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Monday, May 03, 2004 - Page updated at 08:08 A.M.

Some tribes still see promises broken, dreams thwarted

By Alex Fryer
Seattle Times Washington bureau

Chinook tribal chief, Gary Johnson, stands in front of the former elementary school that serves as tribal headquarters. The Chinook are fighting for federal recognition, a designation that bestows chosen tribes with aid for education and health care and can open the door to casino riches.
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Tribal work takes time, travel, tenacity
It was a day Chinook Indians had waited for since treaty talks collapsed in 1855.

On Jan. 3, 2001, the tribe's chairman, Gary Johnson, his shoulders wrapped in a blanket depicting the mythical Thunderbird, signed papers in Washington, D.C., recognizing the Chinook as a tribe.

Yet that same day, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official — who shook Johnson's hand at the ceremony — wrote a memo saying the Chinook had failed to make a case for federal recognition. The government later reversed its decision.

"It was the most two-faced thing you could think of," Johnson said.

The Chinook reversal of fortune illustrates the confusion and hostility that often surround tribal recognition, a Byzantine process that bestows chosen tribes with aid for education and health care and can open the door to casino riches.

For the Chinook, recognition would have meant a reservation near the town of Chinook in southwest Washington's Pacific County and federal dollars to help ensure their cultural survival.

Now, while Chinook members raise money selling coffee and doughnuts at a freeway rest stop, their neighbors 50 miles east, the Cowlitz Tribe, embark on a $300 million-a-year casino, a privilege limited to tribes that are federally recognized.

As one congressman noted, BIA researchers "are basically determining who's going to be a billionaire."

The BIA's focus on historical evidence means even a tiny clue can tip whether government researchers decide a group of Indians truly is a tribe.

But critics say the recognition process is rife with political abuses, unclear standards of proof and irrational results.

With so much at stake, some recognized tribes with casinos have tried to thwart those seeking recognition, fearing a smaller stake in the $23 billion-a-year Indian gaming business.
Meanwhile, investors of all description circle the tribes, offering help in gaining federal recognition in return for a percentage of their future casino take.

"I've gotten calls from people who say 'Let's find some Indians and build a casino,' " said Dennis Whittlesey, a Washington, D.C., Indian-gaming attorney representing Washington's Cowlitz Tribe. "I say, 'It doesn't work like that.' "

No more recognized tribes here?

In the 1970s, Washington had more tribes seeking recognition than any other state. But that pace has slowed, and there may never be another federally recognized tribe here.

The Cowlitz in Longview and Snoqualmie in Fall City won recognition in recent years. But the Chinook, Edmonds-based Snohomish and Seattle's Duwamish watched in dismay as their applications were denied in the past couple of years.

Though the courts or Congress can decide to name a tribe, it rarely happens.

Had the Duwamish succeeded, Seattle likely would have had its first tribal gaming. Duwamish Chairwoman Cecile Hansen said she met twice with investors interested in building a casino minutes from downtown.

Nothing came of the discussions, and the Duwamish, just like the Chinook, were granted federal recognition, only to see it reversed by the Bush administration.

The political leadership of the BIA under President Clinton acknowledged the Duwamish over protests from the agency's professional staff. After the White House changed hands in January 2001, the Duwamish lost what they had sought for 25 years.

"I'm tired of the process," Hansen said. "I was a young woman (when the tribe first filed for recognition in 1977). Now, I'm an elder."

Casino investments

Although it may help them put together a strong petition, taking investors' money can be divisive for tribes, which fear getting taken by a bad business partner. The Chinook voted six years ago against accepting a casino investor who had promised to help with the federal-recognition process.

"We have had groups approach us with offers and money, but we almost unanimously turned them down. It's not 'Here's some help, no strings attached,' " he said. "We don't want to be obligated to other folks. We want to do it our way."

Instead of investors, the Chinook relied on federal grants to help them research their recognition claims, $195,000 from 1998 to 2001. The government gave the Duwamish $273,000 during the same period.

The most strident opposition to a tribe's petition often comes from established tribes such as the Tulalips and Quinault, which worry about threats to revenues generated by their casinos. Those tribes sometimes flood the BIA with information arguing against recognition for a new tribe.

A contentious history

But the act of proving a shared heritage has been controversial ever since the BIA enacted new tribal-recognition rules 26 years ago. Even before casinos, the acknowledgment process has brought Native American groups into conflict.

Some established tribes believed they bought with blood whatever federal health and education benefits they received, Yakama Indian Nation Chairman Leonard Tomaskin told Congress in 1978. "My ancestors who signed the treaty were hung and they were shot," he said. "We gave the supreme sacrifice to retain what we have today and what little we have."

Applications now can run to more than 30,000 pages, as tribes try to prove they meet a seven-part federal test.

Tribes typically can prove Indian ancestry, and they can provide evidence they existed as a community until about 1900, said Steve Austin, an anthropologist who worked for the BIA from 1993 to 1999.

But the evidence often fades after the early 1900s. The reasons are many: death and disease; children forced into boarding schools and marriages outside the tribe.

After visiting the Chinook in southwest Washington, Austin concluded the tribe had existed until 1880 and then resumed political and cultural activity in about 1970. In the intervening decades, the evidence did not prove the Chinook to be a tribe, he said.

"It was too long for us to basically overlook," Austin said. "There was no evidence of community. There was no evidence of governing authority over the people."

Austin describes himself as "an old-time lefty" to contradict the notion the BIA staff members who opposed petitioners were anti-Indian. Though the process may appear inconsistent, Austin said acknowledgment decisions at the BIA were made on their merits.

The Cowlitz, which have a similar history to the Chinook, were recognized in 2000. The Samish went to court to reverse a BIA decision before they were acknowledged in 1996. The BIA recognized the Snoqualmie in 1999, despite a strong protest from the Tulalips.

Last November, the BIA ruled against the Snohomish.

"There is a bias among some groups that the big, bad BIA is standing in their way," Austin said. "But we're not doing anyone any favors to loosen up the process because of some misplaced sense of injustice. Not everyone who walks through the door and claims to be a tribe is a tribe."

Austin said he never felt political pressure during his time at the agency. At least not until a member of the Pawnee Tribe named Kevin Gover became assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in 1997.

Gover would eventually play a critical part in the history of the Chinook.

Overruling BIA staff

Appointed by Clinton, Gover clashed with BIA staff, but it wasn't about casinos. It was about history, he said.

Gover urged his staff to relax the requirement that tribes prove they maintained a cultural identity and political organization since historical times.

"I don't take a back seat to anybody in terms of what I know about Indian history," Gover said in a recent interview. "Tribes were under assault of their identity, their Indian-ness. As a survival strategy, they went underground. That was the basis of our disagreement over the Chinook. I thought the level of proof they (BIA staffers) were requiring was too high."

Over the objections of BIA anthropologists and historians, Gover recognized the Chinook on Jan. 3, 2001. The Quinault Tribe appealed the ruling, citing a BIA staff memo disagreeing with Gover's decision.

In July 2002, under Bush administration leadership, the agency reversed itself and denied the Chinook recognition, arguing that by the 1940s, the tribe "became indistinguishable from the rest of the population."

Northwest tribal scholar Stephen Beckham, the Chinook's anthropologist, has a simple response: "These people are who they say they are. I have staked my career on that."

The friction between Gover and his staff attracted attention from Congress, especially after Gover left to join a Washington, D.C., law firm that solicited business from the Chinook.

Adding pressure was the Connecticut congressional delegation, which feared Gover's philosophy would lead to the development of more casinos in the Northeast.

"The Chinook ... (were) denied recognition because the Connecticut delegation was bitching," Gover said. "I think it was politically cowardly to do what they (BIA officials) did."

Dim prospects

Today, the tribes formally rejected by the BIA — the Chinook, Duwamish and Snohomish — plot their next moves, which may include the nearly impossible task of persuading Congress to overrule the agency and acknowledge them through legislation.

Last year, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, introduced a bill to acknowledge the Duwamish. So far, the bill has only a single House co-sponsor and no companion legislation in the Senate.

No legislation on the Chinook has been introduced, but the group's prospects don't look bright, said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver. Lawmakers tend to defer to the BIA when it comes to recognition, he said.

"That's a bit of a Catch-22 for us," he said. "We've got to not just make the argument but have the votes."

Meanwhile, though the review process can take decades, the BIA has a team of nine anthropologists, historians and genealogists reviewing petitions and is hesitant to hire more.

Office of Federal Acknowledgment Director R. Lee Fleming — the same man who wrote the memo denying the Chinook were a tribe in 2001 — told lawmakers: "It would not be helpful to hire somebody and fire them because of a (later) lack of funds."

So tribes hope, wait and search for ways to pay the bills.

For the Chinook, that means holding fund-raisers to maintain tribal offices in an empty elementary school in the tiny town of Chinook, about nine miles from Long Beach, Pacific County, and hire someone to answer the phone in case the BIA calls.

They are confident that, someday, somehow, the call will come. "Right is right," said Chairman Johnson. "And right never changes."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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