It may have been thin, but Carolyn Petersen was proud of her and her family's Indian blood.

Petersen, who died April 29 at age 93, was a direct descendant of famed Chinook Indian chief Comcomly, a distinction she made sure her descendants honored.

"She had a pride in that," said her daughter, Carolyn Shepherd.

Petersen grew up among fellow Chinook descendants in the tiny community of Dahlia on the Washington shore of the Columbia River just east of Altoona. She later served on the Chinook Nation's tribal council in the 1950s and '60s when the tribe was embroiled in a legal fight with the federal government over compensation for its lost tribal lands.

Old family pictures include one of Petersen in Native American costume for the 1955 Lewis and Clark Sesquicentennial celebration, while a photograph from The Daily Astorian in 1989 shows her in an Indian outfit riding in a car as grand marshal of the Warrenton Fourth of July parade.

"It was always a big part of her life," Shepherd said.

Highlights of her life are compiled in a narrative written by her great-granddaughter Sarah Shepherd of Hammond, who interviewed Petersen over a three-year period just before her death.

Petersen was born Carolyn Rubens in 1912, the first of seven children, in Eastern Oregon's Harney County, where her parents owned a homestead, but was raised mostly in Dahlia, a tiny settlement accessible only by boat. She attended a one-room school, and remembered watching from across the river as downtown Astoria burned in the 1922 fire.

Following her father's death at age 38, she left school after the ninth grade to help support her mother and six siblings. She worked as a soda jerk in a local deli and did office work for the St. Helens School District before resuming her education at Astoria Business College, paying her way by working for the dean as a domestic.

At one point she answered an ad for a maid at the Flavel home. The woman who answered her knock glared and told said servants were not to use the front door, to which, Petersen said she replied, "If I wasn't good enough to come through her front door, I wasn't going to work for them" - and left.

She met her future husband, Conrad Petersen, in 1929 at a Netel Grange dance, where he was playing saxophone in the band. They married a year later.

Conrad held various jobs, including working on his grandfather's dairy farm and helping build the Columbia River South Jetty, while Carolyn worked at Fort Stevens and later served as Hammond postal clerk. Music remained a big part of their lives, with Conrad playing in local dance bands and Carolyn, sometimes assisted by her mother, selling tickets.

During the 1940s, the couple rented an old roller rink in Hammond and held dances that drew many of the servicemen stationed at nearby Fort Stevens and other military bases. "There were other dance halls around, but ours was the best," she told her great-granddaughter.

In 1951, the couple, with son-in-law John Shepherd, bought Warrenton Electric Co. and operated it until Conrad's death in 1998.

Sometime in the 1950s, Petersen joined the Chinook Tribal Council, at a time when the tribe was fighting for recognition from the federal government and the return of some of its traditional tribal lands.

The tribe filed suit in federal court seeking money to purchase back lost property on both sides of the Columbia River. The court ruled in the tribe's favor, but the $40,000 the government offered the tribe was far too little to cover the cost of the land, and Petersen and the rest of the council rejected the money.

In compensation for their lost lands around the Columbia, Chinook tribal members, including Petersen and her relatives, had been granted 80-acre allotments in the Quinault Indian reservation in Washington.

"She always told us 'Do not ever sell your land - that's your Indian heritage and you keep it,'" said Carolyn Shepherd, who received her own allotment. "That was kind of our mantra."

The tribe's lengthy fight to regain its official status appeared to have succeeded in early 2001 when the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officially recognized the tribe. But the victory was short-lived - the incoming Bush Administration reversed the ruling following a challenge by the rival Quinault tribe.

Her mother was "ecstatic" when the government first granted the tribe recognition, and was bitterly disappointed when it was rescinded a year later, Shepherd said.

"She always hoped that in her lifetime they would get that back," she said.

Not long after her mother's death, Shepherd said, the family received a letter from the government stating that anyone with a tribal land allotment was officially considered a Native American - a belated recognition of her Chinook heritage.


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