Chinook Indian Nation elects new leader

Chinook Indian Nation chooses new leader at annual meeting; former tribal council chair Ray Gardner died earlier this year.

By Katie Wilson, Chinook Observer

DAMIAN MULINIX/dmulinix@chinookobserver.comTony Johnson tells the Chinook legend of Coyote and the first salmon Friday.

Tony Johnson tells the Chinook legend of Coyote and the first salmon Friday.

As the Chinook Indian Nation continues to push for federal recognition, it does so with a new leader in place.

On June 18, tribal members present at an annual meeting elected Tony Johnson as chairman of the 10-member tribal council. Johnson ran unopposed and will take over the leadership role formerly held by Ray Gardner, who died in February after a

long struggle with lung disease.

“There’s a long chain of chairmen for the Chinook Indian Nation and it’s an absolute honor to be now one of the links of that chain,” Johnson said in a phone interview June 22. “I can’t say enough how privileged I feel to be trusted with that role and the significance of it doesn’t escape me.”

The Chinook Indian Nation represents a range of people who traditionally resided in the Lower Columbia region, including the Cathlamet, Clatsop, Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum and Willapa.

Vice Chairman Sam Robinson’s name was also down for nomination as chairman, but Robinson, who had taken on the role of acting chairman as Gardner’s health declined, said he felt it was time to hand off that position to someone else, preferably someone in Pacific County.

“It’d be hard to fill our former chairman’s shoes,” Robinson said. “He was my cousin, my friend, my mentor and my tribal leader as well. … He had a style all his own.” He had numerous contacts at the state and federal level and was well-known in the region.

“It might take Tony a few months to get his feet settled in, but I think he’ll be just fine,” Robinson said, adding that though Johnson and Gardner differ in their leadership styles, Johnson brings a wealth of contacts and knowledge from his time spent working with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Shoalwater Bay Tribe to his tenure.

A member of the tribe since he was 3-months old, Johnson is steeped in the culture, speaking the language and singing traditional songs at tribal ceremonies. He has been the member of the tribe’s culture committee for 20 years and that committee’s chairman for most of that time.

His father, Gary Johnson, also a member of the tribal council, said he is proud and happy.

“We look forward to having a very strong council that’s going to continue to make more progress for our tribe,” he said in a phone interview June 22.

At the meeting, the tribe also voted to fill several open council positions: Devon Abing and Jessica Porter were elected to the council, while Gina Rife and Gary Johnson retained their seats.

Former Chairman Gardner was 59 when he died. He had been an active participant in tribal leadership for 13 years. During his time as leader, he oversaw a successful effort to have the tribe’s Middle Village included as prominent unit within Lewis and Clark National Historical Park and the tribe also came close to attaining official tribal status within the U.S. federal system.

This last is a fight the council plans to continue.

“It’s all about clarifying our status and putting in place some of the key pieces that we need for a successful future,” Johnson said.

Already, he has helped organize and launch a campaign called “The Chinook Executive Justice Recognition Project,” which sends a letter a day to President Obama, building a case for Chinook recognition. Despite appearing in numerous first-person accounts by early explorers including the famed Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, the tribe is not federally recognized.

After fighting for recognition for more than a century, the tribe attained formal federal status in 2001 in the final days of the Bill Clinton administration only to have it disappear again when incoming appointees of the George W. Bush White House determined the tribe did not meet all the criteria required by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA last year revised the criteria and the methodology it uses to evaluate tribes seeking recognition so the Chinook have redoubled their efforts.

“One of the things we’ve said consistently is that we have all the problems associated with ‘Indian Country’ and Indian communities,” Johnson said.


Keeping the faith


The tribe struggles to maintain its cultural heritage in world that, officially, doesn’t recognize it. Unlike other Pacific Northwest tribes, the Chinook have no land rights or fishing rights. The tribe’s office is minimally staffed and can only provide bare-bones services to the Chinook community. The council chairperson position — and virtually every leadership position within the tribe — is volunteer-based.

“It’s all about survival, finding the funds and making the contacts,” Robinson said.

Johnson hopes to focus some of his time ono pursing grants to help fund and expand the community services provided by the tribal office.

“We’ve often said our folks are quiet folks and we’re not ones that typically jump up and bang the table out in public for what is right and what needs to happen,” Johnson said. “There are a few of us who have been put in that role and I want to speak up for those folks (who) have passed away or are still with us who, because of traditional values or from having been pushed down and out of the way for so many years, haven’t been able to say what’s the truth: that the Chinook have been pushed aside.”

Quest for federal recognition puts regional tribes at odds


Canoes from the Snohomish tribe and Chinook Indian Nation head down the Columbia River near Kalama in June 2013. Photo/ Roger Werth, TDN

Canoes from the Snohomish tribe and Chinook Indian Nation head down the Columbia River near Kalama in June 2013.
Photo/ Roger Werth, TDN

By Brooks Johnson, The Daily News

In a fight for federal recognition, the Chinook Indian Nation and Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes are each bringing their own history books to the debate.

A bill introduced in Congress this year would recognize Oregon’s Clatsop-Nehalem tribes, granting them the same rights to sovereignty and self-determination as the more than 550 other federally recognized Native American tribes.

That doesn’t sit well with the leaders of the Chinook Nation — 3,000 members comprising Cathlamet, Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum, Willapa and Clatsop tribes. They say the Clatsop-Nehalem are historically part of the Chinook Nation and that recognizing them separately would undercut the Chinooks’ 160-year-old drive for federal recognition.

“We want people to know we are the Clatsop people, and when it comes to that tip of Oregon there (the Lower Columbia), we’re there and we’re not going away,” said Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Nation. “To have a group just come out of nowhere is a little bit disturbing.”

But Clatsop-Nehalem Council member David Stowe said the group hasn’t come out of nowhere, and that the history of the confederated tribes has been well-documented.

“The Chinook have a history of sour grapes,” Stowe said. “… but our restoration doesn’t impact the rights of anybody. They’ll have exactly what they have right now, and we hope they get restoration as well.”

At stake for both tribes is the ability to become sovereign and restore rights to land, hunting and fishing rights as well as partake in services offered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Competing press releases sent out in September from both tribal councils disagree on the history of the Clatsop people.

The Chinook Nation says its 1950 constitution was drafted by its five member tribes in reference to 1851 treaties, and the federal government recognized the Clatsop’s relationship with the Lower Chinook in 1958.

“The history with the Clatsop-Nehalem is pretty fresh, compared to thousands of years of history the Chinook folks have,” Robinson said.

But the Clatsop-Nehalem say that despite centuries of trade along the Columbia River and marriages with other tribes, the Clatsop have been a distinct entity since before Europeans arrived.

About 25 percent of Chinook enrollment is Clatsop, according to the Chinook Nation, and any splintering could lessen those numbers.

“We just feel it’s not right. Because they won’t take all of our folks” for federal recognition, Robinson said.

The Clatsop-Nehalem don’t see the problem, however.

“Clatsop that are enrolled with the Chinook, Quinault, Grand Ronde or Chehalis tribes or other tribes are free to choose their enrollment status,” the Clatsop-Nehalem press release reads. “Our restoration will not change their status or member benefits in any way. We have no desire to make any claims of any kind in the Chinook homeland in Washington.”

Those of Clatsop descent may also have other tribal connections in their bloodline. Robinson gave the example that he is descended from Lower Chinook, Willapa Chinook and Chehalis tribes. The amount of ancestry needed to enroll in a tribe is up to individual tribes’ governments.

BIA Northwest Regional Director Stan Speaks says it’s impossible to know what will happen before recognition is granted, and it is “premature to think fellow members are going to abandon one group and go with the other.”

The restoration bill before Congress, introduced by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), asks for little more than recognition. Land, hunting and fishing rights have all been left out of the equation.

“That’s very contentious,” said Stowe, the Clatsop council member. “(Asking for more) creates a whole whirlwind and lessens our chances of restoration. At the end of the day what’s important to us, what’s important for our identity is recognition of our tribe.”

The term restoration is used by both sides of the debate. The Clatsop and Nehalem tribes were “terminated” by the federal government in the 1950s under the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act. That severed ties between the government and the tribes in a new policy toward Native Americans. The policy was later reversed for many of the terminated tribes, excepting the Clatsop and Nehalem. Stowe says the act of termination is recognition in and of itself because the Clatsop and Nehalem tribes are listed in the law.

The five tribes of the Chinook Nation — including the Clatsop — were recognized at the end of the Clinton administration, only to have the status revoked 18 months later by the Bush administration.

“We felt it was an injustice for them to be recognized and have it yanked form them, that was horrible, and it was equally an injustice we were terminated in 1954,” Stowe said.

The argument between the groups is centered around those living north or south of the Columbia River, though both sides agree that the divide can be arbitrary.

Dick Basch, the vice chairman of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes, supports efforts to get his tribes recognized, but he is “saddened” by the fighting it has caused.

“We are Lower Columbia Indians that should be supporting each other and working for the benefit of all of us,” Basch said. “We’re all Indian people and just because some of our families went south and others went north doesn’t mean that we have to battle each other.”

Robinson and the Chinook agree on the principle of unity.

“Some folks say, “Well they’re Oregon Clatsop or they’re Washington Clatsop.’ … But the river wasn’t a divider — it was just a highway for us.”