Chinook hearing shows renewed passion for tribal justice

Chinook tribal members used drums to greet the arrival of the First Salmon last year, a Fort Columbia State Park event of signature importance to the Pacific-Clatsop-Wahkiakum county tribe and others throughout the Pacific Northwest. Paying tribute to the salmon is considered part of a sacred contract with the fish, on which Indians depended for survival. The ongoing nature of such ceremonies provides part of the backbone of tribal arguments in favor of official federal status.

The Chinook Tribe’s tenacious efforts to survive as distinctive original residents of this place — and to convince bureaucrats of their legal existence — could form the basis of an intricate legal tome, a multi-part television documentary or a tragic opera.

The drama entered a new chapter last week in the form of a federal District Court hearing in Tacoma. The legal arguments, as they often are, were dry and based on fairly subtle points. But the setting leading up to the hearing could hardly have been more interesting. Newspaper, radio and television reporters were on hand to record the scene as Chinook members and dozens of supporters from other Northwest tribes drummed, sang and spoke in the courthouse plaza. Once Tacoma’s magnificent train station, it was possible to imagine the location now serving as a departure platform for a more just future for the Columbia River estuary’s iconic tribe.

It has been soundly argued that the Chinook Indian Nation exists no matter what the Bureau of Indian Affairs asserts to the contrary. Having never surrendered its status as a fully independent nation — a 20th century treaty having been lost in a maze of red tape that defies easy description — today’s Chinook can make an argument that U.S. and international laws provide a path toward reparations of historic proportions.

The Chinook — always good neighbors here at the mouth of the Columbia — have chosen not to pursue this course and instead continue pushing for restoration of legal status recognized by the Clinton administration. As with other decisions hurried through in its closing days, by waiting too late Clinton officials left Chinook status vulnerable to attack when George W. Bush took office. The recognition effort was left essentially orphaned. It was only a short time before the Bush Bureau of Indian Affairs yanked the otter pelt from under the feet of the Chinooks, leaving them back in cold, unrecognized limbo.

In the abstract, it might seem straightforward to get a federal agency to admit there still is a recognizable and cohesive group of descendants of the Columbia estuary empire that greeted Lewis and Clark. The national publicity accompanying such a step toward righting a historical wrong would be enormously positive.

But justice and fairness are anemic toddlers when stacked up against entrenched political and economic interests. Some other tribes don’t want finite tribal aid sliced a little smaller to provide benefits to the Chinook. Non-tribal crabbers and others fear additional declines in catches already much diminished by tribal rights on the Olympic Peninsula. These are genuine and rational concerns, but ones that can be addressed without perpetuating decades of injustice against the Chinook, Clatsop and related tribes.

Not only would formal federal status begin healing a longstanding wound in Columbia River race relations, but it would also bring substantial federal resources into local communities in the form of health care and other services. It’s important that tribal members will be helped, as they are our friends and neighbors, but the help they receive will raise living standards and economic prospects for all of us.

It defies belief that this profoundly significant Indian nation 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.

Last week’s hearing is only a way station in terms of the tribe’s lengthy legal journey. Whatever the judge decides about allowing the tribe’s litigation to move ahead, the other side will appeal. Appellate judges could go either way. If a legal path opens up to really obtain a judicial ruling on the underlying merits of the tribe’s case, all that will be subject to additional appeals. In the complex world of tribal law, in which considerable money eventually can be made, patience and deep financial backing are required.

In much of the nation, the end game might be a casino — though there is no present indication that is what motivates Chinook efforts. Many in this area believe there is much more to be gained by the Chinook — and all the rest of us — by pursuing other forms of economic development. This could include everything from sustainable certified lumber, to forms of licensing and branding.

Any result ultimately must put the tribe in charge of its own destiny. Stewards of this region for thousands of years before European Americans came along, it would be interesting to see them restored to a formal position of power on the Lower Columbia.

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