If social justice matters to our congressional delegation, which we believe it does, then it is long past time to restore federal recognition to the Chinook Indian Nation. The responsibility and power to do so is entirely within the capability of Congress, and every day of delay or inaction is another day of justice denied, another day of injustice perpetuated.
After decades of work and mountains of historical and legal evidence, the Chinook Nation was formally recognized at the end of the Clinton administration. Finally, it seemed, a centuries-old attempt at genocide had been reversed. But then, with much less analysis and biased, factually inaccurate arguments, the Bush administration unilaterally rescinded the recognition.
Doing so essentially validated ethnic cleansing by declaring, falsely, that one of the most iconic and historically significant peoples of our region, the tribe that greeted and saved the Lewis and Clark expedition, had been exterminated and would no longer be deemed to exist.
The effect has been devastating to the Chinook. Many of the Chinook people of Washington and Oregon have died unnecessarily due to inadequate health care, been denied educational and housing opportunities, and been unable to benefit from federal and state resources.
The pain and damage are crushingly acute now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent federal stimulus legislation allocated an unprecedented and unlikely-to-be-repeated $43 billion to improve health care, education, provide broadband and support other vital needs across some of the country’s poorest tribal communities. Tribes nationwide also are planning for years of future work in anticipation of an upcoming infrastructure bill. But the Chinook have not received one penny of that support because it only flows to recognized tribes. To add insult to injury, if recognition is not restored soon, Chinook families also stand to lose even the land allotments once specifically set aside in their name by the government.
The Chinook Indian Nation is made up of the five westernmost Chinookan-speaking tribes at the mouth of the Columbia River. Our nearly 70-year-old constitution identifies our five constituent tribes — the Clatsop and Cathlamet (Kathlamet) of present-day Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum (Waukikum) and Willapa (Weelappa) of what is now Washington state.
It is not only the Chinook Nation that suffers. Pacific County, where much of the Chinook tribal homeland is located, has the highest unemployment levels in the state, and average family incomes are far below the state and national average. Providing needed federal resources to the Chinook would help strengthen the local economy for all residents, sustain local hospitals, support regional infrastructure, bring additional housing and jobs and enhance the region’s natural resources.
It must be emphasized that no one gets hurt by Chinook recognition, and support for the Chinook is broad and deep. Local and regional governments have endorsed recognition as have many other tribes in Washington and Oregon. Prominent individuals such as filmmaker Ken Burns, descendants of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and tens of thousands of Americans have written letters and signed petitions supporting the Chinook.
U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell spoke favorably when the Chinook were first recognized, as did many other current and former members of our congressional delegation. Now, with new leadership in the White House and Congress, with the first ever Native American Secretary of the Interior, and with a realization that complacency in the face of social injustice is complicity, our delegation must act and lead.
It is all too easy to look the other way, pass the buck, leave it up to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or insist that anyone who had opposed recognition before would have to consent now. Those responses are all too familiar. But the cause of civil rights and social justice would have made no progress if Congress failed to act or insisted that the oppressors had to give permission for the oppressed to gain their rights.
The fact is, Congress has not granted the BIA authority to reverse its prior reversals and restore recognition, but the Congress itself unquestionably has the authority to recognize tribes. That is exactly how Republicans and Democrats from Montana worked together in 2019 to restore recognition for the Little Shell tribe.
We ask our delegation to do the same for the Chinook people. Please, join together now and commit to enacting full restoration and recognition for the Chinook Indian Nation before the end of this session of Congress. The Chinook people are losing their lives, their opportunities, their property and their rights. We cannot afford to wait any longer, and we look to you to right this wrong.