Congressman tries a different approach to secure recognition for Chinook nation

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash

Pacific County's Congressman is spearheading a fresh effort to secure federal recognition to the Chinook people.

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., has introduced the Chinook Nation Restoration Act, legislation he first introduced near the end of last year's Congressional session but didn't advance.

Baird said Thursday he feels with the support of legislators on both sides of the river the act has a good chance of passing.

"I hope we right a wrong," he said.

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.

"This is a different approach - calling it a 'restoration,'" Baird said.

Congress can restore a tribe to formally recognized status if the tribe can prove it has existed and continues to exist, Baird said.

"There can be no doubt that the Chinook tribe existed at one time," he said. "Tribal members with clear lineage to the tribe have been out there, uninterrupted."

The U.S. Department of the Interior's Indian Affairs Office created a document called "American Indian and Alaska Natives." This document 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.

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.

Similar to how Baird hopes to restore recognition to the Chinook, the Siletz tribe, in western Oregon, was restored to legal recognition in 1977, just 21 years after it was terminated.

"If patience is in fact a virtue, then the Chinook People have more virtue than they know what to do with," said Baird. "It's time to finally do the right thing, and grant the tribe the recognition they've been waiting more than 150 years for. The time for talk is now over, now is the time for action."

Under the terms of the act, 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 agreed to renounce any claim to land that is 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 healthcare and housing resources, and gain access to services through the Indian Health Services and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Baird said the Chinook have agreed to a "remarkable compromise, and in return, all the federal government has to do is agree to the obvious: That the Chinook Nation exists and that it should be recognized."

"I think this will benefit not only the tribe but the whole area," Baird said.

Recognition of the tribe will open doors for cultural exchanges and opportunities for the promotion of tourism, supporters have said.

The Chinook people gave comfort to Lewis and Clark when they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River and first saw the Pacific Ocean. Historians contend that without the tribe's help, many in their group would not have survived the winter of 1805.

"I can think of no better way to honor my ancestors, nor any better gift to give to future generations of Chinook than to pass this bill, and end this long quest for recognition," said Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Tribal Council. "The history of the Northwest cannot be told without the Chinook People, and thanks to the hard work of Congressman Baird, neither can the story of the region's future."

The Chinook have been close to recognition before. In addition to an unsigned 1851 treaty, they also suffered a near-miss during the Clinton Administration. In 2001, the tribe filed a petition with the Branch of the Federal Acknowledgment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was approved late in the Clinton Administration, but rescinded by the Bush Administration before the process could be completed. 

"While we can't change the past, we can change the future," said Baird. "This bill will ensure the Chinook are finally treated fairly. This is about fixing an injustice; it is simply the right thing to do."

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