CHINOOK, Wash. - U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, Wash., said he feels certain that he'll have his party's support when the bill he authored - recognizing the Chinook Tribe goes to Congress - probably early in the 2009 session.
Baird, whose district includes Pacific County, introduced the Chinook Nation Restoration Act Thursday.
He said there's little chance Congress would vote on the bill this year because only three weeks remain in the session.
"We're putting a marker down; saying this is the right thing to do," he said Monday. "We hope to cue this up for early action next year."
If it passes, the bill will provide the Chinook with rights and privileges enjoyed by other Native American tribes recognized by the U.S. government.
The tribe has been seeking recognition since 1851, and has been stymied in the last decade despite getting close to approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Clinton and early Bush administrations.
Part of Baird's reasoning for sponsoring the bill was a sense of justice.
"The loss of recognition was an injustice," Baird said. "This is about justice: This is the tribe that saved Lewis and Clark."
He also said he hasn't been "in dialogue" with the Quinault Indian Nation - which considers the Clatsop Indians part of its nation.
"Some (Clatsop Indians) are not registered as Quinaults," Baird said. "This gives them access to health benefits, education benefits. All of those are wins. This will bring substantial benefits to the tribe and the community."
"My grandmother spoke of a day like today as one of her dreams; someday soon I will get to tell my nieces and nephews about this day as a part of our history," said Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Tribal Council in a Baird press release Sunday. "We've waited a long time. We've come a long way. And while this is still only the end of the beginning, it's exciting to see the finish line in sight."
Richard Meyers, a public relations officer in the U.S. Department of the Interior's Indian Affairs Office, said tribes are trying to bypass federal acknowledgment by going through Congress.
He said if the bill passes through Congress, it still has to be signed by the president.
The agency's document "American Indian and Alaska Natives" spells out the legal status of U.S.-recognized tribes. In essence, the recognition gives all three branches of government the authority to engage in relations with the tribes.
"A federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs," the document says. It also says there are 562 federally recognized tribes and villages.
The document also says there are three ways to become federally recognized, by act of Congress, by decision of a United States court or by administrative procedures for the Indian Affairs office as described in federal codes.
"While we can't change the past, we can change the future," said Baird. "This bill will ensure the Chinook are finally treated fairly."
Under the terms of the Chinook Nation Restoration Act, the tribe has agreed to give up fishing and hunting rights, except for ceremonial ones. Tribal members will still be able to fish and hunt as other Washington citizens can; however, they will have no special hunting and fishing rights.
The tribe has also agreed to renounce any claim to land that is currently privately owned, although tribal members are free to pursue its purchase if the current owner is willing to sell. In exchange, the Chinook Nation will become eligible for federal funding to establish a reservation, improve health care and housing resources, and gain access to services through the Indian Health Services and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Tribal leaders met in mid July, and voted almost unanimously to accept the terms set out by Baird in the Chinook Nation Restoration Act.