It is time to right a deep and lingering injustice by formalizing federal legal status for Native American families whose ancestors lived around the mouth of the Columbia River for thousands of years.
Incoming President Joe Biden made history in December by naming U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to become the first Native American to serve as interior secretary. A member of Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland has risen to national prominance fighting for environmental justice, for example standing with defenders against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016 at the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation.
Like everyone else, tribal members are bound by laws and make up their own minds on issues. But there’s no question Haaland will bring an intrinsic understanding of the inequities and self-dealing that cheated the Chinook, Clatsop and allied peoples out of fair treatment at the time of white colonization.
As a sort of catch-all agency originally created to manage vast western lands the U.S. didn’t — and some would argue still doesn’t — know what to do with, the Interior Department has a gargantuan role in tribal life. It houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration. Historically, all three were rife with racism, graft and mismanagement.
For reasons too messy to describe, in the mid-19th century the Chinook Indian Nation was left out of the process of recognizing tribes, settling land claims, and providing compensatory rights and benefits. After decades of struggles, the tribe achieved federal acknowledgment at the very end of the Clinton administration, only to see it revoked by George W. Bush’s BIA. Justice remained on ice through the Obama years, but hopes have been revived thanks to a change in how tribal-status decisions are made.
There are tremendous complexities and politics surrounding Chinook tribal status. The move has been opposed in the past by the neighboring Quinault Indian Tribe and by groups like non-tribal crabbers who worry about whether an official Chinook Tribe might obtain a designated share of increasing scarce fishery resources. A separate group, the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribe, argues for their own path to federal status in Clatsop and Tillamook counties.
Former congressman Brian Baird did a good job of smoothing out some of these differences in proprosed legislation that hit a roadblock before he left the office now occupied by Jaime Herrera Beutler. Careful negotiations could perhaps again assauge the issues raised by potential rivals and adversaries, particularly if Herrera and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici become actively involved.
Most importantly, Haaland can and should cut through all the decades of frustrating quagmire. “A voice like mine has never been a cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted regarding her nomination. “ ... I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
A fierce sense of justice is long overdue when it comes to our region’s sorry history of neglecting and subverting Native rights.
It’s also well worth noting that Interior includes the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — two federal agencies with an important footprint in our two counties. As a smart westerner, Haaland knows how crucial these are for the people and enviroment of the West. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park can benefit from more resources and attention to its mission of public involvement, while wildlife refuges have been chronically underfunded and understaffed. It’s time to put these and all western lands on a better footing to face the challenges of climate change.