Chinook Nation rallies for restored federal recognition
Tribe calls out federal 'bullshit' of briefly granting -- then removing -- acknowledgement, asks U.S. Congress to pass legislation. Pressure on for Sens. Cantwell and Murray.
The Chinook Indian Nation today rallied in Seattle for restored federal recognition.
The tribe, at the tail end of the Clinton administration in January 2001, was granted federal recognition — along with the full benefits and trust responsibilities involving such acknowledgment.
But the recognition lasted a mere 18 months before the George W. Bush administration stripped it away, due to its interpretation of federal recognition rules.
Tony Johnson, the current elected chairman of the Chinook Nation made up of approximately 3,000 citizens, said that the situation was highly unusual and wrong.
“We are a sovereign nation regardless of the federal government’s confusion,” Johnson said at the rally.
“We are the only tribe that was federally recognized under this process, had recognition for 18 months — had that recognition upheld by the internal Bureau of Indian Affairs…and then, still, overturned 18 months later. For that reason alone, our senators need to act and restore recognition to the Chinook community.”
Rachel Cushman, the elected treasurer and secretary of the tribe, said she has spent most of her life “advocating” and “crying” for the Chinook Nation.
“I remember the morning that we lost our federal acknowledgement,” she said. “I heard my mom gasp…. She cried and I cried, and we held each other.”
A few swear words were said, too, she shared, and the first thing someone said to her when she arrived at her office that morning was, “I’m sorry you’re not Indian anymore” — as if it were all a joke.
Cushman — who would later have a scholarship taken away because it was intended for a federally recognized tribal citizen — was not laughing.
The tribe is now pressing Democratic Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell, former chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Patty Murray to introduce and champion legislation that would restore the recognition taken away by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Sens. Murray and Cantwell witnessed this egregious act in real time and were vocal supporters of us through the process,” Johnson said. “In the twenty-plus years since that decision, they have failed to act to protect us. It is time that the voices and lives of underserved, rural and tribal communities matter to our government officials, and it’s way past time for Sens. Murray and Cantwell to act on behalf of justice for the Chinook community.”
Chinook citizens today said that they are disappointed that both Cantwell and Murray have not taken legislative action to regain federal recognition for the tribe. Tribal leaders say they have been meeting with the senators’ staff over the past two years, but legislation has yet to move.
“Prioritize this legislation,” Johnson said regarding a bill the tribe has been working on for several years. “We’re asking that they do the right thing.”
Chinook citizens are especially discouraged, Johnson said, because Republican legislators were able to achieve federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Montana in 2019 under the Trump administration. Other tribes, in Virginia and elsewhere, have also been recognized in recent times.
Why the Democratic legislators have failed to do the same for Chinook is one question that current tribal citizens are asking. Both Murray and Cantwell supported Little Shell recognition.
Johnson noted that Chinook citizens were forced to attend boarding schools; they have received federal land allotments; and they have had fishing, hunting and other treaty rights recognized by the federal government as but a few examples that the tribe is sovereign and deserves recognition and the federal trust responsibilities that go along with it.
The tribe also took bureaucratic action in 1979 to be recognized, and that persistence lasted until the Clinton administration, under former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, recognized it.
Gover is widely known as an Indian affairs legal expert. The Bush administration appointee who revoked the tribe’s status was an engineer from Oklahoma, lamented Johnson.
“That’s bullshit,” the tribal chairman said.
The tribe notably would not sign a treaty in 1855 presented by the U.S. government that would have required the tribe to leave its Columbia River homelands and thus did not receive any reservation land from the federal government.
“We have said, from the beginning, ‘We are staying with the bones of our ancestors.’ That’s our choice,” Johnson said. “We paid a serious price for that decision.”
Johnson estimates that the tribe has missed out on “hundreds of millions of dollars” it deserves from the federal government since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic alone.
“We live in one of the absolute poorest places in Washington state,” Johnson said. “Chinook recognition and those resources would have went so far to help alleviate the suffering that folks feel in southwest Washington and in northwest Oregon.”
Cecile Hansen, longtime chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, also spoke at the rally.
“I admire your tribe’s tenacity to hang in there in this battle,” Hansen said. “I hope that the legislative people will wake up and hear your wonderful words.”
A petition to restore Chinook federal recognition is online here.
The hashtag to follow along on social media is #ChinookJustice
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