Chinook Nation eager to tell story
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MARCH 2, 2001

When Secretary of Interior Gale Norton makes her first trip out of Washington, DC, this weekend, she'll be meeting a tribe her department once said didn't exist.

For years and years, members of the Chinook Nation of Washington were told they weren't an Indian tribe. The courts, history books, and even the Bureau of Indian Affairs all had a part in virtually erasing the tribe out of existence.

Yet the tribe had a particular drawing power which betrayed the naysayers. Having welcomed the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest, tribal leaders were constantly being asked to tell the role their ancestors played in that historic journey -- all in preparation for bicentennial celebrations to take place from 2003 to 2006.

Finally recognized by the federal government, the tribe is now more eager than ever to let their voices be heard.

"Out intentions are to be the Chinook storytellers and we are truly entitled to do that," said tribal councilor Peggy Disney. "Its been over 200 years worth of suffering but we don't just intend to portray the sad side, either. There's a lot of things that we are thankful for."

Chinook contact with non-Indians began as early as the late 1700s and in late 1805, the tribe welcomed Lewis and Clark to their territory along the lower Columbia River. While their relationships with these early explorers were mostly peaceful, the one with the federal government wasn't always so.

In 1851, the government negotiated a treaty with Chinook tribal leaders but the Senate refused to ratify it. In 1855, the government made another attempt but some tribal leaders held out because the treaty would have removed them from their aboriginal territory along the Columbia near the Oregon border.

The decision to protect their land had a devastating effect: the tribe was left landless and unrecognized. After fighting for much of the past century to address what they considered a historical injustice, the tribe in 1997 was dealt what seemed like a final blow: the BIA declined to acknowledge them as a tribe.

But in what Disney described as "a very documentable moment in Chinook history," the decision was reversed in early January by former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover. Although Disney said tribal members were unsure of the BIA's direction on the issue, they were clued in by a phone call inviting them to Washington, DC.

"I think the timing couldn't have been sweeter for us," said Disney.

The tribe is now getting ready to take their rightful place in recounting Lewis and Clark's journey. Along with local leaders, the tribe will be meeting Secretary Norton on Saturday, who will address the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Forum at the Fort Clatsop National Memorial in Astoria, Oregon, the site of Lewis and Clark's winter camp.

In addition to taking part in local and national celebrations, the tribe also plans on holding its own events to commemorate the expedition. Among other events the tribe is considering, Disney said a traditional canoe paddle is in the works and would be a fitting way to describe their own struggles.

"That would be quite an event to witness: all the tribes coming together," said Disney. "It hasn't happened here for 200 years."

Relevant Links:
Lewis and Clark, PBS Special -
The Ethnography of Lewis and Clark -
Fort Clatsop National Memorial, Astoria, Oregon -

Chinook Documents, BIA:
Remarks of Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary-Indian AffairsOn the Final Determination for Federal Acknowledgment of the Chinook Indian Tribe/Chinook Nation (BIA 1/3)
Final Determination to Acknowledge the Chinook Indian Tribe / Chinook Nation (BIA 1/22)
Chinook Indian Tribe, Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research (BIA 1997)

Related Stories:
Gover reverses Chinook decision (Tribal Law 1/4)