The Chinook Indian Nation addressed an unpleasant issue, but one members called necessary, at the Columbia River Maritime Museum Saturday at a gathering that included members of local government and others.

Nearly 1,000 members of the Chinook Nation are of Clatsop descent; however, another group, known as the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes, has established itself in Seaside over the past decade and is seeking federal recognition.

Tribal council members from both know each other and met in Ridgefield, Wash., in 2003. But the unpleasant rift continues, with grant money and tribal rights in the balance.

“It’s an uncomfortable thing to have to stand here and talk about,” said Tony Johnson, who is chairman of the Culture Committee for the Chinook Indian Nation. “But it seems very important. We are going to preserve our inheritance here in Clatsop County and our rights here.”

Johnson, who is of Clatsop descent, and his father, Gary, who is also on the Culture Committee, made it known that no one from the other group is being excluded from the Chinook Nation and that all Clatsop people should come together and work together.

The gathering Saturday was an invitation for local government officials and Clatsop County community members to learn more about the history of the Chinookan-speaking tribes at the mouth of the Columbia River.

It was also expressed that the Chinook Nation should be present at all government or community functions within Clatsop County pertaining to local native culture.

“What we are saying to each and every person here that represents a school, a county, whatever it is, if there is something happening in Clatsop County native-specific, the Chinook Tribe has to be at the table,” said Tony Johnson.

He began by speaking the Chinookan language, which unites the Lower Chinook, Clatsop, Wahkiakum, Kathlamet and Willapa tribes.

“The Chinook folks today primarily descend from one of those groups,” he said. “To be a member of our community you have to descend from those five groups.”

Johnson said the Chinook language was spoken from the mouth of the river all the way up to The Dalles, with the five tribes of the Chinook Nation representing the most western group of speakers.

A complex recent history followed the introduction of European settlers beginning in the late 1700s. Many Chinook people were wiped out by smallpox and malaria.

By 1855, the tribes were at a negotiation table for the Chehalis River Treaty Council. The negotiations were aimed at relocating the group to the northern coast of Washington. The tribes refused the removal plan because the area was the land of their enemies and they feared for their survival.

From that point on, they survived in any way possible among the white population. By the 1890s, the tribes were getting together as a unit trying to preserve fishing and land rights. The word “Chinook” was applied to all Chinookan-speaking people, Johnson said.

“That word is used inclusively. It’s meant to include the Chinookan-speaking people, not exclude Clatsop, Wahkiakum, Kathlamet or Willapa,” he said.

The Clatsop-Nehalem group argues that the Clatsop people are closely entwined with the Nehalem, and distinct from the Chinook.

Members of the tribe who spoke on Saturday vehemently disagreed with the group’s use of “Clatsop,” leaving it out and saying “blank-Nehalem” when referring to them.

“I can’t say enough how strongly this group of people needs to speak up on behalf of this Clatsop ancestry of ours,” Johnson said about the Chinook Nation.

Constitution written in 1951

In 1951, a constitution was written by the tribes and submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This constitution was written by the elders and hereditary leaders of our community,” Johnson said.

“It is the governing document still today of the Chinook Indian Nation. In that document it defines very clearly who we are: the Clatsop, Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum, Kathlamet and Willapa, not one above the other.

“I’m compelled to say all this because we feel very strongly about our rights as Clatsop people in Clatsop County,” he said.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Chinook Nation has had a difficult time gaining the recognition and land rights many other native tribes have obtained.

Money is in trust for Chinook land, Gary Johnson said, but the members haven’t been able to acquire it yet.

“We get quarterly statements from the government telling us about our account but they won’t let us touch it,” he said.

For a brief period between 2001 and 2002, the group received federal recognition, but it was rescinded. That, however, doesn’t diminish the group’s rights and presence, Tony Johnson said.

“So while you may hear that we’re not federally recognized, I don’t want anybody to confuse that with not being Indian,” he said, “because the federal government and local agencies have always known who we are.

“I want everybody in the room to know that we are as active as we can be in Clatsop County,” Gary Johnson said. “When events come up with anything that has to do with a native presence, we’re strongly asking to be included.”

Tony Johnson said that the tribe already for the most part is included, but the issue, which was echoed by other members, was about the rights and inheritance for Clatsop people in the area, which they feel are being challenged by the other group.

Astoria Councilwoman Karen Mellin said that she and the council would do what they could to help in the tribe’s federal recognition, as did Vice Chairman Scott Lee of the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners.

“I can say with confidence that the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners will do what it can to assist the Chinook Nation,” he said, regarding the quest for federal recognition.


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