Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that illuminates the historical context of tribal law in the Pacific Northwest and examines cases where tribes and tribal members have used federal courts to expand their rights under federal law. The series also explores the growing authority of tribal courts and their role in exercising the inherent rights of sovereign Indigenous nations, as well as the way federal and state laws restrict tribal courts’ operation. Read the entire series here.
This series is supported by the Data-Driven Reporting Project.
On a cold January morning, the hoarse voices of migrating swans echo out over a lake near Cathlapotle, a former Chinookan trading village on Washington’s Lower Columbia River. Farther along a paved pathway, through a dense bank of fog, is a warmer sound: the drumming and singing that accompanies the winter gathering, where members of the Chinook Indian Nation warm their cedar plankhouse and share winter ikanum, the stories they have passed down through countless generations.
Today’s winter gathering takes place in a plankhouse built in 2005. The village itself is across the floodplain, detectable only via excavation. The site is guarded by thick stands of stinging nettles and a pair of eagles that live in the cottonwoods high overhead. Lewis and Clark recorded about 900 people living here in 14 plankhouses built just like this one. That was the number of Cathlapotle residents who had survived earlier smallpox epidemics spread by European traders, according to Chinook Vice Chairman Sam Robinson.
“Cathlapotle was young for this area — about 400 years old,” Robinson said.
Without the Chinook, the Corps of Discovery may not have survived the brutal winter of 1805. Two hundred years later, when the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approached, Chinook leadership saw an opportunity: with federal funds available for commemoration, they proposed a replica of one of the 14 longhouses at the village. At 200 feet long, the house would have been a medium-sized structure in the original village.
The five tribes of the Chinook Nation were counted on the McChesney Rolls of 1906, the federal government’s official census of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Later, Congress authorized allotments for Chinook citizens on the Quinault Indian Reservation.
Federal recognition would mean that the U.S. government explicitly acknowledges the 3,123-member Chinook Nation as a sovereign nation, and would resume the government-to-government relationship required under the Constitution — the same relationship that was observed when the U.S. sought treaties to legally obtain Chinook land in 1851.
The Chinook never stopped fighting for their own land and federal status, filing numerous lawsuits and land claims over the decades. They’ve scored a few victories, even securing a brief period of federal recognition during the Clinton administration. Then shifting politics snatched that away, and the government returned to a position that Chinook leaders view as an erasure of that history, of their very identity: that they simply don’t exist.
Without the formal societal structures and ability to provide for tribal members that federal recognition would facilitate — such as a land base, healthcare, education and protection under certain federal laws — resilience and cohesion have instead arisen from dedication to cultural practices like caring for the Cathlapotle longhouse, said Chinook Chairman Tony Johnson.
“The house is a living thing for us,” Johnson said. “Our songs, our stories, our dances — in many ways, it’s all we’ve got left. It’s our wealth. And I’m proud of that, because a lot of unrecognized communities have struggled to maintain that wealth.”
The Chinook have a strong presence in the annual canoe journeys practiced by tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast, as well as relationships with local governments, recognized tribes inland and along the coast, state and federal agencies, and white settler families that go back centuries.
Robinson said people are often surprised to learn that the Chinook aren’t federally recognized.
“It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re in history. You saved Lewis and Clark!’” Robinson says. “But we ask other tribes not to blame us for that.”
This year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) said in court documents that it would deal directly with the Chinook regarding funds lingering for half a century in a government trust account. The money is a settlement from the Indian Claims Commission, won by two of the five tribes that make up the Chinook Indian Nation — $48,000 set aside in 1970 as compensation for the vast, unceded territory that surrounds the mouth of the Columbia River.
But that win is embedded in the ongoing struggle for federal recognition of the tribe’s sovereign legitimacy, which is the basis for the government’s agreement to compensate the Chinook for their land. Recognition is the valve that opens access to the kinds of services the government agreed to provide in exchange for arguably some of the most strategic and productive land in the Lower 48.
“We’ll take a win when we can get it,” Robinson said. “But it was never about the money.”
“The trust fund’s true value is as an acknowledgement of our inheritance here at the mouth of the Columbia River,” Johnson said.
The Chinook people have three current pathways to recognition: Congressional action, the appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that he could not directly declare Chinook’s federal status, and through the BIA. Under court order resulting from Chinook legal efforts, the agency is reconsidering its rule barring repeat applications from tribes that have already been denied recognition. If changed, the new rule will represent a victory for both the Chinook Nation and tribes seeking recognition across the country.
Recognition would allow the tribe to petition for land to be put in trust for a reservation. It would give the Chinook the ability to provide subsidized housing, healthcare and educational programs, and bolster efforts to preserve their culture and history. Tribal members would be legally able to gather traditional foods for subsistence. And it would mean Chinook people are protected by critical laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“It’s the opposite of genocide,” said Gary Johnson, an elder, former tribal chairman and Tony’s father. “It’s about Chinook cultural survival and helping our people who have been pretty much devastated by government policies of the past.”
Access to ‘life-changing’ healthcare
Without federal recognition, Chinook tribal members can’t access medical and dental care provided by the Indian Health Service (IHS), a cornerstone of the government’s fulfillment of the trust responsibility it assumed when it negotiated for the lands now known as the United States. That unique political relationship has been reiterated by legislation, executive orders and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The IHS operates federally funded hospitals and health clinics in urban areas and on reservations.
Additionally, recognized tribes can contract with the federal government to run their own hospitals and clinics under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
Upon restoration of its federal status, Tony Johnson said the Chinook Nation would immediately petition for money to build a health clinic.
“That literally would be life-changing to some of the folks in our community,” Johnson said. “We have community members who have no health insurance who never received treatment for cancer because they didn’t have the means to pay for it and IHS didn’t cover it.”
Chinook tribal member Devon Abing is waiting for a heart transplant. While his basic medical bills are covered by Medicaid, he worries about the care he will need during his recovery. With federal recognition, the tribe could designate him as an elder and cover wages for his chosen caregiver. Otherwise, his sister will likely take an unpaid leave of absence from her job managing a gas station. That’s what happened last time, when Abing was recovering from his first heart surgery.
“She had to stop her life to take care of me,” Abing, 46, said.
Even though a transplant will save his life, Abing worries about the post-surgery impacts.
“The doctors said, ‘You can’t eat deer, you can’t eat bear,’” Abing said. “All the Native foods that I enjoy, I can’t have. They said I can’t even eat fish. So I won’t really be able to take part in the salmon ceremony.”
Scaling up cultural preservation efforts
The tribe’s annual salmon ceremony, held in June this year, may have been Abing’s last chance to fully participate.
“It’s about bringing in that first salmon, how you kill it, who can prepare it and observing taboos on who can eat it, depending on where you are in your stage of life,” Robinson said. “You eat all of it, so there’s only bones. Then you lay that in the canoe and send it out into the ocean so they can tell the other salmon that the Chinook people are doing good work and it’s good to come up the river.”
Robinson dreams of building more longhouses, holding more ceremonies and ramping up education for both tribal members and non-Chinook people.
“People could come in and learn what it means to be Chinook,” Robinson said. “There’s a hunger for it — people want to learn about Chinook.”
It’s a scale of effort that would be possible under federal recognition, which would qualify the Chinook for money to set up a Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
“We would be able to fund and staff up the cultural and revitalization work that we’ve just done by volunteer for decades,” Johnson said.
Despite his hunger to share his culture, Robinson can’t do so under a Washington state law intended to integrate tribal culture and history into school curriculum. The law requires school districts to collaborate with tribes within the district and create cultural exchanges, but it doesn’t include the Chinook.
“The language says schools have to go to the nearest federally recognized tribe,” Robinson said. “We fought that but they did it.”
‘The big goal is to feed our people’
Chinook people don’t have the guaranteed right to hunt, fish and gather traditional foods, including for their namesake salmon – not even for their own subsistence. Federal recognition wouldn’t immediately restore those rights, because the Chinook treaties were never ratified. What’s important, Johnson says, is that Congress doesn’t require the Chinook to forfeit any specific right, such as subsistence fishing, in exchange for restoration of federal status.
Some tribes have had to make that type of wrenching choice in order to achieve restoration. For example, the state of Oregon required the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to agree to give up their treaty rights to fish and hunt in their usual and accustomed places, under threat of the state’s opposition to the tribes’ effort to regain a reservation once their status was restored (see related story).
Johnson says the Chinook reject that type of exchange.
“We’ve already given up enough,” Johnson says.
The Wahkiakum Chinook specifically reserved fishing rights in their treaty with the U.S. government. But it’s not just about salmon. The Chinook want the right to gather traditional foods like salal berries, wapato and salmon berry shoots. And they want to restore a thriving population of green sturgeon, one of their ancestors’ favorite foods. For now, the tribe does what it can to provide traditional foods to its members, especially kids and elders. That means getting creative.
The tribe works with state hatcheries to obtain the carcasses of salmon after they have returned to spawn (salmon die naturally after spawning) and the hatcheries have harvested their eggs to grow the next generation of fish. Chinook members also get elk tags to help mitigate overgrazing in Chinook ancestral territory. The agreements go back decades, part of the uneven patchwork of informal recognition the tribe has built over generations.
“The big goal is to feed our people,” said Donovan Wargo, a member of the tribe’s committee on natural resources and food sovereignty. “One or two fish can go a long way.”
The Chinook also have agreements to take bears trapped and killed on land owned by private timber companies. Tribal members process the animals and distribute the meat, prioritizing elders and those in need.
For Wargo, harvesting animals for food is integrally connected to caring for the land.
“This is my ancestors’ land,” Wargo said. “They’ve taken care of this land for thousands and thousands of years and I just want to do the same for the next generations up and coming so they can have what I’ve experienced, if not more.”
While he’s proud of his work helping the tribe access traditional foods, Wargo worries that without federal recognition, access will always be precarious, subject to the whims of others. He pointed to state politics delaying this year’s spring bear hunt, after nearly preventing it entirely.
“As a non-recognized tribe, any way that any of our tribal members can get out and harvest traditional foods and practice our culture, that’s one of the few options we get,” Wargo said. “If that’s taken away from us, that’s another way of cultural genocide.”
Protection under the Indian Child Welfare Act
Without federal status, laws like the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) don’t protect Chinook people. ICWA, intended to help Indigenous kids in the child welfare system maintain connections to their culture and communities, gives tribal courts the exclusive right to decide cases involving the safety of their children. It also prioritizes Indigenous homes as foster care placements for Native American children and restricts the adoption of Indigenous kids by non-Native parents.
The 1978 law is facing a major challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court.
One Chinook family described a custody battle with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) that resulted in three kids taken from their home. The family, and its attorney, said the process did not follow requirements under ICWA.
“If Indian children are involved, there’s all sorts of additional hoops the state has to go through to remove a child,” said Elizabeth Penoyar, the attorney who represented the family.
Penoyar said the department initially allowed the increased tribal involvement required under ICWA.
“Then the department said, ‘Wait this isn’t a federally recognized tribe so that’s not required,’” Penoyar said. “This was a case where, had the Chinook been recognized and had ICWA applied, it would have made a big difference.”
Tony Johnson, the tribal chairman, said it’s not an isolated situation.
“I hate that I have to say it, but there are many examples like that,” Johnson said. “If we had a social services department with an Indian Child Welfare arm, we would be intervening in cases and assisting our tribal youth all around the country, just like most tribes do.”
Nancy Gutierrez, a DCYF spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on specific cases. But she confirmed that the state does not apply ICWA to cases involving Chinook families.
“ICWA only applies to federally recognized tribes,” Gutierrez said in an email. “The Chinook Indian Nation is not a federally recognized tribe.”
‘The bones of our ancestors’
Chinook people have lived here, on both sides of the mouth of the Columbia River, in towns spreading up and down the coast and inland along the river, for at least 10,000 years, according to their own history. And they’re still here, living today in their ancestral territory. That’s in part because when representatives for the Chinook Nation’s five tribes gathered at Tansey Point in 1851 to negotiate and sign the Anson Dart treaties, they refused to move north to a reservation in Quinault territory.
“They said over and over again that they would not leave this place because they wouldn’t leave the bones of their ancestors,” Tony Johnson, the Chinook tribal chairman, said.
But without the protection of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the tribe has struggled to safeguard exposed gravesites.
“We stayed here to protect the bones of our ancestors, and yet we’re not allowed to protect the bones of our ancestors,” Robinson said.
Gary Johnson described two incidents in which Chinook remains were disturbed and the tribe’s ability to prevent or remedy the situation was stymied due to its unclear federal status. In one, a private landowner bought the Ero Boldt Cemetery, where numerous tribal members, including several of Johnson’s family members, are buried. That owner logged the land and slid felled trees down the hillside, over the top of the cemetery.
“It basically just destroyed the cemetery,” Johnson said.
Since then, the land has changed hands, and is now owned by a couple who dismiss the idea that there is an Indigenous cemetery on their land. Current landowner Cheryl Dutcher confirmed that the previous owner, Wayne Estes, had logged the property. She also said Vince Miller had asked the Dutchers to allow the Chinook to access the cemetery. Miller was the husband of Edna Miller, a Chinook member who for decades ran the office at the Chinook Nation’s tribal headquarters in Bay Center, Wash.
But Dutcher said tribal members aren’t welcome to visit.
“To us, it’s a done deal,” Dutcher said in February. “It's over with. If they wanted it, they should have saved it long ago. No, it’s done and we don’t want any part of it.”
In a second incident, public utility workers dug into a gravesite while replacing an electric pole in Middle Village, historically a Chinook town and winter camp for Lewis and Clark that is now operated by the National Park Service (NPS).
“They put a backhoe through 13 of our ancestors,” Robinson said.
The tribe worked with the NPS to rebury exposed remains — a heartbreaking task that Gary Johnson personally oversaw. He said the incident might have been avoided if the Chinook had the authority required under government-to-government consultation to protect grave sites and sacred places within its ancestral territory.
“That was one of the most difficult personal experiences that I’ve had in my lifetime,” he said. “Having the responsibility of reburying those folks was really difficult. But recognition would give us the resources to address those kinds of shameful situations.”
Tony Johnson added that Chinook ancestral remains and funerary objects are currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
“Those should not be there, but we have not been able to repatriate them because of our unclear status,” Johnson said. “We would be able to do that instantly with restoration.”
With such high stakes, the Chinook Nation is focused on the quickest route to federal recognition, one that would be nearly instantaneous: Congressional action. The tribe has drafted a bill they hope an ally in Congress will attach to legislation that must pass, as the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa did in 2019, when U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines attached Little Shell’s bill for federal recognition to the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Chinook Nation’s bill has made it through the Senate Legislative Counsel for clarification. Johnson said he hopes it will soon be introduced.
“It’s just long past time that the government recognized that it’s made a mistake,” Tony Johnson said. “If we’re not Indians, why did our families get forcibly removed from our homes and our villages to Indian boarding schools? If this country wants moral high ground anywhere in the world, they should fix their mistakes at home. And this is a pretty easy one to fix.”
Lead photo: A full house during Winter Gathering at the plankhouse in Ridgefield, Wash. Photo by Amiran White/Underscore News