Tony Johnson, Chinook artist and leader, has worked alongside his father to achieve federal status for many years. Johnson became tribal chairman in 2016. Image 2009, courtesy of Donna Sinclair

“This is new history, this isn’t old history. You know, they were taking just our grandparent’s generation to Indian school. They gave that same generation allotments on the Quinault Reservation, you know. Their parents were going to Indian hospitals to have their babies, so why is it, even at that time, the Federal Government denied that we were Indians?” 

Tony Johnson interview, 2002

In 1979 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began a Federal Acknowledgement Program for non-recognized tribes. In 1987 the Chinook filed a petition for federal acknowledgement. One of President William J. Clinton’s final presidential acts included conferring federal recognition to the Chinook Indian Nation, and on January 3, 2001 Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover, made the announcement. The government also recognized the Duwamish Tribe on January 19th. After President Bush took office, the Quinault Indian nation requested reconsideration of the Chinook’s petition. The newly appointed Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Neal McCaleb then reviewed the final determination. On July 3, 2002, Gary and Christy Johnson attended a special Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery program at the White House, by invitation of the president.           

Left: Envelope containing invitation from the White House to attend Lewis and Clark Expedition, “Voyage of Discovery” program with hundreds of other tribal members who encountered Lewis and Clark.
Right: cover of July 3, 2002 program. Documents courtesy of Gary Johnson.

On July 5, 2002, just two days after the event, the U.S. government rescinded federal recognition. Gary Johnson best described how this came about in a 2012 interview:

So we’re in Washington D.C. We gift him [the president] an old, old model canoe, important to one of our families, a beautiful string of beads. And we gift him these things. We go to the luncheon, with the other tribes represented that were along the Lewis and Clark trail. So then, two days later we’re still in Washington D.C. My wife and I are going to the Smithsonian [chuckles wryly] and going around and you know, looking at things, and I get a call on my cell phone. And it’s what I would call a secretary within the office, telling me that Neal McCaleb has ruled against Chinook recognition. End of the story. And you know, it was just pretty amazing. Because prior to the White House luncheon, the BIA had us in their offices giving us passes and gifts and things to do, you know, within the weekend. So, we were fully recognized on the second and third and the fourth, but got the phone call on the fifth.

Left to right: Chinook Chairman, Ray Gardner, with Phillip Hawks, and Vice Chairman, Sam Robinson, in Washington D.C. Image courtesy of the Chinook Indian Nation

Ten days later, Laura Bush sent a thank you note for the gifts to Mr. Gary Johnson, Chinook Tribal Chairman, Chinook Indian Country.

Neal McCaleb cited lack of evidence regarding tribal activity before 1951 as the reason for removing recognition. Tribal activity is one of seven criteria for tribal recognition.

In 2004, Kevin Gover, no longer with the Bureau of Acknowledgement and Recognition, testified before the Committee on Indian Affairs. Gover, who had earlier ensured federal recognition of the Chinook, pointed out that the process is “deeply troubled,” “dense,” “intrusive,” and far too slow.

Former Chinook Nation Chairman Gary Johnson speaks to an a group of students about Chinook status, 2015. Image courtesy of Donna Sinclair

By 2006, the Chinook tribal council began working with Congressman Brian Baird to develop legislation and obtain tribal Restoration, based on Chinook inclusion in the Western Oregon Termination Act. They set out to demonstrate proof of initial acknowledgement and ongoing tribal activity, and in June 2009 Baird sponsored HR 3084, an act to Restore Federal Recognition to the Chinook. The House Committee on Natural Resources received the bill for deliberation in July. That same month Chinook Indian Nation Tribal Council Chairman Ray Gardner testified, as did Fawn Sharp of the Quinault. Although the Quinault have historically worked against Chinook recognition, Sharp stated that the Quinault could not oppose Chinook restoration, but also said their restoration could negatively impact the Quinault.

HR 3084 never made it out of committee and was cleared from the books two years later, due to inaction. Today the Chinook Indian Nation consist of five of the tribes linked by language and culture who have historically and continuously occupied both banks of the Lower Columbia and the Willapa Bay region—Cathlamet, Clatsop, Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum, and Willapa. Without federal recognition, some Chinook have moved to other reservations, such as the Quinault or Chehalis in Washington and the Grand Ronde in Oregon, but many have stayed in their homelands, living in communities like Chinook, Ilwaco, South Bend, and Bay Center, location of the Chinook Tribal Office.

Generations of Chinook people have and will continue the struggle for federal acknowledgement.  With acknowledgement comes reservation lands, autonomy, and resources that would enable them to care for their elders, educate the young, and maintain sovereignty in the land of their ancestors.


Beckham, Stephen Dow, Chinook Indian Tribe, Petition for Federal Acknowledgment. Chinook, Washington: Chinook Indian Tribe, 1987.
Gary Johnson interview by Donna Sinclair, March 10, 2012, Chinook Tribal Office, Bay Center, Washington



Criteria for federal recognition:

1. The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.

2. A predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.

3. The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.

4. A copy of the group’s present governing document including its membership criteria. In the absence of a written document, the petitioner must provide a statement describing in full its membership criteria and current governing procedures.

5. The petitioner’s membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes which combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.

6. The membership of the petitioning group is composed principally of persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American Indian tribe. However, under certain conditions a petitioning group may be acknowledged even if its membership is composed principally of persons whose names have appeared on rolls of, or who have been otherwise associated with, an acknowledged Indian tribe.

7. Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the Federal relationship.