Just short of his 92nd birthday, Clatsop-Nehalem Tribe Chairman and hereditary Chief Joe Scovell died earlier this month, just after U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici introduced federal legislation to recognize the tribe.

Born in July 1922, Scovell witnessed a momentous era in our nation’s history – for example serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and living through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He was, by all accounts, a gracious and intelligent man and an exemplar of his tribe’s deep sense of stewardship for the lands and waters of the North Coast.

A story last December in the Seaside Signal describes Scovell getting in touch with local tribal leader Dick Basch a dozen years ago in the run-up to the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial – an event with decidedly mixed meanings for people with Native American ancestry. Tribal Chairwoman Diane Collier recalled, “His main goal was he doesn’t want to lose his ancestors. He didn’t want to lose the Clatsop-Nehalem name. That’s why he started finding people and getting people interested and doing something about it.”

During their conversation, Scovell and Basch discovered they were cousins. “We talked and talked, and it turned out that my great-grandfather was his uncle. And we just thought that was a coincidence – sort of like this basket was starting to get more woven together. The pieces were starting to come together,” Basch said.

Scovell went on to play an active role advocating for federal status and representing the tribe at high-profile functions – for example receiving a replica Thomas Jefferson peace medal in March 2006 in honor of Lewis and Clark’s departure from Fort Clatsop.

In an interview with the Regional Learning Project, Scovell provided interesting insights into how the Clatsops and other Pacific Northwest tribes came to be so integrated with white society in our area, finding work in sawmills in order to survive. As a young man with distinct tribal ancestry, it gradually came to Scovell’s attention that federal recognition could really help with needs like education.

“And the federally recognized tribes even have scholarship funds for their students. And of course an unrecognized tribe doesn’t have any funds for education. So that really sort of puzzled me, you know, why there was that much difference,” he said. “I was … concerned by the fact that there is a group of Indian people who have a history that’s significant, yet it isn’t really regarded as anything that’s really significant unless you are federally recognized.”

This led to formation of an IRS-recognized nonprofit corporation and subsequent efforts that culminated in Bonamici’s legislation.

Judging by controversies and difficulties that have dogged similar efforts on behalf of the Chinook Tribe, there is a long road ahead for Clatsop-Nehalem recognition. As a member of the minority party in one of the most deliberately do-nothing congresses of all time, Bonamici is unlikely to get far but is nevertheless to be commended for getting the ball rolling.

If Clatsop-Nehalem recognition does come to pass someday, it will owe much to Joe Scovell’s passion and foresight.

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