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  • David Bainbridge

Recognition for the Chinook Tribe Long Overdue

Fur War continues to this day . . . .

The Chinook people were the original inhabitants near the mouth of the Columbia River. Although a relatively small tribe they became the most powerful group in the Columbia under a great tactician and entrepreneur, the one-eyed Chief Comcomly. They were so important in trading that the pidgin (common) language of the area was based on Chinook and known as Chinook wawa. Chief Comcomly kindly offered to provide many warriors to help the Americans fight the British in the War of 1812.

Sadly, their frequent contact with Europeans and extensive trading and travel proved disastrous when the intermittent fever and other diseases struck in the 1820s and 1830s. Some estimates suggest only 5% of the tribe survived. From a powerhouse they became a small group of survivors. Many would intermarry into other tribes that moved into their territory.

As in so many other cases the United States, Congress never ratified the treaty that the tribe and other coastal bands signed in 1851. After the Washington Territory was created in 1853, treaty negotiations resumed with the new governor. Isaac Stevens resigned from the army to accept the position as governor. He was an able and energetic engineer but not a good negotiator or planner. It is not clear that he ever understood or seemingly cared much about the native people’s lifeways, goals or intentions. He wanted their land so settlers could clear land title.

The tribes had almost all been devastated by disease and abuse by the settlers. Few had a formal or extensive political organization with a leader who had the authority to negotiate and cede lands to the government. Stevens resolved this problem by appointing his own chiefs. It is also believed he sometimes forged the signatures on treaties when the chiefs refused to sign.

The treaties did recognize fishing rights (in principal if never in fact). They also provided for the eventual division of reservation lands into individual allotments and all had a provision that unilaterally allowed the President of the United States to relocate the Indians to another reservation within the territory. All this complex treaty “negotiation” was done with Chinook wawa - which had a very limited vocabulary and was not understood by all of the tribes and their “chiefs.”

Stevens wanted to place all these groups on one reservation. By the end of the year seven treaties had been signed with other tribes and most of western Washington had been “ceded” to the US government. One treaty would have moved the Chinook north of their homelands and into territories of their historic enemies. They refused to sign and never ceded their lands. As a result, they remained federally unrecognized, punished for trying to maintain their legal ownership of the land. White settlers continued to move in and displace the now greatly weakened and intermixed tribes. Many dispersed to other tribes or the multi-tribe Grand Ronde Reservation in 1857.

The struggle did not end. In 1899 the Chinook hired its first lawyers to fight for their land and the legal battle continues today. After 102 years the Chinook Nation was granted official status in January 2001 under President Bill Clinton. The status was rescinded 18 months later by the George W. Bush administration in an outrageous injustice.

The Chinook Indian Nation sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2017 over a ban on reapplying for recognized status as well as over trust funds the tribe never received. On January 10, 2020 a federal judge ruled that the ban preventing the Chinook Indian Nation from reapplying for federal tribal recognition was unjustified. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to reexamine its justification for the repetition ban, or change the regulation to allow for the Chinook Indian Nation to apply again.

Tribal chairman Tony Johnson said the tribe was focused on asking a federal judge for the right to reapply for federal recognition. Federal status opens the door to self-government and to myriad government programs for social services, education and economic development.

We have all the problems of Indian Country and yet none of the means of fixing it or dealing with those issues that other communities have,” Johnson said. “Whether that is issues around housing, or around health care, or around mental health issues, or drug and alcohol, these are things that other tribal communities have resources to be able to address. We feel the responsibility, and we are tied by blood to the tribes further on up the river. And we feel it is very much our responsibility to oversee our ancestors’ territories . . . there are blood connections of our family members marrying people from those villages . . . that’s Chinookan territory. We see that as an area that is really important for us to protect and to be sure that things are done properly there so that other people don’t step into our territory.”

Teresa Nordheim . 2020. Wicked Seattle. Arcadia Publishing.

Kent Richards. 1972, Isaac I. Stevens and Federal Military Power in Washington Territory. The Pacific Northwest Quarterly. Vol. 63, No. 3, pp. 81-86

Tom Banse. Jan. 6, 2020. Chinook Tribe Back In Court Monday On Long Quest To Regain Federal Recognition. Northwest News Network Oregon Public Broadcasting.

What you can do

Write your congress person! Write the governor

Contribute money to the Chinook legal effort

Encourage local school teachers to include more information about the Chinook people Visit the Chinook plank house in Ridgefield

Tony Johnson, Chief Chinook Nation

3 E. Park Street P.O. Box 368 Bay Center, WA 98527


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