Photo depicting a Chinook individual wearing traditional garments looking off at the horizon.

OPINION | This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Chinook Indian Nation Deserves Justice

by Tony A. (naschio) Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation

The federal government has proclaimed Indigenous Peoples’ Day to recognize the inherent sovereignty of Tribal Nations and to uphold treaty obligations. This long-overdue recognition and celebration of Native cultures is critically important, but for tribes like ours — the Chinook Indian Nation — this day is also a reminder of the ongoing injustice being committed against our people by the federal government of the United States. We have recently redoubled our long-standing efforts by inviting leaders from Washington and Oregon — U.S. Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) — to correct a 20-plus-year injustice by introducing and championing to completion legislation that restores federal recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation. In meetings with the U.S. senators, we continue to hear clear support for our cause, but every day of inaction is another day of injustice for our people, and it’s past time for these leaders to take the lead and take a stand for #ChinookJustice.

For thousands of years, our Chinook ancestors have lived at the mouth of the Columbia River. Our origin stories intimately connect us to the landforms of our homelands. Saddle Mountain and the very bank of the Lower Columbia River are where our first people came from, and we continue to inhabit and steward this important region of the Pacific Northwest as our ancestors have always done. Despite non-Native disease, attempts at removal, erasure, and assimilation perpetuated by the U.S. government over time, the Chinook Indian Nation still exists today and continues to resist the slow-motion genocide of our people. In fact, more than 3,000 citizens of our Nation live primarily in present-day Western Washington and Oregon. 

For over 120 years, we’ve been fighting for formal federal recognition from the United States government. In 2001, after decades spent collecting over 85,000 pieces of historical and legal evidence, the Chinook Indian Nation was formally recognized by the Clinton administration. At that time, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and acknowledged Indian Law expert Kevin Gover promised us that the BIA in Washington, D.C., would be our home in Washington from that day forward — forever. But just 18 months later, a Bush administration appointee, with no experience in Federal Indian Law, reversed our hard-won recognition.

We’ve made repeated attempts to correct this injustice, but our efforts have largely been ignored by the federal government. Congress has the authority to restore federal recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation — which it’s done for numerous other Tribes in the past. Most recently, the Little Shell Tribe of Montana achieved a bipartisan pathway for their recognition by Congress at the end of 2019. The reversal of the Chinook Indian Nation’s federal recognition is unique and worrisome. Congress never granted the Department of the Interior the authority to reverse a final determination of federal recognition, and yet it happened to us. In the 20 years since our federal recognition was rescinded, only former Congressman Brian Baird (of Washington State’s 3rd Congressional District) has taken direct action on behalf of the U.S. government to fix this egregious action. His attempts at legislation ultimately failed, but the time is right for Congress to act once again. Little Shell’s recognition proves that.

The federal government’s continued refusal to recognize our Tribal sovereignty denies the Chinook Indian Nation access to health care, housing, educational opportunities, a voice in consultation, the ability to protect our ancestors and sacred sites, and many other critical resources only available to federally recognized Tribes. But the harm caused by denying our rightful status as a sovereign nation extends beyond just the tangible resources. Our fight for federal recognition has been a long and arduous process that has had profound emotional and psychological impacts on our citizens. Generations of Chinook people have lived entire lifetimes without having seen our federal recognition restored. Our youth grow up in a world where they live the (often traumatic) realities of being a Native person in this country while their government tells them they do not exist — continuing the systemic erasure of Native peoples that this country was founded upon. All Chinook citizens have ancestors who were forced into the Indian Boarding School system. Those relatives often returned home broken. They self-medicated to deal with the realities of those schools, and some perpetuated the horrific abuses they were taught there as children — resulting in our communities having the issues of Native Country and no resources (because of lack of federal recognition) to deal with them! 

Our Nation has a rich history in the Pacific Northwest, and despite efforts to take away our culture and lifeways, we have a community that thrives as best it can in our aboriginal territory. We are proud to carry on many of the traditions and cultural and spiritual practices of our ancestors today. There is beauty in the diversity of languages, traditions, and histories amongst Native tribes and nations, and we must reject all systems of oppression that have been used to harm Indigenous peoples — including the government’s ongoing refusal to recognize Tribal sovereignty and Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. Our language, culture, people, and lifeways have a right to thrive at the mouth of the Columbia River!

This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Chinook Indian Nation needed something to celebrate, so we invited our friends, allies, and federal leaders from Washington and Oregon to join us in supporting justice for the Chinook Indian Nation community. We gathered in Vancouver, Washington — along with hundreds of allies, supporters, and members of the press who joined both in-person and virtually — to call on U.S. Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to correct a 20-plus-year injustice by introducing and passing legislation that restores federal recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation. 

In past, and recent, meetings with U.S. senators, we’ve heard support for our cause. But every day of inaction is another day of injustice for our people, and it’s past time for our leaders to take a stand for what’s right. We need our federal leaders to join us by publicly supporting federal recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation, and clarifying our status as a sovereign nation now. We must have the ability to move forward like all of our tribal neighbors in preparing for the effects of an impending mega-quake and tsunami and the likelihood of sea level rise.

Reinstating the Chinook Nation’s federally recognized status is an issue that transcends party lines, and as our gathering outside the senators’ offices have shown, we have the public’s support. We’ve received tens of thousands of signatures on our petitions for federal recognition, and over 8,000 letters have been delivered to congressmembers from their constituents across Washington and Oregon. We also enjoy the support of neighboring tribes, as well as local and county governments from our lands on both shores of the mouth of the Columbia River. 

No one gets hurt by Chinook recognition. In fact, the opposite is true. Our region would benefit immensely from enhancements to our resources, jobs, additional housing, increased mental and physical health care opportunities, and so much more. It is estimated that over $300 million has not come to our region because of our lack of recognition just since the COVID-19 pandemic alone.  

The question today is whether or not our leaders will finally step up and support justice for our Chinook people. Federal recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation would benefit Chinookan people’s lived experiences and safeguard our shared culture and history. By publicly supporting our efforts for federal recognition, our leaders can show us that they acknowledge our existence and respect our sovereignty as a Tribal Nation. They would also gain a partner in the protection of the Lower Columbia region and its important resources. We remain hopeful that our lawmakers will correct this historical injustice by introducing and passing legislation that restores recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation.  

Our ancestors resisted multiple attempts by the U.S. government to remove us from our traditional homelands, and we’ve survived ethnic cleansing and assimilation attempts. We will continue to resist the federal government’s ongoing erasure of our people until our rightful status as a federally recognized tribe has been restored.

Photo depicting a rally of the Chinook Indian Nation and their supporters calling for the restoration of their federal recognition.
Members of the Chinook Indian Nation and their supporters rallied outside of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in August 2022, asking that their tribe’s federal recognition be restored. (Photo: Amiran White)

The Chinook Indian Nation is made up of the five westernmost Chinook-speaking tribes at the mouth of the Columbia River: the Clatsop and Cathlamet (Kathlamet) of present-day Oregon State, and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum (Waukikum), and Willapa (Weelappa) of present-day Washington State.

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📸 Featured Image: The Chinook Indian Nation is seeking the restoration of their tribe’s federal recognition. (Photo: Amiran White)

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