TACOMA — A federal judge ruled Jan. 10 that a ban preventing the Chinook Indian Nation from reapplying for federal tribal recognition is unjustified.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to reexamine its justification for the repetition ban, or change the regulation to allow for the Chinook Indian Nation to apply again.
According to a news release from Chinook Indian Nation, Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson celebrated the decision.
“This is an important step for the Chinook Nation in finally reclaiming full tribal rights,” Johnson said.
Federally recognized tribes are American Indian or Alaskan Native tribal entities that have sovereignty within the U.S. Recognized tribes can do direct business with the federal government and are entitled to certain benefits, services and protections.
Rally wins out
The judge’s decision came after oral arguments were held on Jan. 6 in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington in Tacoma. Chinook Nation tribal members rallied outside the courthouse to show the judge how important the court case was to the tribe.
Thane Tienson is an attorney for the tribe and argued on its behalf at the hearing.
“The court sympathized with the Chinook Nation’s plight and has opened a way to finally right this historic wrong,” Tienson said in the tribe’s news release. “It is the strongest message yet from a federal court to the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the department has abused its discretionary authority and ignored its responsibility to all Indian tribes in order to protect the status quo and we are pleased to see the court overturn the department’s decision.”
The Chinook Nation was granted official status in January 2001, but the status was rescinded 18 months later by the George W. Bush administration.
The judge’s ruling vacates a 2015 decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which prevented the tribe from seeking official tribal status. Chinook Indian Nation sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2017 over the rule as well as over trust funds the tribe never received.
The tribe said the judge’s decision was not a “complete surprise.”
“During oral arguments, Judge Leighton pointed out that several of the government’s arguments were weak and said he found the Chinook position more persuasive,” according to the news release.
The tribe repeated a quote from the judge at the hearing:
“This is a momentous decision for these people,” Leighton said. “It should be done soberly and with grace.”
The fight continues
Since the Chinook Nation’s recognition was reversed in 2002, the tribe has been trying to re-petition for official status. In 2014, a proposed amendment to Department of Interior regulations would have created an exception for tribes able to demonstrate their denial is no longer valid. However, a final rule issued by the Department in 2015 eliminated this exception.
The fight for the Chinook Nation’s tribal rights has gone on for generations, the tribe said in its release. Current tribal leader Tony Johnson is the son of former Chinook Chairman Gary Johnson. They are descendants of a tribal elder who began the campaign in the 1890s to get promised compensation for tribal land that was taken from them illegally after signing a treaty that Congress failed to ratify.