Years of behind-the-scenes work came to partial fruition this week with U.S. Rep. Brian Baird's announcement that he has lined up congressional support for formally recognizing the Chinook Indian Tribe.
It defies belief that this profoundly significant tribe has long been consigned to the status of non-being by the manipulations and incompetence of Washington, D.C.'s oblivious corps of professional Indian managers. The glorious past of the Chinook people has brought nothing but ignoble treatment by the American bureaucracy.
A decades-long social, political and genealogical process finally brought the tribe to the very brink of recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the messy conclusion of the Clinton administration. Although the decision was right, the Byzantine way in which it was reached opened it to reversal by the newly arrived Bush forces.
Baird said then that he would pursue the matter in the halls of Congress, which along with BIA and top federal courts has the authority to enter into government-to-government relations with tribes. Always highly competent and usually on the correct side of issues, Baird deserves to be permanently honored for his persistence in stewarding this matter to what looks like a just conclusion.
As he would himself be quick to say, the sea lion's share of the credit goes to hundreds of people with Chinook blood in their veins, led in recent years by Ray Gardner and Gary Johnson. The most emotionally powerful statement so far about this news came from Gardner, who recalled his grandmother dreaming of this day when the Chinook people would once again step forth on the world stage. Whether they are 100 percent Chinook or just one percent, everyone connected with the tribe can put aside the anger and frustration of the past and move ahead with pride and determination.
Sorting out their priorities was key to reaching this result. The Chinooks are seeking fishing and hunting rights. The commercial crabbing fleet, which had fretted about tribal status, can relax. The tribe will also renounce any residual claims they may have on private property. This is no small thing, as they could have argued that much of the land surrounding the Columbia estuary was illegally seized in the 19th century.
In return, they will receive many tangible benefits. Deeply integrated as they are into our towns and neighborhoods, things like improved health care and housing service will lift us all by enhancing the sustainability of communities. Eventually, they may establish a reservation of their own. Though nowhere mentioned in the agreement, this could someday mean a casino. At best mixed blessings, we will all debate a Lower Columbia casino when and if it show signs of life.
When the Chinook recognition legislation is signed into law by the next president, hopefully early in 2009, it will be cause for celebrations, congratulations and tears of joy here on the Columbia.