It’s 2018 and the last thing anybody should be doing is tacitly trusting white people’s “good intentions.” When it comes to racial equity, those on the front lines know that impact is the only thing that actively moves the needle; intention is all too often a feel-good fantasy of the privileged. So when mentions of Real Rent Duwamish, a project initiated by well-meaning white people to pay monthly rent to the original people of the Seattle area, appeared in my social media feeds late last year, I was skeptical.
“Real Rent calls on people who live and work in Seattle to make rent payments to the Duwamish Tribe,” reads the home page of RealRentDuwamish.org. “Though the city named for the Duwamish leader Chief Seattle thrives, the Tribe has yet to be justly compensated for their land, resources and livelihood. You can stand in solidarity with First Peoples of this land by paying Real Rent. All funds go directly to Duwamish Tribal Services (DTS) to support the revival of Duwamish culture and the vitality of the Duwamish Tribe.”
Reframing the relationship between non-Natives and Native Americans—whose lands non-Natives occupy—as one akin to tenant and landlord is nothing short of a paradigm shift. Committing to an ongoing financial payment to the original caretakers of this place carries both symbolic and practical value. It’s a powerful, progressive statement articulated in the dumb language of capitalism. The radical project is a collaboration between the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW), an equity-advocacy group in Seattle with roots in the original Civil Rights era, and members of DTS.
A few phone calls and emails put me in the presence of Chandra Farlow, a representative of CARW, and Jolene Haas, daughter of and spokesperson for Cecile Hansen, an 82-year-old Duwamish tribal elder and the original and current chairperson of DTS. Right now, DTS’s primary directive is the nonprofit operation of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, a community center, archive and administrative office opened in West Seattle in 2009.
The Longhouse and nonprofit were necessary because, despite historically dwelling on the shores of Elliott Bay for a thousand years and despite being signees on a number of historic treaties, in the modern era the Duwamish have been overlooked as an official tribe by the U.S. government. For decades, the Department of the Interior has denied requests and appeals for restored recognition, most recently in 2015, stating that it found insufficient evidence of the Duwamish’s existence as an “American Indian entity” on a continuous basis since 1900. Restated Federal recognition would bring tribal members much needed funds, social services and entrepreneurial rights—not to mention sovereign nationhood status.
And as for CARW, Farlow explained that the group has been working with the Duwamish on a volunteer basis since around 2009 (and that they welcome volunteers of all races). Together they mulled over the Real Rent concept for a few years before the Tribe asked them to finally launch, using social media and a crowdfunding platform, this past October.
“This group [of CARW volunteers] shows up constantly,” Haas says. “They’re very gracious, kind people that come in [to the Longhouse] and basically do whatever we ask. It’s not like this great big thing, but it’s awesome. They’re just trying to help us anyway that they can. And we just love them because they don’t give up.”
Farlow explained that though her service to the tribe is based on the simple fact that she lives on their ancestral land, it isn’t simply an act of charity. “It’s about solidarity. We see our humanity as intrinsically tied up in justice for the Duwamish tribe,” she says. “It’s justice for us, too. It makes us whole people.”
So far, she says, 311 people have signed up at various self-selected monthly rates. The first payout was made in early November in the form of a no-strings-attached check for around $5,000.
“And that will really, really help,” Haas says, indicating toilet paper and a new oven for the Longhouse are on the docket, and more importantly, a second full-time staff position.
“It’s been such a hard road to get to where we are right now, with the Longhouse being built and actually up and running,” she said. “And we’re just going to work our asses off to keep it going.”
Sign up at RealRentDuwamish.org