Leah Sottile

The Chinook want to be heard: Northwest tribe continues recognition fight

To defend their way of life, the Chinook hope for better federal status in Washington state

BAY CENTER, Wash. — At the spot where the current of the Columbia River becomes the tide of the Pacific is the land the Chinook call home. It is a stretch of land where beaches glitter with smooth cuts of sea glass, and the ocean wind shakes the forests.

They call it their tribal home yet none of it officially belongs to them — not even the chipped, paint-dribbled gray and white house at the end of town that the tribe calls its office. A tribal member lets them use it. Its roof sags in the rain, water seeping down the walls and trickling onto their computers. It is one old house in a town of double-wides and fishing boats and mounds of cracked-open oyster shells.

This is the last standing vestige of the Chinook people — the tribe that gave its name to the Chinook salmon, the warm Chinook wind and the Chinook military helicopter. The Chinook famously aided Lewis and Clark as they journeyed west toward the Pacific Ocean. Their language was used by traders from Oregon to Alaska.

And now the Chinook have embarked on a last-ditch effort to win recognition from the federal government, aimed at ending a multigenerational battle against the authorities — and against another native American tribe — to simply prove they exist. This, said tribal chairman Tony Johnson, is the greatest fight the Chinook have ever endured. Every day since June of this year, the tribe has sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for an executive order to recognize the Chinook as a tribe. So far, there has been no response.

“This needs to happen tomorrow. This can’t wait for another generation of people,” Johnson said.

The need, he said, is great. He sees Chinook succumb to drug and alcohol abuse with no aid. He sees his people arrested and ticketed for fishing for the very fish named for the Chinook. He sees families leave their territory to find work. He sees elders die, taking stories and language with them.

He sat inside the tribal headquarters — the old house with the chipping paint — a cup of steaming salmon chowder in his hands. Behind him, a stack of white coffee mugs read, “Chinook tribe, it’s alive.” He listened as tribal elders, sipping coffee and chowder around him, talk about how they never thought this battle would take this long.

“So many of us are getting old. We probably aren’t going to see it in our lifetime,” said Joe Brignone, 77, a tribal elder. “We’ll never see it.”

Johnson sat at the edge of his seat. “Well,” he said, “we’ve got to get it done so you do see it.” 

Chinook Tribal elder Joe Brignone worries that he may never see recognition. “So many of us are getting old. We probably aren’t going to see it in our lifetime.”
Leah Sottile

It’s an issue the Chinook first hired lawyers for in 1899. The Termination Acts of the 1950s, which intended to assimilate natives, essentially obliterated treaty rights. But many tribes saw restoration in the late 1970s. In 1979, the Chinook began building their case for recognition.

And they got it — briefly. The Chinook were granted federal status in January 2001. In the last days of Bill Clinton’s administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs published a notice of final determination in the Federal Register declaring that the Chinook tribe “exists as an Indian tribe within the meaning of federal law.”

“When they were recognized in 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a formal ceremony — there was handshakes, tears, a cake,” said Stephen Beckham, a Northwest tribal scholar who served as a historian for the tribe for 22 years.

It lasted just 18 months.

In 2002, when then–Tribal Chairman Gary Johnson — Tony Johnson’s father — was in Washington, D.C., for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, he received a call on his cellphone. Under George W. Bush’s administration, their recognition had been revoked.

“All those battles seemed to finally be over. And the future looked really good for us,” Tony Johnson said. “It’s just crushing to have a 23-year battle end with that phone call. I have a hard time describing how frustrated and terrible the situation was at that moment.”

Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson stands with a canoe called Kthlmin, which was built with funds given to the tribe by descendants of William Clark. The Lewis and Clark Expedition stole a canoe from the tribe in 1806.
Leah Sottile

Today the Termination Acts of the 1950s continue to have a lasting impact on several Northwest tribes. North of Chinook territory, the small 572-person Duwamish tribe — whose Chief Sealth is is the source of Seattle’s name — is engaged in a similar battle for recognition. This summer, they were turned down by the Obama Administration. Because the Duwamish want to be able to use exert their gaming rights in the Seattle area, their main opposition continues to be the nearby Tulalip tribe.

But the Chinook, a tribe of 3,000, doesn’t want to get into the casino game. They just want to be able to feed themselves, Johnson said — to hunt and fish, to have a land base, to provide care for elders and preserve its history and language.

And like the Duwamish and the Tulalips, the Chinook have found their biggest opposition from the nearby Quinault tribe. In 2001, the Quinaults filed objections to the Chinook’s federal status on the 89th day of a 90-day comment period. On the Quinault reservation, Chinook tribal members are majority landholders.

Requests for comment were declined by Quinault council members.

While, the Duwamish have taken a more traditional path toward recognition — court cases, appeals for an act of Congress — the Chinook are now taking an untraditional path, directly asking for an executive order from Obama.

They’ve already tried those other avenues. A bill to see the Chinook recognized, introduced by former Washington Representative Brian Baird, failed — a moment Baird told The Seattle Times was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. And Johnson said a lawsuit is out of the question; the Chinook just “don’t have resources.”

According to Beckham, the tribe’s former historian, the Chinooks “were never legislatively terminated … The bureau just administratively terminated the Chinooks. They just dropped them. They dropped the Duwamish,” he said. “It just walked away from those tribes.”

So when the Chinooks were finally recognized in 2001, Beckham said it was based on irrefutable evidence. “The decision was rightly and historically arrived at,” he says. “It was the right decision.”

Johnson said this long-running back and forth with the government has taken a psychological toll on the tribe.

It’s a concept that Joe Gone, a psychology professor at University of Michigan, has written about extensively. He said that American Indian identity is directly tied to a tribe and connection to a place. Not having either of those can cause immense mental health struggles. “You don’t know who you are or what your purpose is or how to live,” he said. “It’s in this wide open vacuum that people flounder.”

Johnson wants his children to understand their connection to the land their ancestors have long called home. His sons, Tahoma (left) and Ferrill on the beach.
Leah Sottile

At the tribal office, surrounded by elders and tribal members wearing gray Chinook T-shirts, Johnson said there is nothing that will stop him from continuing this fight. “We hear all the time ‘get over it,’” he said, heads nodding all around him. “Like ‘The Indians should just get over it. This was a long time ago.’”

“Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting Goliath,” said Peg Disney, a 20-year-long tribal council member. And why should they get over it? She gestures to the several men in Navy ball caps. “These people got looked away from after they served their country.”

“I’ve never asked anything from my government,” said Brignone, who served in the Navy for 20 years. “I’m not looking for anything for my tribe except that the government recognize that we are a people.”

After the elders piled into their cars and Johnson closed the door to the office, he followed his sons, Tahoma and Ferrill, down a long, winding trail toward the beach, boots crunching across the rock and oyster shell path.

It was nearly sunset, and Johnson looked out across the bay. There he married his wife, Mechele, and he wants his children to feel that this is more than just a place. He fears that they’ll forget that it’s a part of them — or never know at all.

It’s why he takes his family on monthlong canoe journeys each summer. Why he carves canoes by hand in their garage. Why he feeds them venison and oysters for dinner. Why he scolds his son, Ferrill, on the muddy beach in his new basketball shoes, in his native tongue. Why he tells them the stories their ancestors told.

“My biggest fear on a personal level, with my family, is that my kids become Americans like that, that they’d be willing to move to New York City,” he said. The thought makes him pause.

“This country is better off with us in this place,” he said. “This history is important. It shouldn’t just be allowed to die out. Right now it’s not just being allowed to die. It’s actively being killed.”

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