In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Tony A. Johnson. I'm chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation (CIN).
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
It's naschio. It means Little Brother. It was originally given as a nickname, but it has come to mean a lot to me.
Where is your tribal community located?
We live by the mouth of the Columbia River and along the adjacent seacoast. The CIN includes the five westernmost Chinookan speaking tribes—the Clatsop and Kathlamet from present-day Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum, and Willapa from Washington state. Our tribal offices are currently located in the traditional village of Bay Center on Willapa Bay in Washington.
Where is your tribe originally from?
We are fortunate that we still live on our aboriginal homelands. However there are many issues our nation deals with today because we refused to participate in the relocations proposed for us.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
Our people signed treaties in 1851 that were never ratified. These Anson Dart treaties, which were negotiated on the treaty grounds at Tansy Point, were good for us, because they allowed us access to resources and, most importantly, they allowed us to stay in our villages. They say that the next winter was one of our worst—the government never came through with the goods promised at the negotiations.
The treaties of 1851 weren’t ratified because some in Congress wanted to remove us east of the Cascade Mountains.
In 1855 we participated in another treaty negotiation with our neighbors. At that treaty council we learned that the rumors we had heard were true and that we were being asked to move north away from our traditional territory. We refused, along with our closest neighbors. Naturally the people from the lands we were to be removed to agreed. They had a treaty ratified later that year, but the Native people of southwest Washington and the mouth of the Columbia River were left without a treaty. All of the tribes from this area are still suffering the consequences of these actions, or this lack of action. Most of the tribes are federally recognized, but do not have large reservations or other treaty-guaranteed rights. The CIN, however, still lacks official federal recognition today.
How is your tribal government set up?
We transitioned from a traditional form of government to an elected form of government under a constitution in the early 1950s. A point of pride with us is that the original writers of our current Constitution were all hereditary leaders within the community. In fact the first elected chairman was an important hereditary chief.
Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Hereditary leadership is still valued and in some cases has more weight than the elected government, but the Chinook Tribal Council runs day-to-day business.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Three languages were common in our area until recently. Many others were spoken as well. Chinook and Kathlamet are the primary languages of our ancestors. They are the two westernmost Chinookan dialects. Most of us are also descendants of our Salish neighbors, so their languages were common here as well. These are primarily the Tillamook and Chehalis languages.
Our ancestors also created a pidgin language known as Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Jargon. This was used widely and for many generations as a common language for people who did not otherwise share a language.
Today there are very few people who speak any of the Chinookan dialects. Salish languages and Chinuk Wawa became more prominent in our lands because of the disruptions associated with Americans and Europeans arriving here. More people understood those languages, and they were more useful over a broader area. Of Chinook, Kathlamet, and Chinuk Wawa, Chinuk Wawa is closest to flourishing, but it is still endangered. I am a good speaker of Chinuk Wawa.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.