The Chinook Indian Nation’s 120-year fight for sovereignty

Federal recognition provides tribes with critical health care and education. But there are nations the U.S. refuses to recognize.

A design of two large suns holding a smaller sun

An artwork titled “Family” by artist Greg A. Robinson, a member of the Chinook Indian Nation. (Greg A. Robinson/High Country News)

Before the pandemic, the cedar plankhouse called Cathlapotle would have been full of stories and fire. Every winter, the Chinook Indian Nation and neighboring tribes hold their annual gathering here, on their ancestral lands on a Columbia River floodplain, where red-winged blackbirds sing from the cattails and yellow-and-orange-eyed sandhill cranes strut on stilted legs. It’s not far from the remnants of a village also called Cathlapotle, a major Chinookan trading town established around 1450 that once held as many as 16 plankhouses.

On sunny days when Cathlapotle is in use, the cedar beams glow warmly in the shafts of light streaming through the roof’s smoke holes. People gather round the fires at the center, with a row of chairs for elders and children. The air echoes with talk and songs, and the smell of sweetgrass filters in from outside. But this winter, Cathlapotle was silent, nestled in untrodden green grass and fog, its doors closed.

Like other communities, Chinook tribal members have had to adapt to pandemic-induced isolation. Though scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest, people have recently gathered most Thursdays on Zoom, joined by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and others.

One Thursday afternoon in early March, a group of Chinuk Wawa language teachers, basket weavers and storytellers called in from their homes on the Grand Ronde Reservation, in Portland, Eugene and Willapa Bay to share ikanum, or traditional stories. In consonant-heavy Chinuk Wawa, they caught up with each other and read aloud an ikanum translated from the Kathlamet dialect of Chinook. It recalled a time of hunger on the edge of spring, when the salmon people went up the Columbia and met with their aunties, the big and little wapato, and their uncles, the skunk cabbage and the rushroot.

The stories are important for cultural continuity and the way they bring people together. “It really defines the whole way we look at the world,” Tony Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, told me outside tribal headquarters in the tiny town of Bay Center, in southwestern Washington. “Every landform here, every creek, every inlet has a connection to these stories. So if you know these stories, you see this place in a very different way.”

Every landform here, every creek, every inlet has a connection to these stories. So if you know these stories, you see this place in a very different way.

For over 120 years, the Chinook Indian Nation has been trying to prove its sovereignty to the United States government by seeking formal federal recognition. Official status acknowledges the tribe’s sovereignty and the federal government’s obligations to it as generally outlined in treaties. With federal recognition comes health care through the Indian Health Service, education through scholarships and access to land through creation of a reservation. Today, there are 574 federally recognized tribes. Hundreds of others are unrecognized, though, with varying claims of legitimacy. The process for the Chinook has involved decades of litigation, petitions, congressional legislation and appeals to presidents — yet the tribe is still unrecognized. The impersonal bureaucracy obscures the personal urgency and pain that tribal members feel as time moves on, elders pass and children grow up.

The pandemic has exacerbated the Chinook’s lack of the kind of social safety net recognized tribes possess. While the COVID-19 mortality rate of Indigenous people is almost 2.5 times that of white people, unrecognized tribes have not received any of the $8 billion in government aid passed by Congress last spring. Nor have they received priority for tests or vaccines. Instead, they have to rely on neighboring tribes like the Grand Ronde and the Shoalwater Bay Tribe to vaccinate their elder knowledge keepers. Chinook tribal members sometimes refer to the lack of recognition as slow-motion genocide. “Explain how it’s not genocide,” Johnson said to me. “Someone explain to me how it’s not.”

The Chinook Indian Nation is composed of five different bands: the Lower Chinook, Clatsop, Wahkiakum, Kathlamet and Willapa. Their ancestral lands stretch from Willapa Bay in Washington, across the Columbia River, and south through Oregon to Tillamook Head, along the Pacific Coast. Today, however, the nation has no reservation. All five bands signed treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s that were supposed to establish multiple small reserves. But the Senate never ratified the treaties, so the tribe’s landholdings are small and scattered, like the 10 acres of land near Tansy Point in Oregon, where some of the treaties were signed. Another plot lies just north of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, where a Chinookan flag of a salmon and a face snaps above a sign reading “WELCOME TO UNCEDED CHINOOKAN TERRITORY.” A few feet to the left is another sign: “Welcome to Washington.”

The tribal office is in Bay Center, surrounded by the nutrient-rich mudflats that have made Willapa Bay’s oysters famous; their sun-bleached, discarded shells create mounds the size of compact houses next to the processing warehouses.

Tony Johnson was born 20 minutes from here, in South Bend, in Pacific County. Leadership is in his blood: He is descended from a Chinook treaty signer, and in 1899, his great-great-grandfather hired the first attorneys to help the tribe clarify its land rights, an early step in the battle for recognition. Johnson’s father, Gary, was tribal chairman during a period in the early aughts when the Chinook were briefly recognized. Tony Johnson has continued his tribe’s campaign to regain that recognition.

Johnson speaks with gravity, but when he talks about recognition, it’s with a noticeable edge of impatience. He clearly has had to talk about it a lot. He was first voted onto the tribal council in the 1990s, and has been tribal chairman since 2013, all the while working as a language and culture educator for other federally recognized tribes.

Johnson, who is 50 now, has seen the effects of the tribe’s lack of recognition firsthand: Chinookan elder knowledge keepers get sick with cancer and die without proper treatment because they don’t have health care; children are removed from their homes because the Indian Child Welfare Act doesn’t protect them; community members with mental health or substance use disorders cannot access the resources available to recognized tribes. The current federal recognition process was originally created in the late 1970s as a way to undo the damage wrought by the Termination Era, a series of policies in the 1950s and ’60s that ended the government’s political relationship to targeted tribes and took even more land from Indigenous hands. Today’s treatment of the Chinook recalls that time, when there was little legal protection from the country’s explicitly genocidal and assimilationist policies.

Any petitioning tribe’s claims clearly require verification, but the process involved — in which a colonial empire chooses whether to formally acknowledge an Indigenous nation’s sovereignty — is as problematic as it sounds. The wait time, which can last up to 40 years, requires evidence from the very people and institutions involved in the history of subjugation.  Historical accounts by non-Native newspapers and anthropologists from as far back as 1900 can help prove a tribe’s legitimacy, but the process doesn’t always take into account how U.S. policy contributed to the very same historical erasure that today is seen as a deficiency in a tribe’s petition.

Some states also have their own recognition process, in which they treat a tribal nation similarly to how they would other federally recognized tribes. Not in Washington, however. If the Chinook want to repatriate an item, for example, they often have to partner with a federally recognized tribe to receive assistance. And state recognition is no replacement for federal recognition. “We don’t need the government to tell us we’re Indian,” Ray Gardner, a former Chinook chairman, used to say to his fellow council members. “We just need them to honor the treaty our ancestors signed.” Gardner died in 2015, after a long battle with lung disease.

We don’t need the government to tell us we’re Indian. We just need them to honor the treaty our ancestors signed.

The federal government recognized the Chinook Indian Nation once, in 2001. It lasted for just 18 months, from the tail end of President Bill Clinton’s administration into the first year of President George W. Bush’s. The nation has pursued multiple paths toward recognition, including a petition started in 1981 through what’s now known as the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. In late 2000, Chairman Gary Johnson received a call from Kevin Gover, the assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs, inviting Johnson and the tribal council to Washington, D.C. Gover’s last act as secretary was to approve the Chinooks’ petition for recognition.

Around a dozen Chinook tribal members attended the ceremony in D.C. in January 2001. Johnson wore a wool vest the colors of a desert sunset, his white hair in braids. Gover beamed as they signed the recognition papers in front of a quilted morning star hanging on the wall. Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, apologized to Johnson for the decades it had taken. “For those Chinooks who refused to leave, who refused to assimilate and who sought to preserve the heritage of their grandmothers and grandfathers, this is their day, too,” Gover said.

At home, the news came as a relief. “There was a noticeable tension released from our territory,” Tony Johnson said. “It was this massive weight taken off of us.” Chinook leadership knew there would be a comment period; a neighboring tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, had opposed Chinook recognition over territorial rights in the past and might do so again. And that is what happened: Just days before the deadline, the Quinault objected. Eventually, the Bush administration retracted Clinton’s acknowledgment. “I don’t think we’ve recovered from the smothering feeling,” Johnson says now. “It has been the polar opposite of this collective breath. It brought back a ton of historical trauma in the community and then multiplied it.”

A few years later, in 2005, Rachel Cushman, a tribal member who was finishing high school in Portland, began applying to colleges and scholarships around the country. She was a finalist for the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which would have supported her entire academic career, wherever she went. But ultimately, her Chinook certificate of Indian blood disqualified her. Her nation was not federally recognized. Losing the fellowship changed her life, Cushman says now. “There were times where I was homeless,” she told me. “There were times where I had to make the choice: Do I buy my schoolbook and get that grade, or do I have a roof over my head?”

In 2010, Cushman did graduate, from the University of Oregon. She gave a commencement speech wearing green robes and a woven cedar bark graduation cap, and she introduced herself in Chinuk Wawa, a creolized Chinookan language that once spanned from southern Oregon to Southeast Alaska. Today, she still lives in Eugene, part of the Chinook diaspora, and serves on the tribal council. “Being on the tribal council, you are responsible for representing your people, and you then begin to have a greater understanding of how you’re treated differently than recognized Indians,” she said. “And as a parent, I realized what opportunities my kids would have, based on their status.”

Cushman’s husband is an enrolled citizen of the Oneida Nation in the Midwest, so her young children have access to more educational opportunities than she did. The kids are already aware of their tribe’s status, and Kanim, her 7-year-old son, has participated in letter-writing campaigns seeking recognition. Although her children deeply identify as Chinook — they attend gatherings, their names are Chinookan, and Kanim was born during a Chinook potlatch — the government considers them solely Oneida.

Federal laws designed to protect Indigenous rights, including the Indian Child Welfare Act, don’t apply to unrecognized tribes. As of 2015, Native children in Washington were put in foster care at a rate nearly four times higher than they are represented in the state’s general population, removed for problems that the tribe struggles to address: houselessness, incarceration and poverty. A decade ago, a research group in Washington found that Native children in the state were five times more likely to be removed from their families than white children. Cushman’s own relatives in Oregon had children removed, though fortunately they were placed with a non-Native family who does keep in touch with the tribe and brings the children to cultural events. That doesn’t always happen to kids who are adopted or fostered out; many never reconnect with their tribe or family. The families still struggle today because of past government policy, Cushman said. The government’s refusal to recognize the tribe did not prevent it from taking Chinook children to settler-colonial boarding schools and subjecting them to federal Indian policy. “It’s cyclical, and it’s all (a) product of not being federally recognized,” she said.

As a child, Tony Johnson often fished with his uncle and went clamming with his family in the waters of Willapa Bay. It’s an expansive, remote place, where gray skies still constitute a beautiful day. Johnson’s family traveled for council meetings or community events and often visited Bay Center, a sleepy town without a grocery store, school or gas station, where many of Johnson’s elders lived. As a kid, Tony absorbed their stories, peppering them with questions and listening to them speak Indigenous languages like Lower Chehalis and Chinuk Wawa.

He returned to South Bend after college, where he majored in silversmithing and studied anthropology and American Indian studies, but he didn’t stay long. In 1997, he moved to Oregon when he got a job helping the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde build a language program. At that time, only about a dozen people still spoke Chinuk Wawa, which was verging on extinction. Johnson, who is fluent in Wawa, worked on a 500-page dictionary, and in 2002, helped Grand Ronde launch a Chinuk Wawa immersion school. The schooling starts 30 days before a child turns 3, and continues five days a week through preschool and kindergarten. Students are entirely immersed in Chinuk Wawa. Throughout elementary school, a maintenance language program remains part of their regular education, keeping the students fluent. The school’s atmosphere is familial: Teachers are referred to as uncle, auntie or grandma, and the curriculum combines the place-based and cultural knowledge of the elders. There’s a whole unit on cedar and another on rushes that blend botany with music and history lessons. The unit on hazel notes that the best time to gather and peel hazel shoots for basket weaving is in spring, when buds are the size of a squirrel’s ear.

In 2005, Johnson married Mechele, a woman he’d known since high school and a Chinook descendant enrolled with the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. Four of their five kids were enrolled in the Grand Ronde program. But the couple were homesick: In late 2010, they relocated to Willapa Bay, to be closer to relatives and work toward tribal recognition. Leaving the school he helped build was difficult for Johnson, whose younger kids would no longer have the same access to language immersion.

Cultural influences run deep. Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, has the type of kindness about him that you can sense even from 6 feet away behind a surgical mask. When Robinson was a kid, his family frequently visited his great-aunts and uncles in Bay Center. In spring and fall, as soon as they turned off the highway and the bay came into view, he could smell the rich scent of fish in smokehouses. When his family went fishing, they didn’t need state licenses; their “blue cards,” issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, recognized Chinook fishing rights. But that changed after a federal court decision in the 1970s, when fishing rights were quantified for recognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Unrecognized tribes, like the Chinook, were left out. Fifty years later, Robinson still has his dad’s blue card. He loves to be out on the water in Willapa Bay or the Columbia River, putting in thousands of paddle strokes on canoe journeys from Suquamish to Tulalip. But he doesn’t fish anymore; he refuses to pay the state for a license to do something he believes that Indigenous people like him have the right to do.

In the summer of 2002, 18 months after the Chinook were formally acknowledged by the Clinton administration, Gary Johnson and his wife, Cristy, received an envelope from the Bush White House, addressed in looping script, inviting them to D.C. to commemorate Lewis and Clark’s “Voyage of Discovery.” They attended with the other tribes whose ancestors had met Lewis and Clark during the expedition, bringing gifts including a 19th century hand-carved cedar canoe filled with a long string of beautiful beads. In the East Room of the White House, they listened to remarks by Bush and historians and tribal leaders. Two days later, while they were sight-seeing in D.C., Johnson got a phone call: Neal McCaleb, Bush’s assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs, had rescinded Chinook recognition following the Quinault Indian Nation’s opposition.

The Quinault had argued that even though Chinookan families existed before 1951, they did not constitute a tribe with a united community and political authority. During a recent House of Representatives hearing about reforming the petition process, the Quinault objected to proposed changes, specifically citing the Chinook’s petition. The Quinault maintain that they do not oppose “the right of any group to seek a political relationship with the federal government.” Rather, the tribe is against any federal action that could “jeopardize” its own treaty rights or sovereignty. In 2011, Pearl Capoeman-Baller, who was then the Quinault president, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “If the Chinook will permanently waive any rights to hunting, fishing, gathering and other treaty rights,” she said. “And if [they] will also waive any claims that the Chinook share government authority over the reservation, then the Quinault will withdraw objection to [federal] acknowledgment.” (The Quinault Nation did not respond to questions about how Chinook recognition might jeopardize its treaty rights or sovereignty.)

In the final decision, McCaleb noted one reason for the reversal: “As people who had been closely connected as children and young adults died, the succeeding generations interacted less often and intensely until the community of Chinook descendants became indistinguishable from the rest of the population” — an ironically apt description of the stated purpose of past U.S. policies.

Ripples of shock and anger followed the news. Tony Johnson cut his hair in mourning. One prominent Chinook elder, elated by recognition, was close to death at the time. His family couldn’t bring themselves to tell him that the decision had been reversed. They let him go believing the Chinook held their formally recognized status.

Tribal disagreements over recognition are not uncommon, especially given the rise of the gambling industry in the 1990s. States, federally recognized tribes and businesses all have competing interests and rights over land, water and wildlife. That can be compounded by the lack of funding in Indian Country by Congress.

The Quinault have opposed Chinook recognition since the Chinook first formally sought it, in 1981. (The Quinault also fought a petition by the Cowlitz Tribe in the 1990s.) A coastal nation comprising two tribes and descendants from several others, the Quinault live about 100 miles north of Bay Center. Their relationship with the Chinook is complicated; during one treaty negotiation, Chinook leaders made it clear to the U.S. government’s representative that they did not want to move north onto the Quinault Reservation, in part because of past conflicts. Despite this, in the 1930s, the courts designated some of the lands on the Quinault Reservation for the Chinook and other tribes.

Today, a number of Chinook have moved north and enrolled as Quinault, and the two tribes share plenty of friends and relatives. In an oral history interview in 2012, though, Gary Johnson said that it was the Quinault government and its attorneys who “knifed us in the back,” adding “that will be a hard one for Chinooks to forget.” Years later, the opposition still hurts. “Without that [ruling], we would be a totally different community 20 years later, one that is thriving,” Johnson said in March. “Knowing all that it has cost our family and our Chinook citizens, we live every day seeing the overall hurt of having that recognition rescinded.”

Elizabeth Pickernell, Tony Johnson’s great-grandmother, was born when the salmonberries were in blossom. She was one of the last people born in a village of Wahkiakum Chinook, on the north side of the Columbia in the Pillar Rock area. Because the treaties signed by Chinook leaders called for a reservation in Willapa Bay, Pickernell’s family moved from the banks of the Columbia north to Bay Center, where they lived on Johnson Beach. It’s a small, shell-covered beach on the west side of the little peninsula, which looks southwest across the bay toward Leadbetter Point, a hazy blue-gray ombré of hills in the distance. As a child, Pickernell was sent to Chemawa boarding school about 160 miles south in Salem, Oregon. Later, she tried to sign up for Social Security but didn’t have a birthdate or certificate. The federal government told her to find witnesses to verify her birth. It was a surreal situation: having to prove something so self-evident. It’s the same sensation that unrecognized tribal nations experience when required to go through the recognition process.

In 2009, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, then a tribe of about 4,300 based in the area of Great Falls, Montana, received a response to their petition for acknowledgment: 31 years after beginning the process, $2 million spent, and an amount of paperwork 35 feet high, and the government told them they wouldn’t be recognized.

A week after the decision, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on the federal process, with some describing it as “broken.” Little Shell President John Sinclair emphasized that during the long petition process, an entire generation of elders had passed, while a generation of children had grown to adulthood. “If we have a tribal recognition process that by and large gives answers after a lot of people are dead, it is not a process that works very well,” Committee Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, said. A decade later, the Little Shell Tribe was finally recognized in Congress through an amendment attached to a must-pass spending bill.

The Chinook have attempted the congressional route themselves, three times since 2008. That year, Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington state Democrat, first introduced legislation in the House. But none of the bills advanced out of the House, nor were any introduced in the Senate. “When you’re advocating for one tribe, in one little corner of one state,” Baird said, “you’re that one guy, unless you can build some national momentum.” Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler currently represent the tribe, but none has introduced legislation on its behalf. Herrera Beutler said the Chinook deserve to be heard, and she remains open to working with the tribe. A spokesperson for Murray said the senator is “monitoring ongoing litigation” and “continues to listen closely to the voices of her constituents on this matter.” (Cantwell’s office did not return requests for comment.)

“Unless members of our congressional delegation are an active part and a champion of righting this wrong, then they are to some degree culpable for perpetuating the wrong,” Baird told me over Zoom from his home in Edmonds. “We need them to say in this time of social justice — ‘them’ being the whole Washington state delegation — to say that for moral reasons, for legal reasons, for historical reasons, it’s time to reinstate Chinook recognition.”

Since the Little Shell’s success in 2019, the Chinook have refocused on the congressional route. (Johnson and Little Shell’s president confer regularly.) Now they’re engaged in another letter-writing campaign, together with some of their allies, and working on new legislation to possibly introduce in the next Congress, depending on Cantwell, Murray and Herrera Beutler. At the same time, the tribe is pursuing legal action and, in 2020, it won a court case allowing it to repetition the Office of Federal Acknowledgment.

At tribal gatherings, whether council meetings or community events at the Cathlapotle plankhouse, there is always a front row of seats for tribal elders. It’s a row that changes over time, with the passing years and then decades. When Sam Robinson, the nation’s vice chairman, speaks with elders about the tribe’s latest recognition strategy, they’ll often reply that they don’t know if it will get done in their lifetime. Every time a new bill is introduced, or a petition moves forward, Robinson reassures them that this time it’s looking good. But then time passes, and the elders die. Robinson has been on the tribal council for 21 years now, and today he is in his 60s, an elder himself. “You think you’re going to be there and it’s going to happen,” Robinson said. Gary Johnson, who turns 80 this spring, is still on the tribal council, too. He’s proud of the fourth generation of Chinookan tribal leaders, including his son Tony.

Tony Johnson also feels the pressure of passing time. “I don’t want another front row to pass away without seeing their birthrights acknowledged by a federal government who has reaped all the benefits of taking their family’s lands,” he told me. “If you know there is a grave injustice and choose to do nothing about it, you’re complicit.”

If you know there is a grave injustice and choose to do nothing about it, you’re complicit.

He sometimes tells the ikanum of Pillar Rock, 22 miles upriver from the mouth of the Columbia, where Pickernell and the Wahkiakum part of his family comes from. In that story — which has many variations — a boy falls in love with a girl. He decides to visit her without a canoe and tries instead to wade across the Columbia River, but is turned to stone to teach him a lesson about adulthood. He formed Pillar Rock, a monolith some 75 to 100 feet tall, depending on the tide. In the 1800s, the rock was blasted with dynamite to serve as a shipping marker; it’s now just a small mound of what it once was. “It’s a crime, really, that they did that,” Johnson said. “These are crimes against a culture and against a people.

“I want to think that if people invested themselves or had respect for these teachings and stories, and actually took a moment to focus on them and learn about them, that maybe they’d treat [us] differently,” Johnson said. “And I’m hoping there’s a time coming that that’s true.” 

This story was originally produced for High Country News on April 1, 2021.

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