Chinook Tribe Still Fighting Government Erasure

TACOMA, Wash. (CN) – Bronze-cast carvings depicting the heroes of Chinook Indian mythology will soon greet visitors entering Seattle’s Burke Museum, their exploits having been passed through oral history for millennia. But the federal government claims the tellers of those stories – people who ran the major trade hub where the mouth of the Columbia River spills into the Pacific Ocean and who received Lewis & Clark at the end of their journey – do not qualify for federal recognition as a legitimate Indian nation.

A smattering of modest homes line the few blocks surrounding the Chinook Indian Nation’s tribal headquarters in Bay Center, Washington. Here, on cliffs above the ocean, rows of traditional cedar longhouses once stood. What’s striking about the area now is what isn’t here – there is no health clinic, no cultural center, no federally subsidized housing. 

The land that once belonged to the Chinook is now covered with towns such as Long Beach, Oysterville and Astoria. But the government has never provided to the Chinook the benefits required under federal law in exchange for territories ceded by tribes. The tribe does not legally have sovereignty or the government-to-government status that federal recognition preserves. Chinook members can’t even exercise treaty rights to catch their namesake salmon like other area tribes can.

Chinook tribal chair Tony Johnson, right with drum, and other members of the Chinook Nation gather outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Washington. (Karina Brown / CNS)

The Chinook Nation has been fighting for those rights since 1851, in treaty negotiations and a variety of legal actions. In 2017, the Chinook and Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson sued the government over a federal recognition process they said was better designed to deny official status to tribes applying for it than it was to determine their eligibility.

In 2018, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, a George W. Bush appointee, dismissed the Chinook’s central claim – that he could issue a direct ruling bestowing the federal recognition they sought. But in a hearing Monday afternoon, Leighton appeared inclined to rule for the Chinook on their remaining claims – the main one being that the Bureau of Indian Affairs should allow the Chinook to file a new petition for federal recognition.

In 2002, the bureau denied the Chinook’s petition and refused to reconsider its denial after the rules governing recognition changed in 2015. Changes were necessary, the bureau wrote in its 2015 rule, because “the process is slow, expensive, inefficient, burdensome, intrusive, non-transparent, inconsistent, and unpredictable.” Only one-quarter of all recognized tribes would have passed muster before the 2015 changes, the bureau wrote. But the new rules also prohibited tribes who had been denied under those stringent standards from reapplying.

The Chinook said that was unfair and unconstitutional.

It was an angle Leighton appeared to question at Monday’s hearing, which was packed by dozens of Chinook and their supporters, including four generations of the Johnson family, ranging in age from eight months to 78 years.

“There is so much mischief in the treatment of the Indian in this country that it compels me to look at – to provide the benefit of the doubt to the Indian,” Leighton said.  “I’m inclined to refer this back for a look at the rationale and reasons not to provide the narrow exception to the no re-petition rule.”

Regardless of the binds of history, the government’s attorney argued that the Chinook had waited too long to file their lawsuit.

“Obviously, the consequences of manifest destiny were harsh and hard to defend and I cannot do that here,” U.S. Attorney Brian Kipness told Leighton at Monday’s hearing. “But the facts are conclusive.”

Leighton said he would issue a ruling within two weeks.

Ultimately, Johnson said he was waiting to appeal Leighton’s dismissal of the first claim – that a federal judge can decide that the Chinook are a federally recognized tribe. Otherwise, tribes can be recognized under the bureau’s process or by an act of Congress, as happened in the final days of 2019 for Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“It’s something we enthusiastically look forward to arguing: that the court does have the ability to determine who is a federally recognized tribe,” Johnson said of an eventual case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. “We think they will agree with that argument.”

In addition to legal prep work and media interviews, Johnson spent the weekend carving canoe paddles for the bronze pieces that will eventually line the entryway at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

“The creation of these things are really acts of defiance or resistance for our community because there’s been so much effort to erase us, from not only America’s history, but from our own aboriginal territory,” Johnson said. “We have stayed and we have survived, but we are really struggling and my hope is that there is a time coming when it’s not the rarity that somebody knows this art style or the stories associated with it. We didn’t ask for any of this. All we want to do is live here and we deserve the right to flourish here.”

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