SEATTLE — The Chinook tribes greeted Lewis and Clark when the explorers arrived at the Lower Columbia River in 1805. The tribes helped members of the expedition through the winter, bringing them food and assisting with navigation.
More than 200 years after that first contact, the five tribes that now make up the Chinook Indian Nation have a constitution, a tribal council and annual meetings. They are not, however, recognized by the U.S. government.
“They say we are extinct, but my family still lives on our indigenous land,” Councilwoman Kate Elliott said.
The Chinook tribes’ lack of recognition could change under proposed revisions to the 35-year process the U.S. Interior Department uses to officially recognize Indian tribes. Announced May 22, they are part of an effort the department says will make tribal recognition more efficient and transparent.
Changes include moving the earliest date from which tribes must provide documentation of their existence into the 1930s and allowing tribes to reapply for federal recognition under certain circumstances, something previously prohibited.
Federal recognition is desirable because it makes tribal members and governments eligible for federal budget assistance as well as services such as health care, according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. A federally recognized tribe is considered a sovereign nation that has a government-to-government relationship with the United States and possesses the right to create and enforce laws, regulate activities within its jurisdiction and determine membership criteria.
For some Washington tribes, the proposed changes could make it easier to achieve federal recognition. These tribes, however, acknowledge that the changes would still mean a long road ahead in gaining the recognition status they have sought for years.
“We are pleased by the proposed changes; however, we know that there is still a ways to go in the process,” said Sue Hall, vice chair of the Snohomish Tribe of Indians, which has fought for more than 30 years to gain federal recognition.
The Chinooks, as well as the Seattle-area Duwamish Tribe, received federal recognition in 2001 during the very end of the Clinton administration. But both tribes’ recognitions were quickly overturned by then-President George W. Bush’s administration, which said the Duwamish had had a temporary lapse in tribal government and did not always live in a cohesive community and the Chinooks had not existed continuously through history.
One proposed change, known as the “Part 83 process,” requires tribes to show community and political influence or authority only from 1934 rather than from “historical times,” the requirement in existing law.
This could be helpful to the Chinooks, since the nation has more documentation from the modern era that goes beyond its oral history, Elliott said, and it will help “level the playing field” for all tribes seeking recognition.
“You can’t expect the tribes whose treaties weren’t honored to get paperwork, especially when almost everyone was sent to boarding school,” Elliott said, referring to the era from the late 1800s to the 1930s when the U.S. government forcibly removed Indian children from their families and placed them in boarding schools in an effort to strip them of their culture and “civilize” them. “How can you tell people you can’t do anything Indian, but later, when you go to file, they have to prove from 1851 or 1855 that they have been keeping documents?”
The current rule forces tribes to relive the more “difficult times in their history,” said Michael Willis, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP, which focuses on legal issues affecting Indian Country.
The proposed changes would also allow tribes, under certain circumstances, to re-petition for recognition. In order to do so, however, tribes whose petitions for federal recognition had been rejected would have to have the consent of third parties, other tribes for example, that previously had appealed their recognition.
“That last-minute stipulation, if it sticks and there is no waiver, is really heartbreaking,” Elliott said. “But if there is one thing we are, we are stubborn, which is the reason we are still here. We are not giving up. This is only a final draft.”
Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen said the proposed changes still don’t take away from the tribe’s ultimate goal: Restoration of the recognition they won and lost in 2001.
“No Indian person in the United States should have to prove who they are,” Hansen said. “I have been doing this for 39 years. Why should I have to go through another set of regulations?”
The BIA will hold hearings in July for federally recognized tribes and the public to comment on the proposed changes.