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Cowlitz recognition upheld over Quinault objections

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PORTLAND, Ore. - A Department of Interior appeals board has ruled against a Quinault Nation challenge of federal recognition of the Cowlitz tribe.

The ruling said the Quinaults failed to meet their burden of proof when they challenged the initial federal recognition process.

At issue for Interior Secretary Gale Norton to decide is whether the burden of proof was misapplied and whether there was erroneous data regarding mixed blood Cowlitz in an 1878 census. The Quinaults claim the Cowlitz ceased to exist as a tribe shortly after this census was taken.

Cowlitz Vice Chairwoman Marsha Williams said the Quinaults argue that mixed-bloods, or Metis, are not tribal members. Williams, herself a descendant of the Metis, said mixed-blood members were always considered tribal members and the distinction was only made by European-Americans.

Furthermore, Williams said all Cowlitz ask is the same rights and privileges enjoyed by the Quinaults with regard to access to health care, federal benefits and local governance.

"For our people who were allotted there (the Quinault reservation), they just want a voice on their own land," Williams said.

Apparently the appeals process is not final. The Quinaults have until July 5 to respond to Norton who then has 60 days to respond.

She could reject the appeal and make the recognition process complete with a stroke of a pen. Or, she could refer the matter to her staff and prolong the appeals process or she could do nothing and let the 60 days expire without action thus upholding recognition for Cowlitz.

Cowlitz tribal attorney Dennis Whittlesey said he believes the first or third option is most likely as he feels the process has gone too far to be reversed.

Williams added that most of the issues have been ruled on, making further review "very unlikely."

The Cowlitz are one of eight tribes sent to the Quinault reservation in the 19th century and given land allotments. Cowlitz tribal members own 16 percent of the land at Quinault and Cowlitz tribal sources said they feel shut out of administration of reservation affairs.

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Their situation mirrors that of another Quinault reservation tribe, the Chinooks, who also faced opposition from the Quinault government in their recognition process.

Whittlesey claims to have a letter dated April 21, 2000, from the Quinault attorneys asking the Cowlitz to renounce all claims to reservation administration. In turn the Quinaults said they will drop all of their appeals to the Department. Cowlitz quickly dismissed the offer.

A similar, verbal offer allegedly was made to the Chinook tribe last year by Quinault Chairwoman Pearl Capoeman-Baller. The Chinooks, however, have yet to make a final decision on the offer, though Cowlitz sources say Quinault has now extended the offer to individual Chinook tribal members.

Capoeman-Baller was out of the office on business all week and a tribal attorney, Richard Reich, said he could not comment on the situation without consent from the chairwoman.

In an earlier Indian Country Today story, however, Capoeman-Baller said she was willing to work with individual non-Quinault tribal members to give them a voice in tribal politics.

"I understand that the recognition process is lengthy and difficult and it would be easier for them to come into an already established reservation but I can't give up what I believe are basic Quinault rights to govern our own land," she said in the earlier story.

At present the Quinaults dominate the governing body of the 200,000-acre reservation on the Pacific Coast. If either the Chinooks or Cowlitz is ultimately successful in their bids for recognition, it is possible that one or both tribes would ask for a stronger voice in reservation governmental affairs.

"If Cowlitz decides to assert their rights then there will be a change in the way the reservation is managed," Whittlesey said.

Whittlesey does not directly deny that Cowlitz may want to eventually open a casino in nearby Longview, Wash. However, he said this is not the tribe's primary focus and it is recognition and recognition alone that most concerns the tribe.

Both Whittlesey and Williams said their recognition would not affect the Quinaults as a tribal entity, only their management of the reservation. Whittlesey calls the Quinault domination of the reservation a "minority ownership."

Of the eight Quinault reservation tribes, at least two, the Makah and Chehalis, have decided not to challenge Quinault authority.