Chairman Gary Johnson of the Chinook Nation. Photo: Chinook Indian Nation

Chinook Nation heads to court to battle federal government's 'genocide'

The tribe whose ancestors welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest more than 200 years ago is still fighting for federal recognition.

And like that landmark expedition, the journey for the Chinook Nation has been a tough one, filed with ups and downs, all courtesy of top political officials in Washington, D.C.

The tribe thought victory was at hand in January 2001. That's when Bureau of Indian Affairs, as the Clinton administration was coming to a close, granted its petition for federal recognition.

"Today, we have the opportunity to address directly a historical injustice lasting many years," then-Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, with the tribe at his side, said at a ceremony in Washington on what was his last day in office. "The Chinook rejoin the family of tribal nations acknowledged by the United States."

The Chinook Nation with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in Washington, D.C., on January 3, 2001. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs

The celebration was short-lived. After president George W. Bush came on board a couple of weeks later, the decision was among dozens put on hold at the Department of the Interior.

A year later, the new administration delivered defeat. In July 2002, then-Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, while acknowledging a "deep appreciation" for the tribe's legacy, denied the Chinooks recognition.

Since then, the tribe has been at the sidelines of history. Though the Chinooks took part in some Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration events between 2003 and 2006, it wasn't the same without official recognition of their status.

With hopes dashed in the executive branch, the tribe turned to Congress for legislative recognition. But not even the tragic 2012 death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, who was a tribal citizen and a descendant of Chief Comcomly, a key Chinook leader at the time of Lewis and Clark, swayed Capitol Hill.

Chris Stevens, a Chinook Nation citizen, was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Libya when he was killed in a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, on September 12, 2012. Photo: U.S. Department of State

Chairman Tony Johnson then launched a different campaign, this one directed at another key official. Starting in June 2015, he sent a letter and other information about his people to then-president Barack Obama just about every single day for six months.

"President Obama, when does our Nation get to step forward to the inheritance that we so clearly deserve?" one submission in August of that year stated. The campaign ended without a requested executive order for federal recognition.

With doors in Washington, D.C., staying shut, the tribe has since launched a new effort, this one in the judicial branch. A lawsuit pending in federal court seeks to correct what was called a "historical injustice" not so long ago.

"We have brought a reasonable and heartfelt request to the courts for the very survival of our Chinook people," Johnson said on Monday.

But Johnson admits the tribe is in for another tough fight. The Department of Justice has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, with a hearing taking place at the courthouse in Tacoma, Washington, on Tuesday afternoon.

"Rather than accept it as that, and acknowledge past mistakes and a history of abuse, our government has again chosen genocide," Johnson said of the Trump administration's efforts to close the case without getting to the merits of his people's claim.

"We all need to ask each other and our elected officials why," Johnson continued. "Why in 2018 is the U.S. government’s first reaction to a request by its Native people - to kill it?"

"Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia," a 1905 painting by Charles Marion Russell, depicts the Chinook people welcoming the Corps of Discovery Expedition. The painting also shows Sakakawea, the Shoshone woman who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during the expedition. Photo: Humanities Texas

Without federal recognition, the lawsuit notes, the tribe isn't allowed to access a trust fund held in its name. The money, first awarded in the early 1900s and adjusted upward by the Indian Claims Commission in the 1970s, was meant to compensate the Chinook people for the theft of their lands by the federal government.

In 1972, Congress appropriated nearly $55 million to settle the claim, according to Public Law 92-607. But, more recently, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians delivered another defeat to the tribe due to its lack of recognition.

"Thus, because you are not recognized, the funds held with our office cannot benefit your tribe," the August 2015 letter to Johnson stated. With interest, the funds will have grown over the last four decades.

The hearing on the tribe's lawsuit comes as the BIA might soon get a new political leader. Tara Sweeney, the Trump administration's pick for Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, is finally getting her day on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Federal recognition has always been a controversial issue for the Assistant Secretary. From finalizing petitions reviewed by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment at the BIA to dealing with members of Congress, as well as state and local officials, concerns about federal funding, restoration of homelands and gaming are often raised during the process.

As an Inupiat from Alaska, Sweeney lacks direct experience in some of those fronts, though she is well known for her advocacy on other Native issues. The land-into-trust process didn't become available to tribes in her state until the Obama administration. As a result, gaming is largely not an issue in Alaska because federal law requires casinos to be located on "Indian lands."

But tribes in Alaska were the beneficiaries of a decision, still considered controversial by some, made during the Clinton era. Former Assistant Secretary Ada Deer, who was the first woman to serve in the post, added more than 200 tribes in Alaska to the list of federally recognized tribes in 1993.

The Chinook Nation hopes the new Assistant Secretary will do the same. The lawsuit seeks an order to "place the Chinook on the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List."

"Please have the Chinook Indian Nation in your thoughts and prayers on Tuesday and as this historic case moves forward," Chairman Johnson said.

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