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.