Chinook tribe to receive major funds

 

March 14, 2024

Before the colonization of what is now the United States, the Clatsop lived on the south shore of the Columbia River. At the river’s mouth, where the Columbia rushes into the Pacific Ocean, were the Lower Chinook on the north shore and the Willapa Chinook on the bay north of the river. The Lower Chinook and Clatsop had close familial and kinship ties to the Wahkiakum and the Cathlamet, who lived just a canoe ride to the east.

Today, the Chinook Indian Nation encompasses all five nations that have lived along the Lower Columbia River since time immemorial. But they have never received compensation for the land taken during colonization of what is now Washington state. In a press conference on Thursday, Chinook announced that its land claim settlement, originally awarded by the Indian Claims Commission over half a century ago and known as Docket 234, will no longer be withheld. Now, a payment will be distributed to the nation in exchange for some of the richest and most productive land in the West.

Chinook leadership believes this decision further affirms their title to their aboriginal territory which supports their ongoing fight for federal recognition. It also strengthens their efforts to take ownership of the Naselle Youth Camp, a juvenile detention facility that closed in September 2022. The facility is within the boundaries defined by the land claim settlement, according to Tony Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation.

“This docket 234 decision is not the formal federal recognition that we’re seeking but it is unambiguous recognition of our communities existence and of our rightful title to the lands where we continue to live,” Johnson said. The federal government has awarded nearly $700,000 to the Chinook Indian Nation to settle the nation’s long-running land claim. The nation believes the decision strengthens its nearly two-century fight for federal recognition and its campaign to secure a land base in its traditional territory.

Before the colonization of what is now the United States, the Clatsop lived on the south shore of the Columbia River. At the river’s mouth, where the Columbia rushes into the Pacific Ocean, lived the Lower Chinook on the north shore and the Willapa Chinook on the bay north of the river. The Lower Chinook and Clatsop had close familial and kinship ties to the Wahkiakum and the Cathlamet, who lived just a canoe ride to the east.

Today, the Chinook Indian Nation encompasses all five nations that have lived along the Lower Columbia River since time immemorial. But they have never received compensation for the land taken during colonization of what is now Washington state. In a Feb. 22 press conference, the Chinook announced that their land claim settlement, originally awarded by the Indian Claims Commission over half a century ago and known as Docket 234, will no longer be withheld. Now, a payment will be distributed to the Indian nation in exchange for some of the richest and most productive land in the West.

Chinook leadership believes this decision further affirms their title to their aboriginal territory and supports their ongoing fight for federal recognition. It also strengthens their efforts to take ownership of the Naselle Youth Camp, a juvenile detention facility that closed in September 2022. The facility is within the boundaries defined by the land claim settlement, according to Tony Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation.

“This Docket 234 decision is not the formal federal recognition that we’re seeking, but it is unambiguous recognition of our communities’ existence and of our rightful title to the lands where we continue to live,” Johnson said.

Monumental decision

In August 1970, the Indian Claims Commission awarded just over $48,000 to the Lower Band of Chinook and Clatsop as compensation for lands taken during colonization of what’s now Washington state. The 1970 settlement acknowledged the Lower Chinook and Clatsop peoples’ claim to their ancestral lands. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) denied access to the money because the Chinook Indian Nation is not federally recognized.

Since then, the money has been sitting in a government trust account. In 2017, the Chinook filed a lawsuit to force the government to acknowledge that they are the sole heirs to the land claim known as Docket 234.

The judge in the lawsuit ruled in favor of the Chinook nation and sent the case back to the BIA. The Chinook developed a use and distribution plan for the funds and submitted them to the BIA, where they were approved. The distribution plan was then sent to the desk of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. She approved the distribution plan, which was forwarded to Congress for review. In December 2023, the Chinook received ian Affairs and Congress would affirm the use and distribution plan that the Chinook developed for the funds.

In December 2023, the Chinook received notice that the federal courts, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress would affirm the use and distribution plan that the Chinook developed for the funds.

The funds, now just over $686,180, will largely go unrestricted for the Chinook Nation to use as it sees fit, in order to meet the needs of the Chinook people, Johnson said Thursday. The nation plans to use the funds for things like cultural preservation, social services, drug and alcohol treatment and land acquisition.

In the past, land settlement funds have been highly restricted. The Indian Claims Commission forced tribes to distribute per capita payments to their citizens, and even dictated which programs to fund.

“In the case of our use and distribution fund, it is wide open,” Johnson said. “We proposed using these dollars for all of the things that our community needs and in an unrestricted way, and that is how it was passed so for anybody out in Native country who still has trust funds, this is a precedent-setting situation.”

Historically, land claim settlements were paid out to federally recognized nations. Johnson pointed out that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe had a similar land claim settlement that wasn’t paid out until the tribe gained federal recognition in 2000. But in this case, the federal government agreed that the Chinook Indian Nation is the legal heir to the settlement funds, even without federal recognition. Johnson said that’s another precedent this decision sets, one that will benefit other Native nations without federal recognition who have similar land claims.

Johnson said the money itself is not what’s most important. Instead, he said, this decision is monumental because it reaffirms and acknowledges the Chinook as the heirs to the Lower Chinook people on the north shore at the mouth of the Columbia River and the Clatsop people on the south shore of the Columbia River.

That acknowledgement could have a huge impact on the Chinook’s nearly two-century fight for federal recognition.

“That acknowledgement and what it means for our current realities is, well, priceless,” Johnson said. “This victory confirms our legal heirship to the settlement funds from our 1970 victory before the Indian Court of Claims. It resolves more than a century of legal battles for the Chinook Indian Nation to affirm our title to our aboriginal territory here. Importantly, this victory also supports our ongoing fight to clarify our status as a federally recognized nation.”

Rachel Cushman, secretary of the Chinook Indian Nation, agreed.

“Docket 234 is the embodiment of our sovereignty,” Cushman said. “Docket 234 represents our lands and represents our ancestors and it reaffirms that that’s our sovereignty and no one else’s. So that’s what it means to me. It’s the embodiment of our aboriginal power.”

The Naselle Youth Camp, which was used to incarcerate juveniles for more than 50-years, closed its doors in 2022, and now sits vacant. The Chinook Indian Nation are asking the state to give the land back to them, and are part of a Taskforce developing a best use plan. The Naselle Valley is of huge importance to the Chinook, and during the treaty talks, they were willing to give up most of their land, as long as they could keep the Naselle. However, that treaty was never ratified.

‘Generation-changing opportunity’

The U.S. government formally acknowledged the Chinook Indian Nation as a sovereign nation in 2001, but the government rescinded the nation’s federal recognition just 18 months later.

“Since our restoration was stripped away, we have experienced one after another, really horrific moments in our community that would have been mitigated with federal acknowledgement,” Johnson said.

Chinook families have experienced the same history of harmful assimilation that other tribal nations have experienced, but without any of the resources to mitigate them that comes with federal recognition. For generations, government agents forced Chinook children into the Indian boarding school system. With no support to remedy those collective cultural traumas, the Chinook people experience high rates of houselessness, substance abuse and other socioeconomic struggles, without the means to deal with those challenges and support their people.

Recently, an opportunity arose for the Chinook Indian Nation to gain some land back, which Johnson, the tribe’s chairman, has called a “generation-changing opportunity.” The Naselle Youth Camp, a juvenile detention facility, closed in September 2022. The Washington State Office of Financial Management is now deciding what to do next with the camp property and facilities.

“It’s really a pre-made tribal agency,” Johnson said. “It has all the things that we need, but importantly it is also safe from sea level rise. It really feels like a safe and just highly critical space for us to build our future from.”

The facility sits squarely within the boundaries defined by the land claim settlement, Docket 234, that the Chinook are finally receiving compensation for. Last Thursday’s decision awarding the land claim settlement amounts to federal acknowledgement that the Chinook Indian Nation is the sole political successor of that land, Johnson said. Chinook leadership hopes that acknowledgement will be a deciding factor in the Office of Financial Management’s decision on the Naselle Youth Camp land and facilities.

“We also see it as a chance for Washington, frankly, to pay a debt that clearly has to be acknowledged and is owed to the Chinook Indian Nation,” Johnson said. “Meaning, the state of Washington operates on our aboriginal lands and has frankly been a part of extracting billions of dollars in resources from our rivers, land and shorelines.”

 

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