The modern Chinook Indian Nation consists of the Clatsop and Kathlamet of what is now Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum and Willapa of Washington State. Our five historically important Tribes have existed since time immemorial in our aboriginal territory at the mouth of the Columbia River. It is here that our Chinook families welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean and helped them survive the winter of 1805 and 1806.
The Nation’s constitution was written by the tribal leaders of these tribes in the early 1950s. The constitution outlines tribal membership criteria and clearly references five Anson Dart treaties signed by our ancestors at Tansy Point in 1851. Our constitution also one of the oldest living tribal constitutions in the Pacific Northwest.
The treaties negotiated with Mr. Dart allowed us to stay within our aboriginal territory, maintain access to resources and importantly remain in close proximity with the bones of our ancestors. We fulfilled our obligations under these treaties, but unbeknown to us at that time they were not formally ratified by the United States. That winter we suffered immensely waiting for the goods and money promised to us, but we stayed.
In 1855 another treaty council was held, this time led by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens.
Prior to this negotiation he sent individuals to Chinook territory to learn what we desired from a new treaty. We named a location in our territory, and stated we would give up the rest if allowed to stay. At the negotiation it became clear that we would be asked to move north from our territory to the lands of our enemies. Chinook Chief Nahcotta expressed our feelings clearly:
“When you first began to speak, we did not understand you; it was all dark to us as the night; but now our hearts are enlightened, and what you say is clear to us as the sun. We are proud that our great father in Washington thinks of us. We are poor, and can see how much better off the white men are than we are. We are willing to sell our land, but we do not want to go away from our homes. Our fathers, and mothers, and ancestors are buried there and by them we wish to bury our dead and be buried ourselves. We wish, therefore, each to have a place on our own land where we can live, and you may have the rest; but we can’t go to the north among the other tribes. We are not friends, and if we went together we should fight, and soon we would all be killed” (Narkarty in Swan 1969:345)
Our ancestors and those of our Lower Chehalis neighbors returned to their homes furious and without results. Still we stayed with the bones of our ancestors. Governor Stevens expressed his intent to come back to the Chinook to negotiate an independent treaty with us after his 1855 efforts failed. However, he left Washington in 1857 and was killed in the United States’ Civil War.
Our community hired our first lawyers in the 1890s to address these issues. We were allowed to sue under the Indian (Land) Claims Commission in 1958, and were acknowledged as the legitimate heirs to land within our aboriginal territory. Money from that settlement is still held in trust for us, but is not readily available because of our unclear status. In 1982 we petitioned the United States for acknowledgment, and we were eventually granted our formal status in 2001. But, astonishingly, this right and evidence-based decision was reversed by the administration of President George W. Bush 18 months later.
Kevin Gover, as head of the BIA at the time of our acknowledgment, had argued correctly that in 1912 the Lower Chinook Anson Dart treaty was statutorily ratified. This must be acknowledged today. The rights associated with it will pave a bright path for our future. Unlike Mr. Gover, too many of those in power have neglected us or simply dropped the ball when given the opportunity.
We were born in the villages of our ancestors, have lived on Indian trust land within our territory, were allotted as Chinook Indians on other reservations, fished, hunted and gathered clams as Indians, have Individual Indian Money Accounts and were sent to Indian Boarding Schools. How then can someone look us in the face and say we aren’t Indians today? Every year that our right to exist as an Indian nation is denied, we lose more of the elders who have spent their lives seeking recognition. Some- thing must be done to acknowledge our inheritance and to fulfill the trust responsibility of the United States to the Chinook.