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News / Life / Clark County Life

Denied, dispersed, disadvantaged: Chinook tribe pursues centuries-old fight for federal recognition

Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, is “telling the story”

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 24, 2022, 6:05am

When Sam Robinson arrives at a public event in his distinctive cone-shaped Chinook hat to sing, play his drum and tell stories, what seems like a cultural, broadly spiritual moment is something else too: a political protest.

Vancouver resident Robinson, 66, is vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation. Soft-spoken yet certain, Robinson’s frequent personal appearances — whether in traditional tribal regalia or a #ChinookJustice T-shirt — aim to reunify and strengthen a tribe that’s been denied, disadvantaged and dispersed by government repression and intertribal competition for close to two centuries.

The ruinous results are hidden in plain sight, tribal members like Robinson argued while observing Indigenous Peoples Day in early October. More than 100 Chinook tribal members and allies gathered outside the Marshall House on Vancouver’s Officers Row to press Congress to pass the Chinook Restoration Act, a law that would bestow federal recognition and start the process of establishing a Chinook reservation.

Without federal recognition, the approximately 3,000 members of the Chinook Indian Nation enjoy no benefits or legal protections as American Indians — no support for housing, child welfare, health care, mental health and addiction treatment, college scholarship funds and even coastal tsunami infrastructure upgrades.

Lack of federal recognition has deprived the Chinook of tribal pandemic assistance, COVID-19 tests and vaccines offered under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act of 2020. At the Vancouver rally, Chinook tribal Chairman Tony Johnson called that nothing less than genocide.

What’s especially galling, Johnson said, is that the Chinook tribe achieved federal recognition — for 18 months in 2001 and 2002 — only to have it reversed again. That’s the latest and most hurtful chapter in a long history of broken promises, “shelved” treaties and unfair, inconsistent legal decisions, Johnson said.

After decades of delay and indecision, the federal government has recently made long-sought strides in recognizing and supporting no fewer than 574 tribes across the U.S., Johnson said. But not the Chinook.

In recent years, the Chinook have received lukewarm, symbolic support but no real action from powerful politicians who could easily break the logjam, Robinson and Johnson both said.

The Columbian contacted both Washington senators about federal recognition for the Chinook tribe. Cantwell did not respond by press time. A statement from Sen. Patty Murray’s office said she “understands just how important Tribal recognition efforts are and how critical it is that all voices involved be heard. She will continue to do her best to serve as a voice in the United States Senate for Washington’s Tribal governments and Tribal people.”

Former Democratic 3rd District U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, a long-standing champion of Chinook recognition, fears that Republican control of the House of Representatives in the next session of Congress may well stymie the effort yet again.

“There is still a window of opportunity if the (Washington) senators seize it,” he wrote in an email, “but that window is closing rapidly and it would be a tragedy for the Chinook and for the surrounding communities if the moment passed without action.”

While many Chinook have scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, they remain concentrated in Pacific County — one of the poorest counties in Washington — and the tiny coastal village of Bay Center. Lack of federal recognition and aid means Pacific County will stay poor, and Chinooks will continue to struggle for unity, health and well-being, speakers at the Vancouver rally said.

Johnson, a Pacific County native who lives along Willapa Bay today, said he takes frequent calls about the individual misfortunes and miseries of his Chinook peers — from poverty and hunger to drug addiction and suicide — and there’s little he can do.

“Without federal recognition, we don’t have the means of dealing with any of it, and it’s so damned frustrating,” Johnson said. “We had a mess handed to us.”

Warm and cold

“Deep in Chinook country,” is how Robinson describes the town where he was born, South Bend, just upriver from Willapa Bay.

“It is the home of the ancestors and I’m proud of it,” Robinson said.

When Robinson was 3 years old, his grandfather Clarence and the rest of the family moved to Clark County to help build, and eventually own and operate, Robinson Cold Storage, a berry-processing facility in Ridgefield. Clarence Robinson became a respected businessman who hobnobbed with bankers and joined Royal Oaks Country Club, Sam recalled in a 2011 oral-history interview that’s posted at ChinookStory.org (a collaboration between the tribe and Portland State University).

Sam Robinson’s family eventually settled in La Center, where he graduated from high school. His family traveled frequently to South Bend and neighboring spots in coastal Pacific County to visit their relatives.

“Bay Center was our go-to place, always,” he said in the 2011 interview. “As soon as you got off the highway and started coming into Bay Center, you start smelling all the smokehouses going. … That was one of my memories when I was a kid, is always pulling into Bay Center and smelling that fish.

“Those were the people that you truly knew were Chinook people, because … my great-aunts and uncles, just they lived it,” Robinson said of his coastal relatives.

He said he learned to love their stories and lifestyle — perhaps the fishing and seal hunting more than ingesting actual seal oil, which one of his aunties wanted to slather on everything.

“It was always, always warmth, always warmth amongst the families,” Robinson said.

Always cold, by contrast, was Chinook distrust of white authority. When they went trout fishing on Lake Merwin, Robinson said, his father and uncle Clyde would insist on brandishing obsolete but genuinely government-issued blue cards that conveyed “seining rights,” that is, the right to fish with nets in the traditional tribal fashion.

Those cards were already ancient when Robinson was a kid, but local game wardens automatically respected them and backed off, he said. There was no way his ancestors would surrender the cards and the “old rights” they symbolized, he said.

“Clyde knew … you couldn’t trust the government, so he made sure they didn’t give those up,” Robinson said. “I have the blue card today, just kind of kept it in case we need that as evidence down the road.”

Evidence and erasure

Amassing the evidence required to prove their past, secure their rights and ensure their future presents a bitter paradox for Chinook people. Much of that evidence has been suppressed, lost or never existed after a grinding history of conflict with white people and the U.S. government.

When Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb informed the Chinook of the 2002 reversal, he wrote: “As people who had been closely connected as children and young adults died, the succeeding generations interacted less often and intensely until the community of Chinook descendants became indistinguishable from the rest of the population.”

The publication Indian Country Today argues that government repression of the Chinook became self-fulfilling, diluting their population to the point where they became virtually invisible — and no longer qualified for federal recognition and a reservation.

At the Vancouver rally, tribal Secretary-Treasurer Rachel Cushman called that process “erasure.”

“Essentially, the U.S. government repeatedly tried to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the area,” said Baird, the former congressman. “I hate to use that term, but that’s really what it was.”

The relationship didn’t start out so poisonous, according to a history posted on the Chinook Indian Nation website. When white settlers began arriving, Chinookan peoples occupied what’s now Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon all the way from present-day The Dalles, west along both sides of Wimahl (the great river eventually renamed Columbia) and out to the coast, spreading as far south as Tillamook, Ore., and as far north as Willapa Bay. One researcher at Portland State University has estimated the pre-contact Chinook population was 15,000 people.

Chinookan peoples lived in communal longhouses (like the one that opened on the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in 2005), enjoyed plentiful game and fish, and reportedly were hospitable and helpful when white people began arriving. A simplified form of their language — Chinook jargon — became the language shared by the tribe and explorers and traders from places as diverse as Spain, Great Britain and the young United States of America, based on the other side of the continent.

But it’s naive to idealize the nobility of Indigenous cultures, Robinson added. Chinooks maintained a rigidly class-stratified society, with some turning their prisoners of war into slaves. Some Chinook elites engaged in practices like head-flattening — binding and pressuring infants’ heads with wooden boards in order to grow the forehead and cranium flat in a display of high social rank. Just like wealthy or striving European families, Chinook royalty arranged marriages in order to consolidate their wealth and land holdings, Robinson said.

Relations between whites and Chinooks were peaceful at first, but grave troubles broke out eventually. The first was the arrival of smallpox, malaria and measles. Chinooks had even less natural protection against these diseases than the Europeans who brought them. Approximately 90 percent of the Chinook population was wiped out by new diseases during the first half of the 19th century, according to an essay by Leslie Ann McMillan in Oregon Humanities. It’s estimated that by 1853 the whole Chinook population plummeted from 15,000 to just over 500 who lived on the margins of a rapidly increasing white population of 12,000.

Diaspora and decisions

At an 1851 treaty negotiation at Tansy Point (near today’s Fort Stevens, on the mouth of the Columbia), officials for what was then Oregon Territory proposed that the five western-most Chinookan tribes move to a reservation east of the Cascade Mountains. The Chinook refused, accepting instead a small reservation on the coast, along with compensation for ceded lands.

That sounds tidy, but it’s the beginning of another painful chapter. While some Chinookan peoples did move and concentrate in the designated coastal area, the Tansy Point treaties were never ratified by the U.S. Congress. Some have speculated that’s because it was easier simply to let the Chinooks decline and disappear. Their reservation was never officially established, and lost Chinook lands were never compensated at all.

“We became a diaspora of outcasts,” McMillan wrote in Oregon Humanities.

The century-plus since then has seen courts backtrack and zigzag, awarding the Chinooks minor victories and compensations of land. But every step forward seems to have been subtly undermined or outright reversed, Johnson said.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the Chinook’s 1982 application for federal recognition. After nearly 20 years, the Clinton administration granted recognition. A triumphal Chinook group was invited to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony.

Then the incoming George W. Bush administration reversed that decision, rescinding the Chinooks’ federal recognition. The sudden switch was based on an appeal by the adjacent Quinault tribe, whose home is farther up the coast in Grays Harbor County.

The Quinault are long-standing rivals of the Chinook whose enmity appears to have been exacerbated by the arrival of white people. The Quinault Indian Nation has its own federally recognized reservation, but over the years, ongoing treaty negotiations also designated some Quinault land for several other tribes — first the Quileute, Queets and Hoh people, then later the Chehalis, Chinook and Cowlitz, according to Indian Country Today.

All of those other tribes, except the Chinook, have since succeeded in gaining federal recognition and establishing their own reservations. But Chinook land allotments and hunting and fishing rights on Quinault land remain in dispute. In 2018, Quinault officials said they still want the Chinook to waive any and all rights to their land.

“We are working pretty intensively to resolve that situation,” said Johnson, the Chinook tribal chairman. “There are 10,000 years of feeling in that relationship. Those are things not overcome quickly or easily. But they do need to be overcome.”

Baird described the Quinault’s strategy as a misguided — and tragic — contest over resources. If the unrecognized Chinook cannot claim their land allotments within a couple of generations, he explained, that land will revert back to the Quinault.

“The conflict, from the Quinault perspective, has … centered on tribal sovereignty, specifically whether non-Quinault tribal members can exert their hunting and fishing rights there,” said Steve Fountain, an assistant professor of history at Washington State University Vancouver. “In short, if the Chinook Nation is recognized, Quinaults argue that they will lose control of their own reservation lands and resources.”

The Columbian requested comment from the Quinault Indian Nation and received no reply.

“I think you will find it hard to get anyone to go on record who is directly involved in the opposition,” Fountain told The Columbian.

Both Baird and Fountain said the opposition is not over a potential new casino on a new reservation. The Chinook have been careful to steer clear of “potential casino clashes,” Fountain said.

Baird criticized policymakers who prefer to “punt on this issue,” he said. “ ‘I don’t want to get into the middle of tribal conflicts — you work it out’ does not achieve justice.”

Telling the story

Robinson graduated from La Center High School in 1975 and spent four years in the Army, stationed at Fort Ord, Calif. He said he might have stayed in that area and in the Army because both suited him well, but his new wife, Mildred, a Puerto Rican native of Indigenous ancestry, wanted to get away from city life.

The couple moved north to Vancouver and started a family. Robinson has long worked as a plant manager and safety director at Calvert Manufacturing (now Western Forest Products after a buyout this year), a Vancouver maker of laminated timber products for building construction and roofing.

He said he grew curious to see “what the Chinook have gotten up to” while he was away in the Army. He started attending meetings and refamiliarizing himself with his old friends, their extended families and their more traditional, tribal ways of life.

That’s when his eyes truly opened to Chinook disadvantages, he said. The Chinook had few resources to do anything beyond meet and discuss their ongoing predicament. For many years, the entire annual tribal budget hovered below $50,000, he said.

Robinson’s interest in Chinook politics and culture grew, and eventually he was asked to join the Chinook Tribal Council. When he ran for tribal vice chairman, nobody opposed him. He’s been Chinook vice chairman for four terms now, he said.

And what does his Chinook council work consist of?

“Telling the story,” Robinson said.

He has stayed busy in recent weeks appealing for Chinook tribal recognition at events hosted by the Clark County Historical Museum, the League of Women Voters and Washington State University, as well as at political rallies in Seattle and Vancouver.

Given a history that includes fragmented families and children “re-educated” in Indian boarding schools, it’s typical for knowledge of Indian culture to have skipped a generation or more, Robinson said.

Robinson said he didn’t make a major point of teaching his two daughters, Casandra and Rebecca, about their Chinook background. But his granddaughter, Destany Reeves-Robinson, has eagerly embraced it all.

Destany, a high school senior who lives in Vancouver, said she’s been alongside her grandfather for as long as she can remember at public events, ceremonial canoe journeys, gatherings at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgefield and even tribal business meetings. Earlier this year, Destany served as head dancer at an intertribal gathering called a powwow.

“Destany has been doing this since she could walk,” Robinson said.

She said she’s quick to correct classroom teachers who refer to Chinook or American Indian people in the past tense.

“There are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of misinformation,” said Destany, who is considering becoming a teacher herself.

“She has many things I didn’t have,” Robinson said. “She makes us proud in every way. She’s not just a future leader of the tribe. She’s a leader right now. And I think her work is paying off.”

15 Photos
Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, displays a photo of his father, Korean War veteran Scott Robinson, at an Oct. 7 rally for federal tribal recognition for the Chinook at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
Sam Robinson & Chinook Nation Photo Gallery