We’ve always dreamt about getting a reservation and getting a reservation that could support our people through jobs, whether it be through logging or fisheries or light industrial, or even doing, you know gaming might be in the picture but it’s not going to be a huge part of the picture. But something that will get people jobs to come back to Bay Center, or to this reservation. And then really thrive on the culture. — Sam Robinson

Interviews highlighted the complexities, persistence, and struggle for the Chinook to be recognized by the federal government. Many of the narrators spoke about the difficulty and resentment towards the federal government’s failure to ratify the 1851 Tansey Point treaty. Without recognized land and resource rights the Chinook have remained in legal limbo. Despite this, people of the community have maintained a sense of community. Annual meetings and tribal events both demonstrate political sovereignty and community identity.

The individual narrators also raised the complicated relationship with the Quinault reservation. President Grant’s executive order of 1873 expanded the Quinault Reservation to include all “fish eating Indians” of the Washington coast. The Quinault reservation began allotting lands, under the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, to its members after a congressional act of March 4, 1911. In this act, Chinooks could only gain lands by “adoption” into the Quinault tribe. This was problematic on two fronts. First, the Chinook had long maintained their own tribal affiliation and second, the Quinaults were traditional enemies. Those who tried were still unable to gain adoption and through the Northwest Federation of American Indians, the Chinook sued for access to allotted land.

Thirteen Chinook tribal members testified in the case that went up to the Supreme Court. The Court’s 1931 decision of Halbert v. United States allowed hundreds of Chinook tribal members to gain allotments on the Quinault Reservation between 1932-1935, making the Chinook the majority land-holding tribe on the reservation. These allotments were given to Chinooks because they were a landless group. Moreover, the Chinooks that obtained Quinault allotments remained Chinook and were not considered to be suddenly Quinault.

During the push for federal recognition, complex issues regarding Chinook tribal relations with the Quinault led assistant secretary of Indian affairs, Neil McNab, to rescind the federal government’s 2001 recognition of the Chinook Nation.

Personal Stories

Gary Johnson, who was the tribal chair when the federal government recognized the Chinook Indian Nation describes the process of recognition:

I’m saying there is such an incredible amount of documentation. In the early days within the tribes there wasn’t an obvious form of government that meets your county, city, or state government format so we don’t have a trail of records from the 1880s or 1910 or something. However, we clearly have tribal actions and, I guess, a tribal government working and taking actions on all these things throughout the last 160 years.

When the federal government made their list in the late ‘70s of who was recognized they decided they needed to have a process for the tribes [that] were not recognized. In 1978, a process was developed. The Chinook immediately hired Stephen Beckham as an ethnohistorian, and Dennis Whittlesey as our recognition attorney, and the tribe’s next step was to update tribal rolls. So they did what was called the blue files, which was the genealogy of the tribal families of the lower river and this major, major undertaking started.

In 1987, we were ready to submit our first documents, which families had contributed all the information for and Dr. Beckham had compiled and written. In the end, ten major books of tribal history and documents – if it was a single page on the floor and you started adding, it would go at least to the ceiling. I mean, you know, thousands upon thousands of pages of statements and documents.

Then we sat for four years – four long years – and heard nothing back from the branch of acknowledgement. And in 1991, they issued a boilerplate letter that said there were obvious deficiencies in our application. So everyone went back to work to gather more information and then we responded with nine more large booklets of history gathered by the tribe, but written by Dr. Beckham, nine more books and reports along with extensive other documentation were presented to the bar.

Two years later, in 1999, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled that we were not going to be a federally recognized tribe. After this negative ruling Dr. Beckham got on the phone, called the office of federal acknowledgement back there and had a discussion with them. They had lost the nine reports and all the documents the Chinook had sent, and had not even looked at them. When this was pointed out and they did a little bit of their homework they then told Dr. Beckham it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Totally dumbfounding, like nine-tenths of our material they hadn’t even looked at, and they made this negative ruling.

Kevin Gover was the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. He oversaw the branch of acknowledgement and he hired independent people outside of his office to review our records and advise him. Gover personally gave me a phone call and invited me to bring our full tribal council to Washington D.C. on January 3rd, 2001 for a recognition ceremony. He had the full authority as assistant secretary to sign off on who was recognized and who was not, and he determined that the Chinook should be recognized. So, there were probably about thirty of us that traveled to D.C. on very short notice and had a full ceremony in the bureau. I signed documents and the Chinook were recognized as of that date. It was entered into the federal register and that’s the document that makes everything legal. We celebrated and it made national news. It was a really big thing.

We came home knowing that somebody could appeal the process in the next ninety days. So on the 89th day, the Quinault Tribal government filed an appeal, [sending the decision before] the IDIA, the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, which is a judicial branch within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So, at the end of the appeal the ruling was that Kevin Gover had acted within his authority as the assistant secretary. That should have been the end of things, because it was a favorable ruling for the Chinook.

What happened is we had the change of administration, George Bush was elected and appointed Gayle Norton as Secretary of the Interior, and Neal McCaleb as the new under secretary of Indian Affairs. And Gayle Norton, no doubt with some pressure behind the scenes, referred the Chinook recognition case back to the office of acknowledgement. I don’t fully understand her powers, and for me, it had to be illegal for that office to go back and review our case. But they did.

George Bush’s staff sent an invitation for my wife and I to go back to a White House luncheon with the president as a kickoff to the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. And so, we’re in Washington D.C. We gift him an old, old model canoe important to one of our families, a beautiful string of beads. We go to the luncheon with the other tribes 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 and looking at things and I get a call on my cell phone, and it’s telling me that Neal McCaleb has ruled against Chinook recognition, end of the story. 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 for the weekend.

Sam Robinson’s first involvement with the tribe:

When I came back, when I got out of the military, that’s when I started connecting with the tribe and I think my dad started connecting a little more. And then once I got on council of course, he was there all the time; you know, but overall. Yeah, and a lot of times when I first started, you know, in ’79 when I decided I was going to go and see what was going on with the tribe. And I attended the monthly meetings. They would usually be in the old Chinook school. There might be about five or six people in the audience, and hoping that you had a quorum of council members show up.

 Sam Robinson’ remembers annual tribal meetings:

 I mean the good thing about those meetings too is I connected with a lot of relatives back then. So, like Steve Meriwether, who is a Catholic priest down in California. He was a cousin, you know, and different people you’d be able to get introduced to these people. So that was my new connection to a lot of people that I hadn’t met.

Sam Robinson speaks about current council structure:

Council meetings last about an hour and a half, two hours, once a month, yeah. There’s a lot of communication via Internet and so forth, so we can talk, you know. And one of the things, since I’ve been on council, a strict thing that we go by, is that we don’t vote on anything not in front of our members.

Sam Robinson’s view on working with U.S. Senators during the recognition process:

The thing I see with the senators, unfortunately, is that you’ll see them for about a year when they’re running and then they disappear for the other five. It’s like, “Oh!” So it’s kind of a sad scenario. But we’ve been really working with both senators’ staff here in Vancouver, and you know we invite them to our salmon ceremonies and the Clark event, and we get them out there to see what we’re up to. And I think that’s really, really working, you know, because you keep in the people’s eyes.

Then they’re the ones that’re the voice back there. And I talked to them about, you know, when we’re out there talking and they say, “Yeah, we know when you guys are out there,” because they get the big push of letters. I was talking to them also about our friends in Pacific County and Wahkiakum County. They say, “Yeah, we know you’ve got great support over there.” So, I feel that we just need to get out there and talk some more. We’re actually working on an e-petition that we can get out there, not only to our people but to our friends all the way across the United States. And then also I brought up the topic of Twitter and Facebook, you know. Just, spread, you know, spread it big time, you know.


Joan Wekell talks about her first involvement with the tribe, the Allottees’ Association of the Quinault Reservation, and her interest in remaining active through cultural activities

Joan Wekell: “[I became involved with the tribe] I suppose after I inherited my mother’s allotment, and I’m trying to think when I became active.”

Jane Wekell-Pulliam, Joan’s daughter: “Did you go to the Allottees’ meetings with her?”

Joan Wekell: “Yes, I did. And then I met some of the people and, and I don’t know. I can’t remember the first time I went to an annual meeting; it was just I wanted to go find out what they’re doing and, [sighs] God, it’s probably in the ‘80s, I’m not sure.

I think I started getting more involved because I was on the Allottees’ board for many years. So I met a lot of Chinook people that way. Most of them were Chinook on that board. And I think I found out more about the tribe through that and got interested, and then [pause], well then as I got to know people through those meetings, and even the annual meetings I wanted to see them again and I knew I’d hear stories. And I just became very interested.”

[On joining the Culture Committee]  “I was the secretary of the Allottees’ Association and, and I [pause], it was, it just was getting awful. People weren’t showing up for meetings, so we’d never have a quorum and just, it was maddening. So I wrote them a letter and said, as of January 1st–this will give you—it was a few months before—I will be resigning. Because I was the secretary and I wanted them to have fair warning; you know, that they were going to have to replace me. So I did. But I’m still interested. Well, I continue to be a member, but I’m not on the board. 

“And I wanted to become more active in the tribe and I was very interested in the culture things; you know, like reading about, I got interested in a crafting group where we were doing some cedar bark weaving and exchanging stories. This is what I like… I try to be active.”


Ken Reed on his Quinault Allotment

“Well, after my brother logged it. My brother was a logging contractor. Actually he lived at Lake Quinault and he logged the property for me, and then, well, it was eighty acres in two forty-acre pieces. One of them had nothing. The other had timber. He logged that. And then it was just lying fallow. I considered, you know, planting it myself but I had other things to do. So, you know, one time I needed money, I sold it.”


Sam Robinson talks about seeking a reservation

 “So, that’s one of our dreams is, you know, we’ve always dreamt about getting a reservation and getting a reservation that could support our people through jobs, whether it be through logging or fisheries or light industrial, or even doing, you know gaming might be in the picture but it’s not going to be a huge part of the picture. But something that will get people jobs to come back to Bay Center, or to this reservation. And then really thrive on the culture. You know, they can really—and culture can be part of our business as well, you know.”


Sam Robinson describes staying motivated to fight for restoration and recognition

“I tell people, you know, I’m the third generation working on this, and unfortunately we’re rapidly losing that second generation, you know. And you know, you do it for, you do it for your youth, you do it for your ancestors and your elders. And it is a tough battle. You know, you just gotta have faith it’s going to happen, you know, and you feel better when you see the public’s eye really looking at you, you know, in a good way. Unfortunately, you know how things work in D.C. and the politicians and you know, we’re looking at all kinds of different avenues other than just the politicians because it doesn’t seem like you can get much out of D.C., you know. It’s tough, it’s—although you gotta keep pushing that route…”


Sam Robinson talks about working in D.C. for restoration

 “And then the next time we went back, it was to lobby. Now Elizabeth Furse said, “Don’t hire a lobbyist.” Only Chinook people could tell the Chinook story, so Michael Mason and Ray and I and Phil Hawks went back to D.C. and never had been in the Senate or the House, started knocking on doors, you know, going around knocking on doors, talking to people. Luckily Michael had worked back in D.C. and he knew a lot of people, so that was great, he was able to work that angle and we were able to educate the people on the fact that we’re being restored, not recognized, because there was a real taboo on recognition in D.C. at the time.”


Sam talks about Ray Gardner’s testimony in D.C.

 “And they never really—nobody had any questions of Ray, so finally Brian [Baird] had to say, “Do you mind if Chairman Gardner says something?” And I don’t feel that the committee actually really had any issues with our restoration; you know, that’s why they didn’t ask us any questions. You know, but he was able to at least say something. And it was such a, it was a full house there and they opened up an overflow room, you know, for the hearing. So it was something that they normally don’t have to do, you know, on Natural Resources. Yeah, so there was a lot of interest.”


Joan Wekell recalls her mother’s involvement in the recognition effort in the 1940s-50s

“My mother always had a connection with the tribe, somehow or another, I mean for years and years. […] 

“I remember that [the effort for recognition] being discussed when I was in high school. That was about a lawsuit [sighs] that we were all supposed to get money because, it had to do with how many beaver pelts were taken and you know, the, I’m not clear on what—I think the suit was settled but they never figured out how many pelts of beaver. I mean, there were more than beaver pelts, how much we really did lose for the trapping and whatever. And the government was going to pay us. Then I heard that some of the Indians did get paid but not all of them. But she [my mother] got pretty interested in that, and that might have caused, you know the idea that she might get some money may have made her more an activist.

“Well, and then she kept running into people when she would come to a meeting that was a relative, a friend of a friend or somebody she knew a long time ago, but I don’t remember her being too active until the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, and I was a kid then and a lot of it probably went over—maybe she was deeply active. 

     “I should look; there’s some letters at home that she kept. A lot of it had to do with her Indian allotment and some of it—there was like a—somebody that was a secretary for the Chinook Tribe wrote her a letter and was putting really personal things in it; I thought, ‘That’s a funny letter to get.’ Because I thought it was a business letter. And she said, ‘Well, that person’s related.’”


For further information, see the detailed essay on Chinook politics and recognition in, Andrew Fisher and Marie Jette, “Now You See Them. Now You Don’t: Chinook Tribal Affairs and the Struggle for Federal Recognition,” in Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia, Edited by Robert T. Boyd, Kenneth M. Ames, and Tony A. Johnson, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013, pp. 288 – 306.