As the nation gears up for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the descendants of one group of participants are not in a particularly festive mood.
The Chinook of Washington State lost their chance to be recognized through BIA procedures just two days after their chairman Gary Johnson attended a White House luncheon celebrating the famous explorers whom his tribe sheltered nearly 200 years ago.
The Chinook are now considering the alternative routes of a court appeal or Congressional action.
Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb dashed Chinook hopes July 5. His announcement reversed a decision by his predecessor Kevin Gover in the last weeks of the Clinton Administration to grant recognition.
In a letter to Johnson, just after the July 3 White House luncheon, McCaleb reported that he had signed a reconsidered final determination that stripped the Chinooks of their federal recognition.
“Assistant Secretary McCaleb says he has a deep appreciation of the legacy of the Chinook Indian tribe in American history but says that complete evaluation of important evidence presented by the tribe does not fully support federal recognition,” stated an Interior Department press release.
The Chinooks seemed to have an easy path to recognition after Gover made the original determination, but a subsequent lawsuit filed by the nearby Quinault tribe forced reconsideration by the federal government. The Chinooks were forced to move onto the Quinault reservation in the mid-19th century, intensifying an historical enmity.
The treaty moving the Chinooks was signed by different Chinook bands in the 1850s but was never ratified by the federal government. The Quinault reservation is shared by descendants of, among others, the Cowlitz, Makah, Chehalis and Squaxtin Island tribes.
The Cowlitz were recognized by McCaleb at the beginning of this year. The Quinaults, who fear other sovereign groups making claims on the reservation, also challenged the Cowlitz battle for recognition. Meanwhile, the Makah and Squaxtin Island tribes have agreed to submit to Quinault governance.
Repeated calls to the Quinault tribe and its chairwoman Pearl Capoeman-Baller were not returned by press time. The Quinault tribe, however, had stated previously that while they were willing to give a shared voice in governance to the other tribes, they did not want separate autonomous groups making decisions on Quinault land.
After the Quinaults filed suit the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) reaffirmed Chinook recognition on Aug. 1 of last year. However the IBIA remanded nine issues of the recognition process it deemed outside of its jurisdiction to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who in turn remanded eight of them to McCaleb. The tribe must meet seven of these points which federal regulations consider “mandatory criteria.”
“The reversal (by McCaleb) was based on the fact the Chinook tribe failed to meet all the criteria placed before them,” said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling.
Of the eight points before him, McCaleb decided the tribe had failed to meet three individual issues. McCaleb asserted that the tribe had failed to demonstrate that it maintained a continuous political community; that its members comprised a “distinct social community” before or since 1950; and that the tribe had not been identified as a distinct entity by outside observers.
“The whole thing just seems wrong. It was a decision based on politics and inconsistencies,” said Chinook Chairman Johnson, who argued that the Chinooks have never been stripped of tribal recognition.
Johnson stated that McCaleb made at least two trips to the Quinault reservation and had visited their casino in the last year. Though BIA sources were unable to confirm the number of trips McCaleb made to Quinault, an old press release does confirm that he visited the Quinault reservation last year.
Johnson charged that the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research, which handles a large portion of the recognition process, lost seven volumes of material and “hundreds of pieces of additional information” that he said were vital to the recognition process.
The current Chinook tribe began its drive for recognition in 1976 and started the federal petition process two years later. Its application was under review for over two decades before Gover made his decision.
The Chinooks helped sustain the Lewis and Clark expedition when the Corps of Discovery camped on Chinook lands at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark received gifts and freely traded with the Chinooks during the long wet winter of 1805-6. Before departing Fort Clatsop, the expedition stole a prized canoe from the Chinooks, a story tribal sources say is still in Chinook lore.
In spite of the latest disappointment, the Chinooks have vowed to fight on. Johnson said the tribe has already scheduled meetings to figure out its next step. No specific plan has been decided upon but Johnson says the tribe is “exploring different options.”