HAMMOND — Chinook villages once flourished along the creeks running into the Columbia River. One village spread out along Tansy Creek near the foot of 13th Street along the Warrenton Waterfront Trail.
The Chinook Indian Nation, with the support of a local family, recently bought about 10 acres at the site, where they hope to create a cultural foothold for the largely disenfranchised tribe.
The heavily forested tract, home to elk, deer, otters, coyote, waterfowl and other wildlife, is divided between two lots arrayed around Tansy Creek. The village historically located there was one of many on prime land where Chinookan tribes — Clatsop, Cathlamet, Lower Chinook Wahkiakum and Willapa — were pushed off, said Tony Johnson, the chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation.
“The Clatsop folks covered this whole south shore of the Columbia, really, from around Astoria itself heading west, and then of course down the adjacent seashore all the way down to Tillamook Head, that country,” Johnson said. “But all the main country people think about here in terms of Hammond, Gearhart, Seaside — that’s all Clatsop territory.”
The property near Tansy Point is near where, in the summer of 1851, members of all five Chinookan tribes gathered to negotiate with Anson Dart, the first superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory, to avoid relocation east of the Cascade Mountains. It is the only known instance when all tribal ancestors were gathered in one place, Johnson said.
Pulling them together
To the north of the Tansy Creek property lives Roble Anderson, whose family had owned the land since the 1950s, but who always felt as if he was living on Chinook land. Rather than sell to a developer, he and his sister, Mergrez Stratton, offered the land two years ago to the Chinook at significantly below-market value.
“I understand what they went though and what’s happened since and their struggle to be recognized and so forth,” Anderson said. “I thought that it would be a thing that would help pull them together more, if they had a piece of property on this historic site.”
The Chinook Tribal Council voted to pursue the purchase and began fundraising. They gathered around $125,000 in grants from organizations such as the Oregon Community Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Collins Foundation and others. Another $75,000 came from individual donations, many gathered from screenings of the new documentary, “Promised Land,” about the tribe’s struggle for federal recognition.
The Chinook plan a cultural center similar to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse built in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge at the site of a former Chinookan village once visited by the Corps of Discovery.
“We are putting in grants for building structures out there, like a plankhouse and a utility structure,” said Rachel Cushman, secretary and treasurer for the tribe. “Hopefully, we can do some environmental restoration work out there as well (and) not just have it be another building site, but stream restoration and habitat restoration.”
How that restoration looks is yet to be determined, Johnson said. The Chinook continue fundraising through a GoFundMe page titled, “Preserve Tansy Point Treaty Grounds.”
The Chinook will also reach out to Warrenton and the Port of Astoria about expanding access to local plants such as basketgrass and other natural resources, Johnson said.
The Tansy Point site is the first in the Clatsop territory the Chinook Indian Nation owns, aside from individual property owners. The acquisition is bittersweet, given the group’s history of disenfranchisement by European settlers.
Battle for recognition
Dart’s original charge was to move the Chinookan people east of the Cascade Mountains, Johnson said.
“We were able to convince him that was not the right thing to do,” he said. “We were saying what we’ve said all the way through to today, which is, ‘We’re going to stay with the bones of our ancestors.’”
But the Tansy Point Treaty, meant to give the Chinook a reservation including Willapa Bay and running south to the mouth of the Columbia River, was never ratified by Congress, thus beginning a continual struggle for payment and recognition. The Chinook briefly gained recognition near the end of former President Bill Clinton’s administration, but had their status rescinded shortly thereafter under former President George W. Bush.
The Chinook have gone to court multiple times seeking proper payment and recognition. The most recent lawsuit, filed in 2017 against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is still ongoing.
The tribe’s lawsuit argues that the Chinook should be recognized because of the Tansy Point Treaty, along with more than a century of legal battles. Recognition provides more access to money for cultural preservation and health care.
The lawsuit seeks access to a trust, created in 1970 and now totaling more than $500,000, to compensate the Lower Chinook and Clatsop people for stolen land. The tribe received regular account statements until 2015, when Johnson was informed that as an unrecognized tribe, they did not have the right to get information or access.
The battle for recognition is a particularly sore subject for Johnson, who works as education director for the federally recognized Shoalwater Bay Tribe and has helped create linguistic and archaeological programs for other tribes. The Chinook face suicide, substance abuse and other similar issues as other tribes, albeit without recognition, a reservation or the related services, he said.
“For us to be able to survive here in the end, we need to be able to have land that’s ours that we have the right to manage and govern,” he said.