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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Neighbors sue to disband Suquamish tribe

Sovereign powers are resented by non-Indians in a pattern growing in U.S.

Thursday, October 18, 2001


The Suquamish Tribe wants to help impoverished members by building a low-income housing project on its reservation. But affluent, non-Indian neighbors along scenic Agate Passage don't like the idea.

So they are trying to force the tribe out of existence by filing suit in U.S. District Court in Seattle. In their suit, the Angeline Avenue neighbors assert that the tribe was improperly recognized by the United States.

And they are challenging the legitimacy of the boundaries of the reservation, which is on the Kitsap Peninsula across from Bainbridge Island.

The suit reflects a burgeoning conflict across America between tribes exercising their governmental powers and their non-Indian neighbors.

"These kinds of disputes are cropping up all over the country," said John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, an Indian legal-rights organization based in Colorado.

Because of growth, more and more non-Indians are moving onto or near tribal land. At the same time, tribes are exercising more political and economic power.

Along Angeline Avenue, for instance, neighbors say they are tired of the Suquamish Tribe's zoning and land-use policies. They don't want tribal police stopping them for traffic violations. They say it's not fair because they have no voice in tribal government, no vote in tribal elections.

But Scott Crowell, a tribal official, says that's a choice neighbors made when they moved onto an Indian reservation.

"They chose to move onto a foreign jurisdiction," he said.

And he calls the lawsuit an affront to the tribe.

"They don't think we exist as a people," he said. "They don't believe we exist as a government. But we're not going anywhere; we've been here forever."

At times, the rhetoric has become racially charged. Tensions peaked in May when vandals smashed a cross marking the grave of Chief Sealth, the legendary Suquamish and Duwamish leader for whom Seattle is named.

A newspaper article about the tribe's planned housing project was found at the scene. No one has been arrested.

Many Angeline Avenue residents, such as Tom Stoesser, say they were appalled by the desecration of the grave.

And though Stoesser, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says he does not begrudge the tribe the opportunity to build a housing project, he worries about the effects a new sewer system and additional traffic might have on his neighborhood.

A deal being brokered by Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen to build a new access road bypassing Angeline Avenue would go a long way toward salving his concerns. But the basic conflict would remain.

"This land is not really tribal," he said, waving an arm at Angeline Avenue.

"The problem is (the Suquamish) are a sovereign nation. They have their own set of laws."

Because of the tribe's sovereign status, it does not have to comply with Kitsap County zoning rules.

"They could put in 22 homes instead of two," Stoesser said.

Land was split up

The Suquamish land, known as the Port Madison Reservation, was established by treaty in 1856.

Then, between 1886 and 1910, the United States split up most of the reservation land into allotments to individual Native Americans that ultimately resulted in a checkerboard of Indian and non-Indian ownership.

In 1903, the U.S. War Department acquired 70 acres of land from the tribe for cannon emplacements overlooking Agate Passage, the future site of Angeline Avenue.

In 1926, the War Department said it no longer needed the land and sold it to a private company.

The lawsuit, filed by the Association of Property Owners/Residents of Port Madison, says that the "allotments were intended to discourage Indians from maintaining tribal relations ... to break up tribal land and terminate tribal existence."

And Dennis Reynolds, a lawyer for the group, contends that the former military parcel is no longer part of the reservation, and therefore, should not be subject to the tribal council's jurisdiction.

But Ron Allen, chairman of the nearby Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and past president of the National Congress of American Indians, says the lawsuit is simply "another manifestation of American society's efforts to terminate and assimilate Indian people."

"They just don't want a bunch of poor Indians around their neighborhood," Allen said of the neighbors who filed the lawsuit.

"The irony of it is that they are encroaching on Indian homeland trying to drive Indians out of their own land."

'Pushed around'

Relations between the Suquamish tribe and their neighbors have frequently been strained.

In the mid-1980s, the tribe failed in a lawsuit to gain title to the tidelands in front of Angeline Avenue.

But in 1995, several Western Washington tribes, including the Suquamish, won a federal court ruling that the tribes retain a treaty right to gather shellfish on tidelands around Puget Sound.

That decision still rankles some along Angeline Avenue, who don't believe Indian tribes should have such treaty rights or sovereign status.

Eighty-two-year-old Pierce Winston Davis has lived along Agate Passage for 39 years. He calls sovereignty a political decision made by Congress at treaty times.

"It's wrong, and it could be righted," he said.

"We're tired of being pushed around by Indians. They are interfering with my life. I don't need Indians suing me."

Davis' wife, May, agrees.

"The Indians should be treated the same as everyone else. And they should jump through the same hoops as everyone else."

To the Davises, that means that the low-income housing project should be subjected to the much more restrictive zoning of Kitsap County.

When the Angeline homeowners started moving in decades ago, Indian tribes, including the Suquamish, didn't have much political power.

But as tribes gained economic clout from industries such as gaming, they became more savvy and sophisticated in political and legal matters, and they also had the money to hire lawyers.

"Whether we like it or not, they are taking full advantage of their sovereignty in a way that they didn't do until the last couple of decades," said Endresen, the county commissioner.

When people from Angeline Avenue came to her asking that she stop the low-income housing project, she had to say, "We don't have the power to do that under federal law."

Following the rules

United Property Owners, a property rights group focusing on conflicts with Indian tribes, grew out of the shellfish litigation that unfolded on beaches such as the one along Angeline Avenue.

Now, the organization has members in 37 states.

"I believe that Indians have the right to control only the portions of their reservations that are not privately owned," said Barb Lindsay, the group's executive director.

"It is not fair to have zoning authority over people who have no voice or vote in the government. It's a problem we are hearing about from states all over the nation."

And Lindsay does not believe tribes should have special legal status.

But Allen, the former president of the National Congress of American Indians, sees it differently.

"If you make a choice to live within an Indian reservation border, you must learn to be respectful of the tribe, its culture and its authority to protect its own interests," he said.

"If you have a problem with that, then make another choice.

"The Indians are not going to go anywhere," he said. "We now know how to fight back, based on your rules."


Conflicts between Indian tribes and non-Indians that live on or near Indian land are cropping up all over the country. Here are a few examples in Western Washington:

The Swinomish Tribe is facing opposition from Skagit County over a proposal to develop a 1,200-slip marina on the reservation. The county maintains that the project will keep it from preserving farmland.

The Samish Tribe, a landless tribe in Anacortes, is facing a battle from homeowners near Campbell Lake who don't want to see the Samish build housing and other tribal buildings on an 80-acre site near the Fidalgo Island lake.

The Shoalwater Bay Tribe's plan to build a commercial housing and light industrial project on land along Interstate 5 near Vancouver is opposed by Clark County.

The Lummi Tribe is in litigation with non-Indian homeowners on the reservation over bulkheads on the homeowners' Puget Sound properties. The Lummi say the bulkheads damage the tideland environment.

And there is a dispute over tribal efforts to tax the homeowners for their access to reservation drinking water.

Rob's comment
The stereotypes here are embodied in the comment that white folks "don't believe Indian tribes should have such treaty rights or sovereign status." These naysayers think treaty rights and sovereign status are a politically correct government handout given because Indians complained so much about being victimized.

A few flaws with such ignorant beliefs:

Related links
The facts about tribal sovereignty
The facts about Indian gaming

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