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Monday, May 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Tribal research takes tenacity

By Alex Fryer
Seattle Times Washington bureau

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Steve Beckham says of his work on behalf of tribal recognition: "It's been a marvelous research challenge."
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Stephen Beckham is not a name most people associate with Indian affairs, but he has played a critical role in the cultural and financial futures of Washington's Native communities.

A professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Beckham worked as an anthropologist on the Cowlitz, Chinook and Duwamish petitions.

His research took him into homes, offices and churches across the state, and he traveled to Washington, D.C., more than 100 times in the past quarter-century. His toughest challenge was proving to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that his clients had culturally survived since 1900 and that tribal leaders had continuously maintained political power.

"I didn't know it was going to take 20 years," Beckham said. "And neither did the tribes."

To support the Chinook and Cowlitz petitions, Beckham asked widows for decades-old funeral registries, searching for names of tribal members. Funeral attendance is a powerful way to prove cultural cohesion, he said.

He sought letters from Indian children taken away to boarding school and baptism records from Catholic missionaries.

When the BIA contended lists of Duwamish tribal members in 1930 and 1918 did not match, Beckham searched through archdiocese records at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

He pored over the names of children adopted out of St. George's Indian School near Tacoma to show the people on 1930 and 1918 lists were the same but with different names.

No historical tidbit seems too small. In its petition, the Snohomish cited a 1930 magazine article about a Notre Dame football player who was a "member of the Snohomish."

Opposition to a petition is often just as intense, and rival tribes offer the BIA their own historical research. To counter the Snohomish effort to gain recognition, the Tulalips produced the minutes of a tribal-association meeting in 1925 that did not mention any Snohomish tribe.

Beckham said he billed each tribe about $7,000 annually for his work, far below market rate. "What really intrigued me was the research challenge," he said. "It's been a marvelous research challenge."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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