Chinook recognition sent back to BIA
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Opening, and potentially closing, yet another chapter in the long history of the tribe that welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to consider rescinding the federal recognition of the Chinook Nation of Washington.

After reviewing a number of issues that went to the heart of a January decision by the Clinton administration to recognize the tribe, Norton determined the matter needed further review. A letter she sent to Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb on Tuesday evening requested he reconsider the tribe's case and issue his own finding within 120 days.

Although Norton's action doesn't necessarily mean the Chinook Nation's status will be revoked, all indications lean towards a dramatic reversal of the tribe's recent good fortune. Initially turned down in 1997 by Ada Deer, President Clinton's first Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, the tribe appeared well on its the way to obtaining federal funding, health care and other benefits.

But outrage over the decision and others issued during the final months of the Clinton administration has ushered in a changed atmosphere of recognition. Since taking office in July, McCaleb has rejected two tribes which had benefited from favorable decisions made by a Clinton appointee and has declined to acknowledge a third.

In doing so, McCaleb has relied on the recommendations of the BIA staff that handles federal recognition. And in the case of the Chinook, the staff has vehemently opposed seeing the tribe obtain a status it has long sought.

Before the ink dried on former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover's final determination to recognize the tribe, the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) was voicing objections. R. Lee Fleming, who oversees the dozen or so historians, genealogists, anthropologists and researchers that compose the BAR, protested the move even as he helped welcome Chinook tribal members to bureau offices in Washington, D.C., for the January 3 announcement.

Subsequently, Fleming in late September signed off on a highly critical letter that was transmitted to Norton and formed the basis of her request for reconsideration. In the letter, Fleming and BAR researchers accused Gover of departing from precedent, ignoring the evidence on the record and drawing his own assumptions.

Due to these "obvious conflicts," Fleming recommended McCaleb examine seven issues and even asked for more time to find problems he was sure existed within Gover's multi-page document. The letter all but assured the Quinault Nation, a federally recognized tribe in Washington, would be able to hold back the Chinook as had been done for the Cowlitz Tribe.

With Norton agreeing with Fleming and the Quinault -- and going further by asking McCaleb to review an additional issue -- the BAR staff is back in charge of a tribe it doesn't want to see recognized, said Dennis Whittlesey, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who successfully defended the Cowlitz from the Quinault assault. He plans to do the same for the Chinook because he said it is "almost a certainty" that the BAR staff will rehash a negative recommendation McCaleb will follow.

"The policy makers and the political people [in the Bush administration] clearly have handed the decision making on Indian affairs to the staff," said Whittlesey. "With the decision maker gone, it's going to be a review by a staff which opposed the decision from the outset."

"This is sending the fox into the henhouse to protect the hens," he said yesterday.

In a statement, Chairman Gary Johnson lamented the latest saga in his tribe's tumultuous history. After providing reams of documentation to the BAR, he questioned what his 2,100 tribal members have to do to prove its case.

"We have jumped through all of the governmental hoops," he said. "Now someone needs to show us the action taken by Congress that terminated the Chinook Indians of Washington State."

After the 120 day period, during which neither the Chinook nor other parties are able to submit additional evidence, McCaleb could reverse the decision or affirm it. Further challenges are almost certain no matter how he sides, which could potentially keep the tribe's status in limbo.

A spokesperson for the BIA said McCaleb would work with his top aide Wayne Smith on the matter.

Get Chinook Documents:
Kevin Gover Statement (January 3, 2001) | Federal Register Notice (January 22, 2001) | Final Determination (January 2001) | Proposed Finding (1997)

Relevant Links:
Branch of Acknowledgment and Research -

Related Stories:
Chinook recognition to be reconsidered (11/7)
Deadline nearing for Chinook Nation (11/5)
Gover: Recognition study 'cooked' (11/1)
Reforming federal recognition (10/26)
Gover takes on recognition (10/25)
Conn. town encouraged by BIA dispute (10/17)
Norton urged to uphold recognition (10/11)
Chinook Nation faces reversal (10/3)
McCaleb reverses Clinton recognitions (9/28)