TACOMA — The Chinook Indian Nation hopes to fill a federal courtroom with Native Americans and their supporters during a Tuesday hearing that could be pivotal in the tribe’s ongoing effort to win federal recognition.
Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson hopes a strong showing will demonstrate to the judge and government attorneys that the tribe is a living, vital entity.
“I want [the judge] to be presented something that looks different than his usual day of work,” Johnson said. “I want him to be presented with a courtroom full of Chinook and friends of the Chinook.”
3,000 invisible people
Members of the tribe have been fighting for government recognition for more than twice as long as current Chairman Tony Johnson, 47, of Bay Center, has been alive. Without it, the roughly 3,000 members can’t establish a reservation, and they miss out on health, education and other benefits that people in recognized tribes receive. There are other cultural, spiritual and practical consequences. Chinook aren’t eligible for the same hunting and fishing rights as other Washington tribes. The tribe can employ only a skeleton staff, and has no budget for preserving its language, culture and history.
Since the late 1700s, the government has acknowledged the existence of Chinook people through treaty negotiations, acts of Congress and a Supreme Court decision, according to Johnson.
However, the tribe never got a signed treaty, and that makes the members more or less invisible in the eyes of contemporary feds. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has argued that the tribe ceased to exist as either a political entity or a social group in the mid to late 1800s.
The tribe was briefly recognized in 2001, but some other tribal groups strongly opposed their recognition, and the feds have never been eager to expand Native rights. Their status was revoked under the George W. Bush administration.
In August 2017, the tribe filed a new suit in the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. District Court. It argues, in part, that the tribes’ Tansey Point Treaty was “constructively ratified” by an act of Congress in 1911, meaning that the government treated the tribe as though it had been recognized, even though it didn’t have official status. It further argues that by spending 100 years dealing with the tribe, the government has effectively acknowledged the tribe’s existence. The suit also asks the judge to throw out a Bureau of Indian Affairs regulation that prohibits the tribe from seeking recognition again. Johnson said the tribe is also asking the court to acknowledge that it can access monies won by the tribe during the Indian Land Claim commission. Those funds, awarded in 1970, have never been given to the tribe, Johnson said.
Refusing to be dismissed
In response, government attorneys asked the judge to throw out the case. In a May 6 email to members of the tribe, Johnson said he wasn’t surprised.
“These types of motions argue that a case has no merit or that past precedent shouldn’t allow it to move forward,” Johnson explained. “As expected the government filed a motion to dismiss (MTD) all aspects of our case.”
He is encouraged that the judge granted the requested hearing.
“We asked for the hearing because we want to get a better sense of where the judge is coming from,” Johnson said.
Members of the tribe won’t participate in the hearing. Instead, attorneys for both sides will make their case to the judge. Despite their potentially momentous consequences, the actual court proceedings may be fairly routine, Johnson said. But he hopes the planned pre-hearing gathering in front of the courthouse will be a powerful testament to the tribe’s continued cultural relevance and legitimacy. In addition to many locals and possibly members of at least one other Washington tribe, “There are quite a few tribal activists and prominent people in Indian Country who have said that they intend to be there,” Johnson said.
The Tuesday, May 8, hearing takes place in the federal courthouse at 1717 Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. The hearing starts at 1:30 p.m. in Courtroom B. It is open to the public.