"We are still here."

It's a message that Americans Indians participating in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial have emphasized at public appearances throughout the event.

Two Lower Columbia tribal groups also shared the message, but thanks to a dispute over one of the group's involvement in the Bicentennial, they did it separately.

The Chinook Nation hosted a four-day commemoration in Chinook, Wash., simultaneously with the "Destination: The Pacific" event. The tribe served salmon dinners, had demonstrations of tribal singing, dancing and games, and honored tribal members who participated in a regionwide canoe gathering earlier this year.

On Friday, the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes held a potlatch at Rilea Armed Forces Training Center that brought together about 300 tribal members and friends for dinner, gift-giving, music and a blessing of a tribal canoe.

The Chinook elected to back out of most of the Bicentennial program last year, angered over the decision by "Destination" planners to invite the Clatsop-Nehalems to participate as full partners. The Chinook consider the Clatsop group as a new, illegitimate tribe usurping the Chinook Nation's role as the representative of all five of the historic Columbia River tribes, the Cathlamet, Wahkiakum, Willapa, Lower Chinook and Clatsop.

The choice to take part in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial was a difficult one for many American Indian tribes, who see the explorers' journey less as a monument to courage than as the beginning of native people's demise.

But Gary Johnson, Chinook tribal council chairman, said the tribe was looking forward to taking part in the local Bicentennial program before the Clatsop issue arose.

"We clearly would have participated fully," he said. "We were told we were the host tribe. When they chose to have an illegitimate, new group that was formed during the Bicentennial, we had no choice."

The tribe hosts regular annual gatherings, but this weekend's was the biggest, drawing not only Chinook and members of other tribes but a number of Bicentennial visitors as well, Johnson said. Organizers served 500 salmon dinners Friday, and the former school gymnasium where the programs were held was full for the morning and afternoon sessions, he said.

A highlight of the program was a ceremony Saturday for tribal members who participated in the Full Circle journey, a gathering of canoe-makers and paddlers from tribes around the Northwest, Canada and Alaska that the Chinook joined for the first time this year.

About 25 people received copper rings hand-made by Philip Red Eagle of Tacoma, Wash., an organizer of the Full Circle event. "When you get these rings, you will join a lot of other nations," he said.

A canoe was the focus of Friday's Clatsop-Nehalem event, which was the largest such modern gathering the group has hosted, according to tribal council member Lori Shane of Silverton.

The ceremony was led by Gary Capoeman, a Quinalt tribe member who oversaw the building of the traditional canoe that he said "will travel with them for many, many journeys."

"We stand on very sacred ground to the Clatsop-Nehalem," he said. "This is an important time in their history, a time of awakening."

Clatsop-Nehalem tribal chairman Joe Scovell of Turner, who gave a tribal welcome at Friday's Bicentennial opening ceremony at Fort Stevens State Park, told the audience at that event that there were mixed feelings among the Clatsop about taking part in the event.

"But the Lewis and Clark journals indicate that we treated them in a friendly manner," he said. "We find ourselves hosting people such as yourselves, and we do so in friendship."

The Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes formed only recently, but Scovell has argued that there is ample historical evidence that the Clatsop-Nehalems, whose chief, Coboway, traded with Lewis and Clark in 1805-06, were a distinct tribal group.

But that's not the view of the Chinook, said Johnson, who noted that 500 Clatsops, including 70 descendants of Coboway, are enrolled members of the Chinook Nation, and most of the tribal council members are also Clatsop.

"We are the Clatsop," he said. "When we say the Chinook Nation, we're talking about the five lower river tribes."

Clatsop-Nehalem member Steve Shane said he doesn't see his tribe's formation as a threat to the Chinook, and said the Clatsops support the Chinooks' ongoing effort to gain federal recognition.

"To us, there is no conflict," he said.