanks” or “we’re with you.” Others have been a bit more profound, mentioning restorative justice and payback for stolen land. “I’m a visiting student, living temporarily in Seattle. This is one small way of giving back to the Duwamish, whose land I live on,” said one note. But every one of the messages have given this Native American community two very important gifts—“rent” and proof that they are not alone.

The correspondence is part of Real Rent Duwamish, a program started two years ago to help people who live or work in Seattle give back to the area’s early inhabitants by sending them money every month. Today, there are more than 2,200 people who send the tribe “rent” each month through a simple online payment system, and many more who send them one-time donations, according to Jolene Haas, director of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, and daughter of Duwamish Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen. The average payment is between $50 and $100 dollars. The tribe has received a total of over $300,000 through Real Rent.  

“We’ve never had this kind of support before,” said Haas. “Every month we’re in shock when we get a check from the Real Rent campaign.”

Real Rent was started by a grassroots group in Seattle called the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, or CARW, in an effort to support the Duwamish and their ongoing fight for federal recognition. Unlike  hundreds of other tribes across the U.S., the Duwamish have not been officially acknowledged as a tribe. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a “final decision,” denying them recognition after decades of applications and appeals from the Duwamish. This means they aren’t considered a sovereign nation, and aren’t eligible to receive such U.S. government services as grants for law enforcement, education programs, and healthcare assistance, explained Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

The 600-member tribe is led by a tribal council and operates out of its Longhouse and Cultural Center, a single building on a third of an acre in Seattle. It also runs the non-profit Duwamish Tribal Services, that works to both educate the public about the tribe’s history and culture, and support the community’s survival. They have a fundraiser every year to help offset operational costs, but the tribe as a whole has faced challenging economic periods. Haas said members sometimes call the center after someone dies asking for help with funeral or burial costs, or when they’re in difficult times and need somewhere to live, and the tribe doesn’t have the resources to help them.

These challenging periods are compounded by the fact that the tribe once controlled 54,000 acres that today make up metropolitan Seattle and a few of its surrounding cities. In the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, they exchanged that land for a reservation along with hunting and fishing rights. A few years after the treaty was ratified and the Duwamish had not received a reservation, a U.S. Indian Agent recommended the federal government follow through with their end of the deal. But Seattle civic leaders, among others, pushed back, calling the reservation an injustice, according to the Duwamish Tribe’s website. Over a century later, the tribe has yet to see the promises agreed on in the Point Elliott treaty. But with the help of Real Rent, things have started to look up a bit for the tribe.

“The Duwamish people got screwed and they’re still getting screwed, but I think people recognize that now,” said Haas. “It’s not their fault we got screwed but they’re trying to do something about it.”

At its core, Real Rent Duwamish is simply a donation system. There are other programs in the U.S. that facilitate donations to organizations that support Native Americans: The Partnership With Native Americans, in Addison, Texas, is a nonprofit that helps members of 60 tribes in the U.S. with everything from health and education to emergency relief. Adopt-A-Native-Elder helps Navajo elders in both Arizona and Utah. But where Real Rent stands out, is in its presentation.

By asking the public to pay rent to the tribe, it is posited as a form of restitution, one that educates people about the history of Seattle. And because the payments are regular, the Duwamish have recurring income. The program has allowed them to develop a new website, technologically update their Longhouse and Cultural Center, and bring on a consultant to help them secure grants. In March, the tribe held its first health and wellness fair in an effort to connect their community with important services and resources.

The success illustrates the program’s potential for supporting the dozens of other tribes like the Duwamish in the U.S. that have not been federally recognized and thus are not receiving any type of comprehensive support from the federal government.

“It seems to me that it’s an effective way to educate the public about the Duwamish themselves, but also about the state of Indian lands in the U.S.—that it was all tribally owned to start with, so everybody who’s not a tribal citizen on these lands is there because the U.S. somehow acquired that property and gave it to non-Indians,” said Anderson, who added that he’s never heard of a donation program like this before.

Haas said since they have no way of knowing how long these monthly payments will continue, they’ve also put a significant amount of the money straight into their savings account. But regardless of its longevity, she notes that the Real Rent program has already increased awareness of the Duwamish and their history in the area. With Seattle’s incredible population growth, the many new residents appearing each day often have little to no understanding of the area’s history or its early Native American inhabitants. This program has helped to change this.

“We just hope that they would recognize that there were people here that invited the first settlers here, and that we’ve always had our hands open in community,” Haas said. “Now what we’re seeing is that that is being reciprocated. People see us, and that feels really good.”

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