Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

After 150 Years, the Chinook Indian Nation|Still Fights for Federal Recognition

BAY CENTER, Wash. (CN) - A light breeze ruffled the dark hair of Chinook tribal member Roni Layman as she pointed out the hilltop spot above the Pacific ocean where her ancestors once lived in cedar longhouses. The spot, originally part of a vast network of villages, has become ground zero for what the once-mighty Indian nation calls a fight for its very existence.

"Wouldn't that be a great spot for a village?" Layman, 46, asked, describing the cluster of longhouses that would have been nestled in the stand of Douglas fir trees where Goose Point juts into the calm waters of Willapa Bay.

There are no historical markers here. No replica longhouse to mark the spot of the once-important village. The Chinook have no funding or formal system to preserve their cultural history. That's just one effect of the federal government's refusal to officially recognize the Chinook Indian Nation.

The five tribes of the Chinook Indian Nation say they have lived around the mouth of the Columbia River "since time immemorial." They say they've been here since the first people to walk the earth rolled down nearby Saddle Mountain, tucked inside thunder eggs.

A powerful nation, they controlled trade at the crucial crossroads where the Columbia empties into the Pacific. Chinook homeland marked the center of a broad trade web that stretched from Alaska to California and east to the Great Plains. They welcomed Lewis and Clark when their expedition reached the ocean and helped them survive the brutal winter of 1805.

Chinook territory originally covered two million acres. It stretched from the Oregon coast south of Seaside about 100 miles north to Willapa Bay in Washington state, and more than 50 miles inland along both sides of the Columbia River to the peaks of the Coast Mountain Range.

But today, there is no official Chinook territory - at least not according to the federal government, which refuses to recognize the 3,000-member nation as a sovereign entity despite legal battles stretching back 164 years.

"I can't explain to anybody the feeling of having 10,000 years of connection to a place, and the knowledge that comes with that," said Chinook Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson from the tribe's headquarters in Bay Center, Washington. "These rocks in this bay, the natural landforms around us, they all have stories. They tell us about ourselves - give us lessons about our history and how to behave. This is the place for that. It's all built into the land."

The Chinook don't have a reservation on their historical land. They don't have the health clinics or hunting and fishing rights that recognized tribes have. Tribal recognition would provide a land base and bring resources that the Chinook desperately need.

"We've inherited every problem that exists in Indian country: unemployment, drug and alcohol use, but we have no means of dealing with it like every other reservation does," Johnson, 45, said. "We have no services. All we have to offer is family and community support and I assure you it's not enough in terms of trying to deal with people's drug and alcohol and mental health issues."

Federal recognition would help the Chinook preserve their heritage.


"Most tribes have a formal system to preserve all their photos, their stories and documents," Johnson said. "Our elders have done a lot of work to keep our history intact. But that's all on a volunteer basis. Right now, every time an elder dies, all that history just scatters to the winds."

But it's also an existential question.

"It really takes guts for someone I don't even know to say I'm not a Chinook Indian," Johnson said. "It's like someone pointing to a book and saying this isn't a book. How do you even start an argument about whether the sky is blue if someone is just looking you in the face and saying the sky's not blue?"

A History of Legal Battles

Johnson launched the Executive Recognition Project in June of this year. Every day since June 8, the tribe has sent a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to take another look at their situation.

But that's just the latest step in a long history of fighting for aboriginal rights that the tribe says were neither extinguished by treaties nor terminated by acts of Congress.

The Chinook Nation is made up of five tribes: the Clatsop, the Kathalmet, the lower Chinook, the Wahkiakum and the Willapa. Each tribe signed five treaties with the U.S. government in 1851, securing the right to remain on their historical land, keep their rights to natural resources and continue to live near the bones of their ancestors. But those treaties were never formally ratified by the U.S. government.

In 1855, Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens held another round of treaty negotiations. The Chinook told Stevens they would give up vast tracts of their territory in order to keep living near the burial sites of their ancestors.

Negotiations failed when Stevens insisted that the Chinook move north to the Quinault reservation, which was established that same year. But that would have required the Chinook to abandon their ancestral burial sites. And the Quinault and the Chinook are historic enemies.

During the negotiations, Chinook Chief Nahcotta described the tribe's position to Stevens.

"When you first began to speak, we did not understand you; it was all dark to us as the night; but now our hearts are enlightened, and what you say is clear to us as the sun," Nahcotta said. "We are proud that our great father in Washington thinks of us. We are poor, and can see how much better off the white men are than we are. We are willing to sell our land, but we do not want to go away from our homes. Our fathers, and mothers, and ancestors are buried there and by them we wish to bury our dead and be buried ourselves. We wish, therefore, each to have a place on our own land where we can live, and you may have the rest; but we can't go to the north among the other tribes. We are not friends, and if we went together we should fight, and soon we would all be killed."

Johnson said the beef between the Chinook and the Quinault stretches back for centuries.

"It's an aboriginal conflict - pre-contact, we considered ourselves to be enemies with several of the tribes to the north, including the Quinault. That doesn't mean we didn't have economic or other relationships with each other because we did have marriages and conduct trade and do business together. But it was considered that we really were enemies and we did fight with each other."


The Chinook suggested an alternative to moving north.

"We showed them what we wanted," Johnson said. "We wanted the Naselle River - the south part of Willapa Bay. Long island and Chetlo Harbor."

The area was less than five percent of the Chinook's total original territory.

"We said we'd give away the rest of our territory in exchange for that land," Johnson said. "Instead, they said we had to give up all of our territory and go north to join the Quinault. The Chinook and Chehalis went wild when they heard that. It really frustrated Gov. Stevens because we would have none of it. So negotiations fell apart."

The Chinook say Stevens promised to try again, but he was killed in the Civil War before he could return to the Pacific Northwest.

That's when the Bureau of Indian Affairs says the tribes stopped functioning as a political entity. But the bureau continued to interact with the Chinook as if they were a recognized tribe.

In the 1890s, the Chinook say they hired their first lawyers to fight for their land rights. The Chinook sued the federal government in 1899, eventually obtaining a $20,000 judgment.

In 1906, Congress asked Charles McChesney to document the ancestry of the Chinook Nation. The resulting tribal roles were published in McChesney's book, "Roles of Certain Tribes in Oregon and Washington," which is filled with photos of Chinook elders and children who have since grown up and passed away and hundreds of lists tracing the lineage of individual tribal members.

"Our tribal roles were done by the federal government," said Gary Johnson, Tony Johnson's father and a former tribal chairman. "There's never been any question about who we descend from. They found other, political reasons to deny us recognition."

In 1911, Congress authorized the secretary of Indian Affairs to provide individual land allotments on the Quinault Indian Reservation to members of the Chinook Indian Nation.

"You don't get allotments if you're not an Indian," Tony Johnson said.

The next year, Congress authorized a payment of $20,000 to the Chinook in recognition of the fact that during negotiations for the 1851 treaties at Tansey Point they had ceded to the government "an extensive country north of the Columbia River."

"That $20,000 wasn't a made-up number," Tony Johnson said. "It was part of the deal we originally negotiated in 1851."

And in 1925, Congress included the Chinook in the Western Washington Claims Act, authorizing renewed aboriginal land claims in the U.S. Claims Court.

"The [House] Committee [on Indian Affairs] feels that they have been very shabbily treated by the Government, and that they should have an opportunity to have their equities properly presented to the Court of Claims," the act stated.

In 1958, the Chinook sued under the Indian Claims Act. The Indian Claims Commission found that the Chinook were rightful heirs to land within their historical territory.


It took the commission until 1970 to grant a settlement on the case, finding that the tribes had "aboriginal or Indian title" to 76,000 acres in coastal Oregon and Washington state. It granted a settlement of $54,000, based on its estimate that the land was worth 98 cents per acre in 1851.

The Chinook balked at the paltry number and refused to claim the money.

"We didn't accept the money then, because we felt that it was really egregious," Tony Johnson said. "I mean, we're talking about $54,000 for some of the most valuable land in the Pacific Northwest. All that beautiful land in northern Oregon - Astoria, the ocean beaches of Warrenton and Seaside, the mouth of Columbia River and up into southern Washington, through Ilwaco and Bay Center, and west nearly to Longview."

Stuck in a trust account since 1970, the money has grown to nearly $600,000. But the Chinook's unclear legal status means they can't touch their own small settlement.

Tony Johnson said the money may not be exactly what the tribe wants, but at least it would be something.

"It was easy to refuse those funds then, but now it's grown to over half a million dollars," he said. "I'm not saying we would necessarily choose to access those funds now, but it certainly should be our right to do so."

He said the government stopped sending statements tracking the settlement money several years ago.

"We're at the point of a Freedom of Information Act request to try and find out what's going on in the background," he said.

A Momentary Victory

In 1982, the tribe filed a petition requesting federal clarification of their status.

Their century of work seemed to pay off in 2001, when Kevin Gover, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Bill Clinton, granted federal recognition to the Chinook Indian Nation.

The government had always agreed that the Chinook were recognized from initial contact in 1792 until the failed treaties with Gov. Stevens in 1855. According to the government, the record was spotty from then until 1951, when the tribe filed claims with the Indian Claims Commission. That lack of record had prevented the Chinook from proving a "continuous tribal existence" between those years.

But Gover, a Pawnee Indian, found that three acts of Congress between 1855 and 1951 had explicitly included the Chinook: a 1911 congressional authorization to give Chinook members allotments on the Quinault reservation, Congress' 1912 authorization of a $20,000 payment to the Chinook for land ceded during the 1851 treaty negotiations and the 1925 authorization clearing the way for Chinook to file claims against the government in Federal Claims Court.

Gover pointed to the 1912 payment as recognition of the "extensive country north of the Columbia River" that the Chinook had ceded to the government during negotiations of the 1851 treaties at Tansey Point.

"In other words," Gover wrote, "the 1912 statute was a constructive ratification of the Point Tansey Treaty, passed statutorily by both houses of Congress."

Gover said those three points in Chinook history amounted to "unambiguous federal acknowledgement" of the tribe that effectively discarded the need for the Chinook to prove a continuous tribal existence since the first treaty negotiations.

On Jan. 3, 2001, Gover signed the final determination granting federal recognition to the Chinook Indian Nation.

It appeared the long battle was finally over.

"There were an awful lot of unofficial celebrations here in town that day," said Phillip Hawks, a Chinook hereditary chief and the last person alive today who was born in the historic village on Goose Point.


But the celebrations were to be short-lived.

Federal law allows 90 days for interested parties to file a petition for reconsideration. And on the 89th day, one was filed by the Chinook's historic enemy: the Quinault Indian Nation.

The Quinault claimed that Gover had interpreted the three statutes in a manner that was inconsistent with the interpretations of his immediate predecessor and with earlier interpretations by the Interior Department.

Neal McCaleb, who by then had replaced Gover as the new assistant secretary of Bureau of Indian Affairs under the George W. Bush administration, agreed with the Quinault. McCaleb found that the significance Gover gave to the 1911, 1912 and 1925 legislation was "erroneous and contrary" to the department's historical interpretation of those statutes.

Eighteen months after the Chinook celebrated their victory, McCaleb reversed Gover's decision - stripping the Chinook of their federally recognized status.

"After this many years and having my dad and grandfather fighting for years before me, it was just astounding," said Norris "Mugs" Petit, 72. "It was really something to be proud of. And to have it be taken away like that. And for somebody to be able to influence the government like that to take it away, it was pretty amazing."

Once again, it all boiled down to the same old argument: whether the Chinook could prove that their history stretched back, unbroken, since the 1855 treaties.

McCaleb, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, found that although "there is no doubt" that the Chinook existed when early European explorers arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, that the Chinook played a "significant role" in greeting Lewis and Clark and were recognized by the government in the treaty negotiations of 1851 and 1855, the tribe "did not establish a substantially continuous tribal existence from treaty times until the present."

Gary Johnson, who was the Chinook tribal chairman in 2001, described what it was like to gain federal recognition after fighting for so many years, only to lose it again.

"We all went back to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 3, 2001, for a recognition ceremony," he said. "It was a huge day after 23 years fighting that battle. We finally got our status clarified."

Johnson was again in Washington, D.C. as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition when he got the news that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had reversed the decision.

"18 months later, George Bush invited me as chairman to come to the White House," he said. "All the tribes along the trail were invited. My wife and I stayed for a couple of extra days, visiting family. We were sightseeing around D.C. when my cell phone rang. A secretary in the office called and said they had revoked our tribal recognition. That was all that was said."

"We were there as a recognized tribe in the White House one day. Two days later, they were taking it away from us. Total devastation, frustration."

"It makes me think of a whole lot of things," he continued. "At that White House meeting, Mugs had given us a canoe that his grandfather had carved - a family treasure. We put a really nice necklace into it and gifted that to the president at the ceremony. So there's frustration there too, that you lose stuff like that that's really important to families."


Historical Enemies

One hundred miles north of Chinook tribal headquarters lies the Quinault Indian Reservation. The reservation was established in 1855 with 10,000 acres for the Quinault and Quileute tribes. In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered the reservation expanded to 220,000 acres to provide land for "the seven fish-eating tribes," that is, the Quinault, Quileute, Queets, Hoh, Chehalis, Cowlitz and Chinook.

But governance of the reservation was never extended to the other tribes under a confederacy. Instead, political power remained in the hands of the Quinault.

"The Quinault Nation is the federally recognized government of the reservation and does not share governing power with other tribes whose members have allotments on the reservation," Quinault Tribal President Fawn Sharp wrote in an email.

In 1905, the government began to divide the reservation into allotments owned by individual tribal members.

By 1935, the entire reservation was divided up into 80-acre allotments.

Gary Johnson says the Chinook were the majority landholders at that time, with Chinook tribal members holding allotments on 52 percent of the land on the reservation. Quinault members held allotments on 6 percent of the land and the rest was divided between the other five tribes.

Yet Chinook tribal members hold no voting rights on the Quinault Indian Reservation.

Gary Johnson estimated that about 1,000 Chinook currently own allotments at Quinault.

Sharp said she could not confirm those numbers.

Under the American Indian Probate Reform Act, Chinook allotments can pass two generations from the 2004 landholder. After that, the Quinault tribe has the option to buy it at "fair market value" - a price the Chinook say is set by the Quinault. The only way to avoid that is for the family to take the land out of trust and turn it into "fee simple" land and start paying property taxes.

If the Chinook were federally recognized, they would have no problems passing their allotments to their heirs.

"If we're not recognized, in two generations our land will revert back to the Quinault," Johnson said. "It's literally a life-or-death issue for us."

"Mugs" Petit said that's why the Quinault filed their last minute appeal - they were afraid that they would either lose their chance to take land allotted to Chinook members or that the Chinook would press for voting rights and take over the reservation as majority land holders.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we would have been recognized if the Quinault hadn't done that 180 at the last minute. We don't want to take over their reservation and we don't want to live up there, either," Petit said.

Sharp did not respond to a question asking what the Quinault's reasons were for filing the appeal.

Greg Masten, superintendent for the Taholah office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a Quinault tribal member, dismissed the idea that the Quinault have a vested interest in preventing the Chinook from getting federal recognition.


Masten said federal recognition of the Chinook tribe wouldn't change much in terms of political power on the Quinault reservation. He said voting rights don't have anything to do with who owns how many individual allotments.

"The Quinault tribe has always had jurisdiction because it's the Quinault reservation, regardless of ownership," he said.

Back in the offices of the Chinook Tribal Headquarters, Roni Layman flipped through the pages of a booklet listing ownership of the original allotments on the Quinault reservation. She ran her finger down the rows of names.

"Here it is," she said, her finger stopping midway down a page. "Ruth Shaw. That's my maternal grandmother. When she was two, the government gave her 80 acres."

Whether ownership of Shaw's land and the other 410 acres on the Quinault reservation passed down over the years to Layman's siblings is unclear. Layman's mother died four years ago without a will. And though Ruth Shaw was registered as a member of the Quinault, Shaw's daughter and grandkids are Chinook members.

In the government's eyes, that means Layman and her siblings are two degrees removed from tribal ownership. In practical terms, Layman can pass her interest in the land to her kids, but they would be the first generation required to pay taxes on the land in order to keep it.

This process, known as forced-tax fee patents, has often resulted in the turnover of Indian land to the government through tax foreclosures.

Not only do Chinook members struggle to hold on to family land on the Quinault reservation and lack voting rights there, they also cannot hunt or fish on the land they own.

"No Indians, other than Quinault tribal members, have hunting or fishing or treaty rights on the Quinault reservation regardless of ownership of the land," Sharp wrote.

Adoption into the Quinault tribe is the only way for Chinook to gain the right to hunt and fish on their allotments, to pass their allotments onto their heirs and to exercise political control over the land.

Over the years, many Chinook have done just that, Tony Johnson said.

"A lot of people have reluctantly left over the years," he said. "They have to go where they have services. Recognition could help bring them back."

He likened large-scale adoption of Chinooks into the Quinault tribe to annihilation through absorption.

"Like Nahcotta said, going up there means we'd either be killed or change," he said. "We have literally risked our own existence for the need to stay with the bones of our ancestors."

In any case, it's a solution that doesn't work for many Chinook.

Petit said his father ended up joining the Quinault tribe toward the end of his life. But that isn't a move he would consider for himself.

"I don't want to be something that I'm not," Petit said. "I want to be what I am. And that's Chinook."

Gary Johnson agreed.

"We're trying to fight to keep our culture alive and teach our kids and grandkids what it means to be Chinook," he said. "If the government won't clarify your status and if other tribes want to take what you've got, pretty soon you've got nothing."

New Tactics

In June, Tony Johnson took over as tribal chairman. He spearheaded the launch of the Executive Recognition Project, in which the tribe sends a daily letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order recognizing the Chinook as a tribe, acknowledging the constructive ratification of the original 1851 treaties and ordering negotiations with large landholders to help the Chinook establish a land base.

"We were born in the villages of our ancestors, have lived on Indian trust land within our territory, were allotted as Chinook Indians on other reservations, fished, hunted and gathered clams as Indians, have Individual Indian Money Accounts and were sent to Indian Boarding Schools," the letter to Obama states. "How then can someone look us in the face and say we aren't Indians today?"

The White House could not confirm whether President Obama has received the Chinook letters.

Tony Johnson said land for a Chinook reservation could come from federally owned land within Chinook historical territory.

"We know the nightmare of somebody coming and taking everything you own," he said. "We don't want to go the route of injuncting on individual people's land. There's plenty of federal and state and privately owned timber land in our territory that we could carve out and negotiate in a positive way without affecting anybody the way they came and did to us."

He said the tribe's historical territory holds the key to Chinook culture.

"All this land tells stories. Those rolling sand hills near Astoria - Americans come and level it and build it and plant on it, but to us, that place has a story. When coyote started traveling to get things ready for human beings, he cast out sand, turned the surf to land and said it would always be that way for the people."

"If we're not recognized, we can't pass this on," he continued. "We've been here for 10,000 years and we'll be here for 10,000 more. We need to start thinking in that time frame. I truly believe that people knowing those stories, knowing that history will make them treat this place differently and make them take care of this place with the attitude of thinking 10,000 years ahead."

And the Chinook say they need recognition now.

"We keep losing people who've fought for this their whole lives and we can't afford to let this thing go on a whole lot longer," Gary Johnson said. "One tribal council will start a proceeding and half of them die before the government gets around to making an unjust decision."

"How in the world does somebody in Washington, D.C. even get to make this decision?" Tony Johnson asked. "How in the world could you say that you have the knowledge or expertise to decide whether a people are a people? Whether we are Chinook without being here, without living here amongst us? Just in its premise it's asinine."

Follow @@karinapdx
Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.