SEATTLE – The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has stripped two Washington state groups of their distinction as Indian "tribes," eliminating their special status and reversing a decision made in the final days of the Clinton administration.
The ruling, which officials say was made after Washington state's Chinook and Duwamish Indians failed to meet the criteria to be labeled a tribe, angered members of the groups.
"I believe the administration is anti-Indian," Cecile Hansen of the Duwamish Tribal Council said.
"At first I was very disappointed, then I became very angry," Ray Gardner, Chinook Tribal Council member, said.
According to officials, the groups do not meet the government standard required to be considered a tribe. Seven requirements must be met to be officially recognized as a tribe with all the rights — and federal money — that go with it, including proof that the tribe has been in existence continuously since first making contact with settlers.
"The evidence provided was not sufficient to show that there was outside identification of a historical Duwamish tribe, or band, antecedent to the petitioner, 1855 to the present," Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Services Director Mike Smith said.
Recognition would lend the groups considerable freedoms — most importantly, to set up and operate casinos. Casino gambling is a billion dollar a year industry in Washington state alone.
With all that money also comes political influence, and tribes that already have casinos often oppose those seeking status, fearing the new guy would cut into their action.
"We would be recognized today if the Quinalt Indian tribe had not appealed the ruling," Chinook Tribal Chairman Gary Johnson said.
Though the tribes have proud histories — the Chinooks helped Lewis and Clark explore America, and Seattle is named for a Duwamish chief — both have fallen on hard times. The Chinooks own less than an acre of land today, and only a few hundred people now claim to be Duwamish.
The Duwamish and Chinooks say their fight for survival isn't over. They are considering going to court to try for congressional approval.
"We are not going away. We are going to pursue recognition until the bitter end," Hansen said.