Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Chinook Indian Nation is closer to securing ancestral winter village land

A man operates a weed wacker in front of a small red house with a sign resting up against the wheelchair-accessible railing that reads, "Chinook Tribal Office>"
Amiran White
Underscore News
Chinook Indian Chairman, Tony Johnson, works with other members of the tribe to tidy the grounds that the Chinook Office sits on in Bay Center, Washington.

This story originally appeared on Underscore News.

The Naselle Youth Camp, a juvenile detention facility in Naselle, Washington, closed in September 2022. The Washington State Office of Financial Management convened a task force in July to help decide what to do next with the facility and nearly 23 acres of land.

On April 25, the task force voted to recommend the return of the camp to the Chinook Indian Nation.

There were close to 30 ideas in July 2023 when the task force first started meeting, which were then shortlisted to around five. The Chinook Nation emerged as the final recommendation.

The Chinook Indian Nation’s proposal is the only option that utilizes the entire facility and land. Some other options that were proposed were affordable housing, an inpatient behavioral health program and a learning center. These are all options that the Chinook can achieve while also utilizing the rest of the facility.

“[The vote] does feel like something for the history books and something that our descendants will look back on as an awfully important moment,” said Chinook Indian Nation Chairman Tony Johnson.

This comes after the Washington State Office of Financial Management, which was required to convene the legislatively mandated task force, invited representation from the closest federally recognized tribe, the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, instead of the Chinook Indian Nation, the non-federally recognized Native nation on whose ancestral lands the facility sits. Washington State Rep. Jim Walsh — who added thebudget proviso to the 2023-2024 legislative budget proposal that paid for the task force — advocated for the inclusion of the Chinook Nation, along with Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe Chairwoman Charlene Nelson and others.

A new Chinook village

Chairman Johnson shared the Chinook Indian Nation’s vision for the future of the facility and land during a meeting of the task force in March. From day one, he said, the facility would provide immediate office space needed for the Chinook government and for archival storage, and space for cultural classes as well as tutoring and college prep. The current tribal office is an old house in Bay Center, Wash. that was donated by a Chinook citizen and renovated by volunteers.

It would also allow for the development of a cultural village for the Chinook. The nation plans to use the space for revitalization and perpetuation of Chinook cultural teachings with carving facilities, cultural classes, language classes, the relocation of a plankhouse, a sweathouse, and a cultural center. For a nation that has been fighting for federal recognition for nearly two centuries and doesn’t have a landbase, being able to return to their winter home along the creek that feeds the Naselle River would be a “generation-changing opportunity,” according to Johnson.

Chinook leadership sees this as an opportunity for natural resources and food sovereignty efforts as well. The industrial kitchen in the Naselle Youth Camp has freezers for bear, elk and fish; storage for food; supplies like canning jars; and space for food distributions as well as an area for teaching food preservation. The Chinook Indian Nation food distribution efforts will be aimed at both Native and non-Native community members, Johnson told the task force.

Housing insecurity is an issue that can be remedied for some with the return of the Naselle facility as well.

“A significant number of our younger and most vulnerable folks are currently living in trailers or other totally inadequate housing,” Johnson told Underscore News + ICT.

Pacific County, where Chinook tribal headquarters are currently located, has long dealt with food insecurity. Pacific and surrounding counties are also dealing with housing shortages. While many Chinook people have been displaced from their aboriginal lands, many have remained. The Naselle Youth Camp is about three miles from the town of Naselle, where 12% of the population are citizens of the Chinook Indian Nation. Significant populations of Chinook citizens are also in Rosburg, Greys River, Bay Center, and South Bend, according to the Chinook Indian Nation’s enrollment records.

The Chinook Indian Nation also plans to develop a clinic that includes physical health services and behavioral health services for mental health and substance abuse disorders. This is especially exciting for the Chinook Indian Nation because, without federal recognition, Chinook citizens do not have access to medical care through the Indian Health Service. The Naselle facility would alleviate some of that need.

“Far too many Chinook people that I grew up with continue to struggle with addiction, have been incarcerated, or are dead,” Chairman Johnson told Underscore News + ICT.

According to Johnson, Chinook citizens' lack of health care has often meant that those diagnosed with life-threatening diseases never sought care because it wasn't readily available. Many died.

“We have all the issues of Indian Country without the resources to deal with them,” said Rachel Cushman, Chinook Indian Nation council secretary. “We are doing what we can when we can, but it's not enough. We need support. Our people need support.”

A group of people helping an older woman to be wrapped in a blanket.
Amiran White
Underscore News
Chinook council woman, Rachel Cushman and chairman, Tony Johnson, gift a blanket to Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe chairwoman, Charlene Nelson, during a council-to-council meeting July 2023. Nelson has since retired from her position as chairwoman.

Among many other ideas for the large facility, the Chinook would like to prioritize sustainable energy for the existing facilities, commit to the highest standards for new construction, and plan to be a model for recycling efforts while also focusing on reforestation, a potential nursery for native vegetation and growing trees for industrial use.

Three consultants were paid $5,700 to $39,013 “reflecting a large variance in complexity of required analyses and data collection,” according to Kauffman and Associates Inc. (KAI), a Native American-owned and -operated management consulting firm, hired by the Washington State Office of Financial Management to facilitate the task force and develop a report on its recommendations. These consultants created analyses of the cost and created a report for the task force to review and determine if the idea was viable. The Chinook Indian Nation was not paid for their report. The Washington Youth Challenge Academy, who was a late addition to potential ideas for the facility in October 2023, was not paid for their concept report analysis either.

Tensions between nations

Originally, the Chinook Indian Nation was scheduled to share its plan during a Jan. 18 task force meeting. At the onset of each meeting, the task force takes roll of members and then asks observers to state their names. At the January meeting, Quinault Indian Nation Councilwoman Kristeen Mowitch was in attendance as an observer. For Chairman Johnson and the Chinook Indian Nation, Quinault's representation in the meeting was a surprise and concerning.

After the Chinook gained federal recognition in 2001, the Quinault Indian Nation appealed to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Board of Indian Appeals. As a result, newly elected President George W. Bush rescinded the federal recognition granted by President Bill Clinton.

“The presence of the councilwoman from the Quinault Indian Nation puts a bit of — well, I'll just say, causes some pause,” Chairman Johnson said at the January meeting. “These folks are responsible for the Chinook Indian Nation’s lack of federal recognition and have actively been working against us, including to this day… I'm very much uncomfortable sharing our information in the context of Quinault’s presence.”

Johnson commented further in the online task force meeting’s chat window, explaining the Quinault Indian Nation’s role in the revocation of the Chinook Indian Nation’s federal recognition.

“We are the only Nation in the history of that process that has had their recognition rescinded in this way,” Chairman Johnson wrote. “The amount of suffering we have experienced since is immeasurable and their work against us is unforgivable. Since that time, they have continued to oppose us in every effort to regain that status. Quinault has no business south of Grays Harbor and should have no voice in any matter within Chinook's aboriginal territory. They should log off and mind their own business.”

When Johnson asked in the chat if Quinault would like to explain their presence and interest in lands far from their Aboriginal territory, there was no response. Mowitch continued to attend task force meetings as an observer.

Underscore News + ICT reached out to Mowitch for comment. She shared a statement from Quinault Indian Nation President Guy Capeoman.

“Despite some public comments that misrepresent the Quinault Indian Nation’s position, we have not actively opposed the Chinook efforts for federal recognition,” Capeoman said. “As the elected leaders of the Quinault Nation, however, we will always uphold the sacred duty enshrined in our constitution to protect the lands, resources, rights and interests of the Quinault people. We will always defend against any policy or effort that threatens our treaty rights. We understand there are some potentially viable paths forward for the Chinook to reach their goal of federal recognition that would not erode our treaty rights.”

In 1905, the U.S. government divided the Quinault Reservation into 80-acre allotments assigned to individual citizens of the Quinault, Quileute, Queets, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz nations. Individual Chinook citizens became landholders on the Quinault Reservation.

In 2001, Pearl Capoeman Baller, then president of the Quinault Indian Nation, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the issue was the possible loss of control over the Quinault’s resources and reservation. She described a meeting with Gary Johnson, a former chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation and Tony Johnson’s father.

"I met with Gary Johnson about a month ago saying if the Chinook will permanently waive any rights to hunting, fishing, gathering and other treaty rights, and if you will also waive any claims that the Chinook share government authority over the reservation, then the Quinault will withdraw objection to (federal) acknowledgment," Capoeman Baller told the Post-Intelligencer.

Government-to-government meetings were held last year between both nations, which resulted in the Chinook Indian Nation amending their constitution to remove references to the Treaty of Olympia – a move intended to show support for the reserved treaty rights of the Quinault Indian Nation. The Chinook Indian Nation shared at that time that they have no interest in any lands other than their own aboriginal territory.

Moving forward

This history of conflict stoked by federal policies hasn’t impacted the task force’s continued acknowledgment of the Chinook, or the understanding that the land the Naselle Youth Camp sits on is the ancestral homelands of the Chinook Indian Nation. From the very first task force meeting, state representatives and community members have advocated for the Chinook.

The community is familiar with the Chinook Indian Nation. The Chinook worked with the Naselle Youth Camp before its closure, advocating for Native youth who were incarcerated there. They helped with an annual Potlatch and worked in the facility with Native youth who were a substantial percentage of the facility for decades, according to Chairman Johnson.

But the decision isn’t final yet. KAI will create a final report summarizing the work and recommendations of the task force for task force review. The final report will then be sent to the Office of Financial Management for submission to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the fiscal committees of the legislature, who will review the task force report in June and make a decision.

“Chinook has felt the trust and support of the task force members throughout,” Johnson said. “Our community has said, ‘From our perspective, there is only one outcome that we would accept.’ From the community perspective, it's the only outcome that was viable.”

A group of people standing in front of an industrial style kitchen.
Amiran White
Underscore News
Members of the Chinook Indian Nation council take a look at the kitchen area of the Naselle Youth Camp in Naselle, Washington.

Underscore News is a nonprofit investigative newsroom committed to Indigenous-centered reporting in the Pacific Northwest. We are supported by foundations and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

Luna Reyna is Underscore News and ICT Seattle-based Northwest Bureau Chief. Reyna is is a writer and broadcaster whose work has centered the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice.