“The estuary of the Columbia river, while beyond question usually and customarily resorted to as a fishing ground of the Chinook tribe of Indians, was not usually and customarily or frequently resorted to by the Quinaielt and Quillehute.”

— U.S. v. McGowan, 62 F.2d 955, 9th Circuit Court, 1933

Chinook Indians Seining. Image courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 46585. Indians fishing, Sand Island, Chinook.
J. F. Ford photo.

Chinook identity has been both contested and validated in the courts many times since the late nineteenth century. On March 4, 1911, Congress authorized land allotments on the Quinault Reservation for all “fish-eating” tribes under the Treaty of Olympia. Initially, many Chinook, and others, such as Cowlitz and Chehalis, sought and failed to receive allotments, and so they sued. Chinook Indian Tribe members, such as Rose [Taltrich] Pickernell and Paul Petit, testified in a 1931 case that ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court Halbert v. United States. The Court found for the litigants, citing previous federal actions as evidence of tribal entitlement of the Chinook to allotments on the Quinault Reservation. As a result, hundreds of Chinook secured allotments.

The Quinault Tribe entered the picture again in 1933 in United States v. McGowan, which addressed Quinault fishing rights along the Columbia. In this case, the government distinguished between the Chinook and the Quinault. The court listened to testimony from Chinook witnesses and identified the Columbia estuary as Chinook fishing ground, negating Quinault access.

The federal government has referred to the Chinook as “non-treaty Indians,” “other tribes,” and “tribes of fish-eating Indians” of the Pacific Coast, along with other vague terminology. Yet, a number of court cases following the Treaty of Olympia identified the Chinook by name. Although U.S. law allows only “federally recognized” tribes to obtain allotments, the Chinook acquired them, and were registered as Chinook on both the Chehalis and Quinault reservations. Thus, members of the Chinook Indian Nation argue that they have been federally and legally recognized since American expansion into the region.