Chinook Nation Moves Closer to Federal Recognition As Judge Advances Claim

The Chinook Indian Nation gather outside a federal courthouse in Tacoma to rally support for federal recognition. CREDIT: MOLLY SOLOMAN - OPB
The Chinook Indian Nation gather outside a federal courthouse in Tacoma to rally support for federal recognition. CREDIT: MOLLY SOLOMAN - OPB

A U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma has ruled that seven of eight claims brought by the Chinook Indian Nation will move forward. It’s a victory for the tribe, which has been fighting for recognition for more than a century.

The August 2017 lawsuit stems from the tribe’s ongoing battle to gain federal status. Tribal members packed a federal courthouse last month to hear oral arguments on a motion filed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to dismiss the case.

In a filing Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton largely sided with the tribe, denying seven of eight claims claims by the Interior Department to dismiss the case, including a challenge to a 2015 rule that bars tribes from seeking recognition again.

The decision also allows the tribe to argue they should have access to federal funds they won in 1970 as compensation for land the federal government seized in the 1850s. The funds are worth about $500,000 and are currently held in trust by the Interior Department, according to court filings. The Chinook claim these funds have never been distributed to the tribe.

“We live to fight another day,” said tribal Chairman Tony Johnson. “I know the community is buzzing right now, seven out of eight of our claims are gonna go forward. And that makes us all feel fantastic.”

Leighton did rule against the tribe on one claim that would have allowed a federal court to declare recognition. He said granting tribal status still needs support from Congress and other branches of government.

“The court in no way diminishes what members of the Chinook Indian Nation understandably view as an inconsistent process that lacks transparency,” the judge wrote. “Yet, this court is bound to adhere to the well-established legal principle that the issue of federal acknowledgment of Indian tribes is a quintessential political question that must be left to the political branches of government and not the courts.”

Attorneys for the Chinook tribe were disappointed that the first claim was dismissed, but the ruling wasn’t surprising.

“To be frank, the first claim is the more difficult claim,” said James Coon, who is representing the tribe alongside attorney Thane Tienson. “There’s a long history of treaty recognition being left as a political question.”

The tribe was briefly recognized in 2001, but had its status revoked 18 months later. One of the loudest voices in opposition to the Chinook’s federal status comes from another tribe, the nearby Quinault Tribe. They appealed the Chinook Nation’s status on the 89th day of a 90-day comment period.

“With the Quinault Tribe, a lot of it is politics,” Tienson said, adding that the majority of landholders on the Quinault reservation are Chinook tribal members. “They’re concerned that the Chinook could be recognized and might adversely affect the amount of allotments.”

Federal recognition would allow the Chinook to establish a reservation and gain native fishing rights. Tienson said it would also open up certain health, education and cultural benefits for the tribe’s nearly 3,000 members.

“It is enormously important to these folks that their heritage and connection to their ancestors be recognized,” Coon added. “The Chinook know it’s true, but to have the government not recognize them is deeply hurtful.”

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