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Chinook Indian Nation Turns To Obama For Federal Recognition


The Chinook Indian Nation has lent its name to a salmon, a fur-trade jargon, a warm wind and even a twin-motor military and firefighting helicopter. It played a significant role in the histories of Lewis and Clark and the Hudson’s Bay Company during the early days of westward expansion. But in spite of this long history and the widespread appropriation of the Chinook name, the five tribes that make up the nation — Cathlamet, Clatsop, Lower Chinook, Wahkaikum and Willapa — still don’t have legal recognition from the federal government.

For tribal members, this is very old news. Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson said the Chinook have been pursuing treaty and reservation rights since they hired their first lawyers in the 1890s. They began a formal petition for federal clarification of status as early as the 1980s. That decades-long process finally seemed to be coming to an end in 2001, when then-head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Kevin Gover granted the tribe federal status. 

But the tribe’s long-fought victory was short-lived. Their federal status was revoked just 18 months later when a land deal with a neighboring tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, fell apart in negotiations. The Quinault appealed the Chinook Nation’s status on the 89th day of a 90-day comment period, and BIA staff under the new Bush Administration reversed Gover’s ruling.

That was more than a decade ago, and despite ongoing work to reinstate the Gover decision, the Chinook have little to show for their efforts. 

Johnson assumed the tribal chair in June. At this point, he said, he’s beyond frustrated with the situation. “It’s hard to describe just what it is for us to not be federally recognized,” Johnson told OPB’s Think Out Loud. “The lack of any subsistence right within our own territory is unbearable to many of us.”

But Johnson said he’s not going to take this as the final word on the tribe’s 10,000 year history. Since June, he’s been employing a new tactic in the long quest for tribal recognition. Every day, he’s sending President Barack Obama a letter requesting an executive clarification of the Chinook Indian Nation’s tribal status.

“We think the timing’s good,” said Johnson. “In a sense there’s very little to lose for our president.”

The letter outlines the nation’s history and entreats the president to use his executive power to legally acknowledge the Chinook. It also asks that he order negotiations with state and federal landholders to establish a land base for the tribe. 

“I just want to believe that if this story can really get to him, a fair person - any fair person - is going to come to the same conclusion,” Johnson said.

“Don’t leave us hanging here,” he added, “Let us have a chance to just move forward like everybody else.”

Chinook Chinook Indian Nation

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