Skip to main content

Chinook Nation against the wall

PORTLAND, Ore. - Students of Indian history know that 1870 -1930 was a
bleak time. Why then, asked professor of Law at Arizona State University
and former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of
Interior Kevin Gover, are tribes seeking federal recognition expected to
provide a detailed record of tribal cohesiveness -complete with
genealogical records from that period?

Not only is the task unrealistic, he concluded, but the process compounds
the avalanche of paper decision-makers are forced to deal with, gives
lower-level staff inappropriate power over decisions and results in
untimely delays that in the case of the Chinook Nation totaled a stunning
23 years.

"The United States sought a final solution for the 'Indian problem,' and
that solution was assimilation, a deliberate assault on Indian tribalism.
The United States sought to withdraw from its responsibilities to Indian
tribes in many circumstances; other tribes suffered from benign neglect or
were simply left for the states to deal with.

"Still other tribes, I believe," Gover, a member of the Pawnee Tribe, said
in his 2004 testimony on Senate bill 297 before the Senate Committee on
Indian Affairs, "adopted a strategy of anonymity, believing it better not
to be noticed than to come to the attention of federal and state
authorities. Small wonder, then, that documentary evidence of some tribes
in this period is sparse."

It's been four years since the Chinook Nation experienced the emotional
wringer of having its application for federal recognition first denied,
then approved, and then - two days after the fact - once again canceled.
All that upheaval after 23 years in the application process, and apparently
no recourse, either - at least if the bills Kevin Gover supports don't go

"When our application was denied they told us that we couldn't appeal,"
said Chinook Chairman Gary Johnson, who along with other tribal leaders
serves in a volunteer capacity and has a day job. "We thought about court
but we were told it would take five to six years and cost $150,000, a
figure that the last time we checked had risen to $600,000. We do have a
recognition bill that we worked on with southeast Washington's
representative, Brian Baird. But that doesn't seem to have much hope at the
moment either.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"We're probably going to just have to go to court and worry about the money
later. We can't wait another 10 to 20 years."

The Chinooks first started their application process in 1978, so it's been
a long haul. The good news is that they're not alone. Not only are other
tribes equally frustrated with the way the BIA manages the federal
recognition process, some Washington, D.C. lawmakers have been willing to
bring bills before the chambers to redress the situation. Last spring there
was a bill in Senate; and early in 2005 Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.,
introduced a similar challenge in the House.

In Gover's testimony, he pointed out that "the federal recognition program
is one of the few undertakings in which the United States can definitively
correct grievous historic wrongs and begin in an immediate way to undo the
legacy of genocidal policies of the past."

From that premise, Gover detailed how the Office of Federal Acknowledgement
(OFA - formerly the BAR, or Branch of Acknowledgement and Research) might
revamp its process so that tribes like the Chinooks could receive their
due. Gover knows of what he speaks; in his capacity as assistant secretary,
he reversed the BIA's determination on the Chinooks in 2001.

Gover pointed to not only unreasonable demands of proof of tribal
cohesiveness during the 1870 - 1930 era, but also excessive delays and a
staff that has come to assume greater power than appropriate. He suggested
that tribes denied recognition under the current "deeply problematic and
fundamentally flawed" program have a chance to resubmit petitions once the
system is repaired. "I remain convinced that the Chinook Tribe is deserving
of federal recognition," said Gover.

Should the current House bill get back to the floor of Congress instead of
languishing in committee, the United States might have a chance to steer a
more realistic course through the federal recognition process - one that,
while not skimping on accuracy and thoroughness expected from governmental
work, moves forward in a timely fashion and bases decisions on sound
reasoning instead of blind adherence to arbitrary bureaucratic standards
with little basis in history.