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Lewis & Clark

Two centuries after Lewis and Clark, the Chinooks fight for a future denied
In the 1978 painting by John F. Clymer called "Visitors at Fort Clatsop," Chinook Indians are portrayed as the visitors, bringing food to the Corps of Discovery in the winter of 1805-06. The Chinooks' help was critical to the explorers' survival, and now the tribe is seeking federal recognition to help its own culture survive.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis on May 14, 1804, in search of a water connection across the vast, largely uncharted North American continent.

The fabled Northwest Passage didn't exist. Instead, Lewis and Clark explored the Northwest, a land rich in rivers and mountains, towering evergreens and abundant salmon, and Indian tribes that welcomed them and showed them the way.

In an occasional series in The Seattle Times over the coming months, we'll explore what the Corps of Discovery found, how the country and the land have changed, and what these explorations mean to us today.

A JOHN CLYMER print on display at the Fort Clatsop National Memorial near Astoria in Oregon depicts a group of Indians at the gates to the stockade offering fish and other food to Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery.

Clymer, the late Western artist and Ellensburg native, painted the scene from the explorers' perspective — from the inside looking out into the sodden winter rain forest. The short, stooped Native Americans, clad in robes and conical hats woven from grasses and cedar bark, appear apprehensive, inching nervously forward like Dorothy and Friends at the gates of Oz. The explorers watch warily, flintlock rifles at the ready, suggesting a tense encounter.

Today's descendants of those Native Americans don't like the picture and ask that it be taken down when they visit.
Cliff Snider, a retired high-school coach known in the Portland area as Chief Snider, is a popular ambassador for Chinook recognition.
"It's insulting," says Gary Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation. "Our people are cowering outside while the white guys are standing erect, chests out, weapons ready."

Historians believe the Chinooks (tribal members use a hard "ch" as in "change") may have a point. The wet winter of 1805-06, when Lewis and Clark holed up in their makeshift stockade, was a low point of their expedition. The explorers were cold and hungry, claustrophobic amid towering evergreens that blocked the daylight.

The local natives helped them survive by providing fish, berries, roots and the occasional dog — all for the going price, of course.

Accurate or not, that scene is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago. Because, even as the nation celebrates the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's undaunted journey across the continent, the descendents of the Indians who helped them survive that winter now seek official federal recognition as a tribe.

Johnson and his fellow Chinook council members claim to represent some 2,000 Native Americans of Chinook descent, scattered across the region from Seattle to the Oregon Coast and beyond. They have no treaty, no reservation, virtually no federal assistance. They are not even recognized as a distinct people.
George Lagergren, 81, born to a Chinook mother and Swedish father, still works his idyllic 125 acres at Bay Center on Willapa Bay, one of the traditional centers for the ancient Chinook culture.
Their identity was stolen from them some 50 years ago, they say. Stolen by a nameless bureaucrat at the Bureau of Indian Affairs who took it upon himself to decide the ancient Chinook Nation had ceased to exist.

"We know who we are, but our government doesn't," says Gloria Reed Brown of Seattle, who drives down to Chinook Country for the monthly council meetings. "They recognize the town of Chinook. They recognize the Chinook salmon. They use those Chinook helicopters . . . Everything except the people."

So now they're back, standing at the gates of Oz, hands outstretched, pleading with Congress and bicentennial officials and anybody who might listen: Give us back our identity.

IF CHINOOKS ARE a nonentity in Washington, D.C., they certainly are not so in Washington state. "The Chinooks are one of the best-documented tribes in the history of the Pacific Northwest," argues Steve Beckham, an historian at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. "Almost every traveler and explorer who crossed into the Columbia River encountered them and wrote about them."

Historically, the Chinook Nation consisted of many thousands of people who occupied both banks of the Lower Columbia and the Willapa Bay region. They were linked by culture and language with the Clatsops, who lived on the south side of the river.
The Chinook River meets the Columbia near its mouth in the heart of Chinook Country.
Theirs was a rich culture, thanks in large part to the marine environment, which provided a seemingly endless supply of salmon, trout and smelt, sturgeon, shellfish and the occasional whale. They had ample supplies of wild berries and roots. They lived in large, cedar-planked longhouses, carved seaworthy canoes up to 35 feet long, and crafted clothing and baskets from furs, grasses, wool and cedar bark.

Geography was their greatest single asset. Chinook villages at the mouth of the river provided strategic control over trade between coastal and inland nations — and eventually with European ships that began arriving in the 1790s. Much of that trade was conducted in what came to be called the "Chinook jargon," an amalgam of English, Spanish, Nootka and other Northwest Indian languages.

So, by November of 1805, when Lewis and Clark floated down the river into Chinook Country, the resident Indians were, as Lewis described them, "great higlers in trade." They knew what they wanted, and they knew what they were willing to pay for it.

For the explorers, the initial response was extraordinary relief at reaching the end of their year-and-a-half-long trek. "Great joy. . ." Lewis wrote. "We are in view of the ocean. . . which we have been so long anxious to see, and the roaring or noise made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores. . . may be heard distinctly."
The Chinook Tribe operates out of a long-abandoned schoolhouse in the Southwest Washington town of Chinook. The toilets can't be used at high tide. Leaders hope to get federal recognition that might enable them to build a modern tribal center.
But events, especially the weather, quickly went downhill. The incessant rain and winds soaked the expedition, and relations with the Chinooks were "tenuous," says historian Beckham. In terms of life's necessities, the Indians were wealthy, while Lewis and Clark were "impoverished," having used up virtually all their trade goods — beads, metal tools, etc. — in exchanges with interior tribes. The entrepreneurial Chinooks "expected more, and got less," Beckham says.

This explains why the explorers fortified themselves behind log walls, maintained a 24-hour guard and ousted the Indians at dusk each evening.

Even so, the Chinooks provided desperately needed food. And, while the Indians could easily have overwhelmed the invaders, there were no open hostilities. Relations were strained, but peaceful.

The following March, the explorers packed up their boats and headed back East. They, and others who preceded and followed them, left a devastating legacy in Chinook Country. Countless thousands of Indians died from epidemics of smallpox, cholera, alcohol and other diseases to which they had no immunity.
A tattered, stylized statue of Lewis and Clark marks Station Camp, the windblown riverbank near Chinook where the explorers spent several miserable days before moving to a more permanent site on the south side of the river. There are plans to develop the historic site.
By the 1850s, farms and salmon-fishing operations, and eventually towns, were sprouting on Chinook land. And there were fewer Chinooks to defend their property. An 1851 census identified 251 Chinook and Clatsops — a small fraction of their pre-contact numbers.

Robert Shortress, a government agent based in Astoria, wrote in 1851 that "it is impossible not to feel indignant" about the treatment of the people who had lived there for thousands of years. "I have so long preached patience and hope to them that I am almost ashamed to do so any longer."

Shortress called for a treaty and a reservation "secluded from the influence of the whites."

In August of that year, Chinook leaders signed a treaty in which they ceded much of the north shore of the river in exchange for promises of cash, clothing, hardware, tobacco, guns and powder and other goods.

The treaties were shipped off to Washington, D.C., where no action was taken on them. In their book on the Chinooks, historians Robert Ruby and John Brown suggest that the government balked because whites wanted Chinooks moved to Eastern Washington "where they would be out of the way."
The Chinooks were distinguished by their short stature and flattened foreheads, which were shaped by boards lashed to the heads of infants.
A few of the Chinook people eventually moved to the Quinault Reservation, others to the Grand Ronde Reservation about 80 miles south of Astoria in Oregon. But most stayed in their ancient homelands, gradually adopting new lifestyles in small towns such as Chinook, Ilwaco, South Bend and Bay Center.

Yet, even without a treaty and reservation, the Chinooks were officially recognized by the government. When the government created the Quinault Reservation, some 100 miles up the coast, Chinooks were allotted tens of thousands of acres of reservation lands — despite the fact that Chinooks and Quinaults were ancient rivals and frequent combatants. Chinooks were treated like any other Indians, Beckham says. They were granted Indian hunting and fishing licenses, and their children were admitted into Indian schools.

A century later, in 1951, the Chinooks pressed for federal compensation — $30 million for the loss of 762,000 acres of land, plus hunting and fishing rights. The government eventually awarded them $100,000.

Then, in 1954, the BIA quietly terminated its official recognition of the tribe. The agency acted alone, says historian Beckham, without support from Congress, the administration or the law.

TODAY, THE TRIBE operates on a meager budget. Three employees are based in an abandoned schoolhouse in Chinook — near where their ancestors first encountered Lewis and Clark. The building is dilapidated; the toilets back up at high tide.
Chinook Country is where the land and forest give way dramatically to river and ocean.
But the struggle continues. Last year, the Chinooks thought they had finally gotten the government's attention. Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Grover invited Chinook leaders to Washington, D.C., for an official "signing ceremony" proclaiming a government-to-government relationship. Then the Bush administration suddenly reversed itself and announced that "evidence presented by the tribe does not fully support federal recognition."

In a sense, one can understand why the government has a tough time finding the Chinook Nation. After 150 years of persecution and assimilation, its members are scattered across the landscape. They are schoolteachers, fishermen, mill workers, electricians, firefighters , taxpayers and pensioners. Few retain any of the Chinook physical characteristics — the short, muscular stature and the flattened foreheads. Today's Chinooks seem thoroughly absorbed by the great sweep of American culture . . .
Fort Clatsop, a tiny stockade only slightly larger than a modern suburban house, was home to the Lewis and Clark expedition during the winter of 1805-06. Today's replica, near Astoria, is believed to be an approximate rendition of the original.
Until you get to know them.

Take Gary Johnson, the tribal chairman. A tall, strapping man with longish black hair tied back in a pony tail, he is a public-school teacher and counselor in South Bend. These days, he balances his school responsibilities with his tribal-council meetings and lobbying trips to the nation's capital.

His son, Tony, teaches Chinook language and culture at the Grand Ronde Reservation. Sammy, his 2-year-old grandson, toddles around at council meetings babbling in fluent Chinook that most of the council members don't understand.

There is George Lagergren, now 81, who grew up the son of a Chinook mother and Swedish immigrant father at Nemah River, near Bay Center. He fished the salmon runs through the Depression, served in the Navy, saw action in the Philippines, Iwo Jima and elsewhere. After the war, he came home to marry Millie, who traces her ancestors directly to Comcomly, the Chinook chief at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. They've lived 55 years on an idyllic 125-acre farm in Bay Center, a lovely plot they hope will one day be part of a Chinook reservation.
Tony Johnson, son of the Chinooks' tribal chairman, is a language teacher who has passed the disappearing Chinook language along to his young son, Sammy.
"I'm part Swedish, but I was raised Indian," George says. "I hunt and fish. I can remember when there were longhouses and big mounds of oyster shells down by the shore."

He spends his retirement tending to his homestead, carving canoes and painting local landscapes with Chinook motifs.

Millie Lagergren sustains another tribal tradition by weaving baskets, highly prized by collectors.

And there is Chief Cliff Snider, a 76-year-old retired high-school coach and teacher whose Portland-area school named its football stadium in his honor — "Chief Snider Field."

While his mother was Chinook, Snider was raised in Portland, where he was told not to discuss his heritage. He went on to become a star football and basketball player in Portland and at Oregon State, and only later did he discover that he, too, was related to Chief Comcomly.

Initially, he says, he attended Quinault tribal meetings because he still owns an old family allotment there. But one day the Quinaults wouldn't let him. "Because I was Chinook," he says. "That's when I began to find out who I was."

Snider became involved with the Chinook tribe, serving 22 years on its council, much of it as chairman. When he left the council, he was elected "honorary chief for life."

"My mother was raised at Pillar Rock, and she's buried there in a Chinook graveyard," he says. "Now it's somebody's private property. When I go to visit her grave, this guy threatens to shoot me."
Gary Johnson, a South Bend teacher and counselor, is the unpaid chairman and spokesman for the federally unrecognized Chinook Nation.
THESE DAYS, Chief Snider is the Chinooks' unofficial ambassador to the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. He travels the continent, promoting his people's cause, often draped in his chief's garb. "Our people still recognize the U.S. government," he told an audience of bicentennial officials in Great Falls, Mont., last April. "But we are waiting for our government to embrace us as our ancestors embraced Lewis and Clark two centuries ago."

Why do Johnson and Snider and the Lagergrens insist on federal recognition? Skeptics suggest the Chinooks merely want to build an Indian casino and make a lot of money.

"This process started long before casinos were on the landscape," says Chief Snider. "There have been offers and suggestions, but we're not interested in a casino."

Besides, the casino market is already saturated, adds one tribal member. Who will want to gamble in remote Chinook towns like Bay Center?

In part, however, they are looking for money — federal dollars to build a legitimate tribal center, to operate cultural programs for kids, a health program for seniors.

And, ultimately, they dream of regaining just a piece of the coastal landscape they lost. "We accept what happened many years ago," says Lagergren. "But we'd like to get back some of what they took from us."
The Chinooks traditionally lived near the mouth of the Columbia River, acting as traders and middlemen between tribes, then later with white explorers.
Casinos and federal programs aside, the Chinooks insist the fundamental issue is one of identity. "It's not right," says Lois Reed Saxton, of Port Angeles, who drives all the way to Chinook Country for council meetings. "A people as powerful and important as the Chinooks should not be allowed to vanish from the face of the Earth."

But, despite the attention drawn by the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, their crusade appears to be mostly uphill. They are just one of dozens of tribes, including Seattle's own Duwamish, who are seeking recognition from a Republican administration that is not friendly to Indian causes, especially those with dollar signs.

They face opposition from their old rivals, the Quinaults, who fear losing authority over their own reservation, a large portion of which is still owned by Chinook families.

And, not surprisingly, the disparate Chinooks are far from unified among themselves. Johnson frequently reminds interviewers that he, as chairman, is the only authorized spokesman for the tribe. "We want to make sure you're talking to people who really represent the tribe," he cautions. "There are some individuals out there who are not well informed."

He refers in part to Cliff Snider, who still lives in Portland and rarely makes it to council meetings.

And now there is another group emerging on the Oregon side of the river, claiming to represent the Clatsop people.

As always, the politics of Indian country is not all that different from the politics of non-Indian country.

BACK AT Fort Clatsop, just west of Astoria, park rangers are gearing up for an onslaught of visitors expected to retrace the celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition. No small number will find their way to the tiny stockade, only slightly larger than a typical suburban home, and to the visitors center a few steps away.
The ancient Chinook people never saw a teepee. They lived in comfortable longhouses, framed in cedar.
On a gray morning in early May, the parking lot is empty and a young ranger with a trendy, bleached hairdo minds the information desk. A thin mist hovers over the meandering Lewis and Clark River and clings to the old-growth Douglas firs and cedars.

The small museum displays relics from the expedition and from the Native American people who greeted them. There is an 18-foot canoe, fishing gear, clothing and baskets woven from grass and cedar bark, and a statue depicting a local Indian stooping alongside the heroic Lewis and Clark.
The one-eyed George Ramsay, left, and George Washington were among a cadre of local Indians called upon in the early 1800s to pilot British and American ships on the lower Columbia River as part of the thriving trade between whites and various tribes.
Sally Freeman, a veteran park ranger who specializes in historical interpretation, says she grapples with an array of myths surrounding the relationship between the explorers and the resident Chinooks. The strangers never really understood each other, she says. "These Indians didn't fit the mythical concept of the tall, noble warriors on horseback and living in teepees. These people were short. They didn't ride horses. They lived in longhouses. They didn't wear feathered headdresses."

The misunderstandings continue, she says. The National Park Service slide show "suggests that the Indians are long gone, that they somehow disappeared. We need to fix that, because obviously it isn't true."

And then there is that dramatic John Clymer print, with the Indians clustered at the gates to the stockade. Clymer called it "Visitors to Fort Clatsop."

"It's done from the explorers' point of view," she says. "Maybe we need a new generation of art — done from the Indians' point of view."

It might address the question: Just who was visiting whom?

Ross Anderson is a retired Seattle Times staff reporter. Steve Ringman is a Times staff photographer.

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