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News / Clark County News

Chinook Indian Nation hails decision granting it access to land claim trust funds

Federal recognition still eludes tribe

By Becca Robbins, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 22, 2024, 7:06pm
4 Photos
Sam Robinson, left, of the Chinook Indian Nation talks with Tony Johnson, the Chinook Indian Nation chairman, as they join a rally in favor of federal recognition for the Chinook Tribe at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Oct. 7, 2022.
Sam Robinson, left, of the Chinook Indian Nation talks with Tony Johnson, the Chinook Indian Nation chairman, as they join a rally in favor of federal recognition for the Chinook Tribe at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Oct. 7, 2022. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Leaders of the Chinook Indian Nation celebrated Thursday what they described as a precedent-setting legal victory granting the tribe access to its land claim trust funds even though it is not federally recognized.

“This … decision is not the formal federal recognition that we’re seeking, but it is unambiguous recognition of our community’s existence and of our rightful title to the lands where we continue to live,” Chinook Indian Nation Chairman Tony Johnson said during a news conference.

Lack of federal recognition means the tribe, which is based in rural Pacific County, has no reservation and remains deprived of many resources available to sister tribes.

The federal courts, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Congress, however, confirmed the tribe’s claim to settlement funds awarded in 1970 by the Indian Claims Commission. The $48,692.05 settlement, which was placed in a trust, was compensation for lands stripped from the Lower Band of Chinook and Clatsop Indians in the 1800s, according to a Chinook news release.

In 2011, the federal government stopped distributing the Chinook’s quarterly statements, citing its lack of federal recognition. The tribe was briefly federally recognized in 2001, but its status was rescinded 18 months later, which Chinook Secretary-Treasurer Rachel Cushman said was unprecedented.

The tribe filed a lawsuit in 2017 for access to those funds. A federal judge ultimately decided in the Chinook’s favor, and the tribe created a use and distribution plan that was later approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Johnson said the tribe received notice in December that Congress would not oppose the plan, paving the way for the distribution of the funds to the tribe.

The decision serves as a sort of acknowledgment by the federal government, despite the tribe’s current unrecognized status, Johnson said. He said the decision is unique because tribes have typically been barred from accessing their land claim trust funds until they are formally recognized.

He said he’s proud the Chinook’s lawsuit will set precedent for “other tribes who are also pursuing similar relief from that broken system.”

Johnson said the case was not about the dollar figure, but rather about acknowledgment of the tribe’s land claim.

“We get our sovereignty from our lands and from our ancestors, and (the land claim) is the embodiment of our sovereignty,” Cushman said. “(The claim) represents our lands and represents our ancestors and it reaffirms that that’s our sovereignty and no one else’s. It is the embodiment of our aboriginal power.”

Becca Robbins: 360-735-4522; becca.robbins@columbian.com; @brobbinsuo

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