Chinook, Clatsop-Nehalem tribes at odds

Clatsop-Nehalem tribal members show off their canoe, Dragonfly, in Cullaby Lake.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a projected occasional series of articles exploring the issues and personalities that drive Native American affairs in the Columbia River estuary.


EO Media Group

Two Native American groups, each vying for federal recognition, are trying navigate paths to success without tripping on one another after U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., introduced a bill to extend recognition to Oregon’s Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribe.

The Chinook Indian Tribe based in Bay Center, Wash., argues that its membership includes several times as many Clatsop descendants than the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribe, which began to jell as a separate entity near the start of the 21st century. According to the Chinook, the Clatsop and Nehalem were always culturally and linguistically distinct, and the bill supporting the combination of them could end up hurting the Chinook’s own bid for recognition.

“Well-meaning people of Oregon and Clatsop County are unknowingly working to perpetuate an injustice on the Chinook Indian Nation,” begins a Sept. 5 statement from the Chinook Tribe, which — referencing treaties signed in 1851 by Anson Dart, the first superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory — consists of the Clatsop and Kathlamet Tribes of Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum and Willapa Tribes of Washington.

The Nehalem tribe, they say, is more closely associated with the Tillamook tribes south along the Oregon coast.

On Sept. 15, the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes responded to the Chinook in a written statement, saying the Clatsop have always been a distinct tribe and were never “Chinook.”

For outsiders, it can be hard to understand why this is all such a big deal to the Chinook Indian Tribe and the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes. What might help one tribe could help all tribes, right?

Both groups have cultures that are strongly tied to maritime life along the Columbia estuary and adjacent lands. Their ancestors likely traded with each other or even intermarried. After all, as Sam Robinson, acting chairman for the Chinook Indian Nation, said, “The Columbia River wasn’t a boundary, it was a highway.”

But, said Chinook council member Carol Shepherd, “These are huge issues. These are treaty issues. Land claim issues.”

Bonamici’s bill, HR.5215: the Clatsop-Nehalem Restoration Act, is currently referred to the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs and is not moving anywhere fast. Chinook council members met with Bonamici after the bill became public knowledge and voiced their concerns. Robinson said much of what they had to tell her was new to her and her staff and that she directed her staff to do more research. Bonamici’s staff would not confirm this, but sent a statement to the newspaper.

In that statement, Bonamici said, “The legislative process takes a long time, and tribal recognition bills take time to develop and move through the process. Although I do not at this time know if the Clatsop-Nehalem bill will receive hearings or be voted on in this Congress, I will continue to work on the legislation. I plan to continue dialogue with members of Chinook and other tribes that may have concerns about this bill.”

On Aug. 13, the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners signed a letter of support for the bill.

The Chinook Tribe, in its configuration representing Indian descendants on both sides of the river, attained formal federal status in 2001 in the closing days of the Bill Clinton administration, but lost it when incoming appointees of the George W. Bush White House determined the Chinook did not meet all of the exacting criteria required by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., was unable to push a bill restoring Chinook recognition through the House Indian Committee prior to his departure from office in 2011.

The congressional recognition process is arduous. In the case of the Chinook, it met with opposition from the recognized Quinault Tribe in Grays Harbor County, Wash., and from U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who objected to adding additional tribes to federal rolls until a variety of underlying structural issues were dealt with. Formal tribal status for the Chinook is also a hot-button issue for some nontribal fishermen, who fear dilution of fishing rights that have already been whittled away.

To Robinson, and members of the Chinook council, the Clatsop are clearly part of a larger Chinook Nation. They say the Clatsop-Nehalem, as it currently stands, was organized sometime after 2000 with the help of Dick Basch, a former enrolled council member of the Chinook tribes. His wife, Diane Collier, is the Clatsop-Nehalem council chairman.

To take Clatsop out of Chinook and say their true home is with the Clatsop-Nehalem group is misleading and confusing, Robinson said. The Chinook Council worries this could unravel generations’ worth of work put into achieving federal recognition.

“Now the government is looking at us like, ‘What’s going on here?’” Shepherd explained.

“The Clatsop people never called themselves Chinook and the Chinook people never called themselves Clatsop,” countered David Stowe, a Clatsop-Nehalem council member.

As to the argument that the Clatsop and Nehalem are linguistically distinct, he said, “There were mistakes made about grouping natives before by linguistic differences. White people thought, ‘They have this language group, so they must be the same tribe.’ And that’s not really the case.”

The Clatsop-Nehalem believe, as a general matter, that different tribes overlap in various ways both now and in the past, and that there is no reason why their own recognition would harm the efforts of neighboring Chinook people.

“We have some 760 (Clatsop) people in our nation,” said Robinson of the Chinooks. “We need to do what’s right for them.”

The Chinook Indian Tribe has about 2,700 members. The Clatsop-Nehalem Confederate Tribes has approximately 130 and has closed enrollment for the time being until Bonamici’s bill goes through, Stowe said.

Even without the complicated back-and-forth between the Chinook and the Clatsop-Nehalem, there are other barriers to recognition. Most obvious is the process itself.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently changed certain criteria for tribes seeking federal recognition, acknowledging the process has, in the past, been onerous, arbitrary and “generally ‘broken.’”

Among the reforms and revisions, the BIA is now allowing tribes to prove existence and political influence and authority from 1934 to the present rather than from as early as 1789.

Though this could help certain tribes that have struggled to gather evidence from the earlier time period, Robinson says no one knows exactly what the revisions mean yet, and, specifically, what it means for the Chinook, who have spent the last 40 years or more meticulously gathering information and data.

Dick Basch, who Stowe said could best comment on how the recognition process reforms affect the Clatsop-Nehalem, spoke with the Observer just prior to publication of this story. The tribe will consider making additional comments as coverage of these issues moves forward.