If an aspiring young artist is seeking an idea for an inspirational novel, he or she need look no farther than the story of the Chinook, Clatsop and related native peoples of the Columbia River. Their courage and tenacity bring to mind the kingdom of Troy so celebrated by the legendary Greek poet Homer.
Epic tragedies surrounding the fall of the old Chinook Nation in the face of successive waves of European plagues were the prologue to two centuries of struggle for basic acknowledgement of their continuing existence. The descendents of these once-mighty tribes demonstrate remarkable patience as they deal with a federal bureaucracy that pretends they are invisible.
This institutional indifference sometimes formerly verging on animosity in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is showing signs of thawing. When Chinook Chairman Ray Gardner and Tribal Council members attended a U.S. Senate-sponsored meeting in Washington D.C. a month ago, they were warmly embraced at every turn by elected and Interior Department officials. The Chinook leaders played a starring role in discussions about reforms of the BIAs process for deciding what tribes on which to confer formal federal recognition.
Such symbolism does not guarantee progress on the Chinook Tribes long quest to stand as legal equals to Americas other famous native groups. But it may demonstrate that the Chinook at some point crossed an invisible threshold into credibility in the nations capital. Former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird played a pivotal role in bringing about this about, serving as a tireless champion for justice for the Chinook.
The gravitas brought to the cause by the articulate and unassuming Gardner has been essential in this effort. This was much in evidence during friendly meetings with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Rep Jaime Herrera Beutler, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes and U.S. Sen. Patty Murrays staff. A group with a tenuous claim to tribal status would not have received anything approaching this level of deference.
None of this necessarily means that the finish line is in easy reach in an effort that is going on 150 years in duration. But it does suggest that the Chinook-recognition cause is still alive and worthy of community support.
As in the past, Lower Columbia people without tribal ancestry should support this initiative out of fellowship for neighbors, out of a wish to right an injustice, out of self-interest in garnering the federal help and international publicity that would accompany Chinook victory.
Unlike ancient Troy, the Chinook story need not be defined by disasters of the past. A new beginning is within sight.