“Our Story on Our Territory”

The Chinook people’s reclamation of Tansy Point

Amiran White

To drive the paved perimeter of our ancestral Chinook territory—north from Seaside to South Bend, east to the Cascades, west through the Columbia River watershed, back to the Pacific Ocean—is a journey of about four hundred miles, encompassing nearly seven thousand square miles, or more than four million acres. Chinooks in this generation travel the route with ebbs and flows of sorrow and wonder. 

Since time immemorial, Chinookan people have inhabited bountiful expanses on both sides of the Columbia River. By the late 1700s, Spanish, American, and British voyagers sent by distant empires often encountered our canoe people and our Chief Comcomly, who all welcomed them bearing the riches of salmon, meat, and pelts to trade at the mouth of Wimahl (Big River)—soon renamed the Columbia River by American ship captain Robert Gray. Gray, George Vancouver, Lewis and Clark, the Astor Expedition, and others recorded Chinook enterprise, diplomacy, and lifesaving endeavors in their journals. Our Chinook language became the lingua franca for generations of diverse frontier populations from Alaska to California. Our Chinook name marks an array of places, entities, creatures, and things throughout North America.

Over time, the consequences of Chinook hospitality have been inconstant, both undeniably positive and unbearably negative. Beyond the foreign diseases that wiped out 90 percent of the Chinook population within five decades, the eventual shifting policies of forced removal, forced assimilation, and forced nonrecognition devalued our innate dignity and identity as indigenous people. The high ideals of the United States of America were somehow inapplicable to us.

Periodically, after the age of exploration reached our shores, Chinook people, culture, language, habitation, or rights have been left for dead. Yet through more than two centuries of existential adaptation to change, decimation, and ongoing injustice, we endure as the living heirs of an ancient people. We have gained a difficult expertise in being tenacious and civil while seeking restoration that does no harm. Beyond the pressure of grievance, the solace of reconciliation is essential to healing—for both sides, all sides. A profound measure of our vitality converges at our historically significant treaty grounds at Tansy Point, Oregon.

On November 7, 1851, Anson Dart, the first Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory, attached his handwritten report to the packet of thirteen treaties he had negotiated in August of that year. It began, “The Treaties concluded at Tansey-Point (near the mouth of the Columbia) cover a tract of over one hundred miles on the Pacific, running back along the Columbia about sixty miles; the country was owned by ten small Tribes of Chinook Indians.” Dart characterized the Chinook as “industrious” and cited “their usefulness as labourers in the settlements” as a reason not to remove them from their western Oregon home. Then Dart confided, “The poor Indians are fully aware of the rapidity with which, as a people, they are wasting away. . . . They are fully sensible of the power of the Government, admit that they can be killed and exterminated, but say that they cannot be driven far from the homes and graves of their Fathers.”

On the Tansy Point treaty grounds at the mouth of the Columbia, our destiny as an ancient people was radically redirected, and we became a diaspora of outcasts. The significance is such that even our decades-old Chinook Indian Nation constitution, immediately following the mission preamble, refers to aboriginal Chinook lands “as described in the treaties negotiated with Anson Dart, Superintendent of the Oregon Agency, in the year 1851.”

Our ancestors had desperately sought something better than the forced removal of our population to a distant environment east of the Cascades. Congress had mandated the eastern removal in sending Dart to the western Oregon tribes. The western tribes rejected the demand, so Dart negotiated terms they would accept. The Chinook treaties at Tansy Point—which included separate agreements with each of our five confederated tribes—promised us some indigenous areas and some timely payments in exchange for millions of acres of ceded land. Our ancestors, entire family groups camping on the treaty grounds, earnestly discussed the options. From August 5 to August 9, 1851, our men signed, with X’s, the skillfully handwritten legal terminology that assured some native continuity as civilized settlement advanced through the Oregon Territory. As pledged, our ancestors moved to restricted local areas with limited resources, then tried with difficulty to adapt. Settlers were already claiming and occupying the ceded land, but Congress never ratified the treaties, leaving our ancestors without payment or, eventually, tribal recognition. We can only speculate as to why the Tansy Point treaties were never ratified; the bountiful lands, waters, and resources were taken, and the payments never reached our hands. At Tansy Point, our Chinook ancestors signed away much and lost almost all.

Six decades later, in 1912, Congress authorized minor compensation in what we assert was constructive ratification of the 1851 treaties. Twelve decades after the treaty promises, in 1970, the Indian Claims Commission granted another small amount. A long-pursued 1931 court decision awarded some individual Chinook land allotments outside of Chinook territory, on the Quinault Reservation to the north. In 1981, we petitioned for federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA. This was granted in 2001 and then reversed in 2002, again dismissing our sovereignty and excluding us from basic rights and services. The financial compensation awarded through previous congressional and legal actions and held in a BIA trust account became inaccessible without federal recognition. We are without an officially designated homeland and without the resources that had sustained us for millennia. We have no casino or large tribal venture. Yet we persevere with the undying hope of surviving and even thriving as an indigenous nation. 

That the enduring Chinook people today are not counted among the 573 federally recognized tribes is a painful indignity. The approximately three thousand enrolled members of the Chinook Indian Nation, from elders to infants, are all documented descendants of Chinook ancestors specifically named in federal government rolls from 1906, 1914, or 1919. Consisting of the five westernmost Chinookan tribes, the Chinook Indian Nation operates with some constraints as the nonprofit Confederated Lower Chinook Tribes and Bands. Our Clatsop and Kathlamet people have traditionally occupied regions of what are now Clatsop and Columbia Counties in Oregon, while the Lower Chinook, Willapa, and Wahkiakum tribes have traditionally occupied southwestern Washington. Today, enrolled members of the Chinook Indian Nation live in twenty-seven of Oregon’s thirty-six counties. Our impact on the western frontier remains immeasurably constructive.

Despite the deep wounds of injustice and exploitation, we follow the steps of our elders and walk carefully the tideland path of welcome, partnership, and preservation. While the federal government has resisted the reality of our existence, many other entities and people have embraced us. Hayu masi, many thanks, to all who care.

In recent years, these relationships have led to the construction of a full-size replica plank house on the site of an ancient Chinookan village; the gift of a new oceangoing canoe from the descendants of William Clark; the publication of a significant new Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa) dictionary and other scholarly works; higher education courses in the Chinuk Wawa language; the award of in-state tuition in Oregon based on indigenous territorial roots; the production of Promised Land, a well-received documentary film; the victories in court toward federal recognition; and the management of important ancestral territory.

View of the Astoria-Megler bridge from the treaty grounds.

We are also experiencing a revival of cultural expressions. We celebrate traditional Chinook events and local community festivals; we further the Chinuk Wawa language; we paddle our handcrafted canoes on long journeys; we foster our native arts of drumming, singing, carving, basket and garment weaving, graphic depictions, cuisine, and construction; we perpetuate our ancient reputation as prolific traders; we share fire-baked Chinook salmon with our tribal community and friends; we partner with others as we represent our legacy; we publish digital and printed communications; we press ahead toward federal recognition; we honor our elders; we tend to those in need; we feel the weight of a nation upon us. Through capacity for gratitude, we rise above injustice; through conduct in good faith, we uphold justice. As the Daily Astorian observed, “The Chinook—always good neighbors here at the mouth of the Columbia.”

In the early 1950s, as the Chinook Indian Nation was adopting the constitution in use today, a family of Northern European descent was purchasing about thirteen acres of the Tansy Point treaty grounds in Warrenton, near Astoria. The undeveloped property had been passed down, through descendants and purchasers, from the land claimant who had settled there prior to the 1851 treaty events: W. W. Raymond, who had also served as host, interpreter, and one signing witness of the treaties. Except for their home on a small section of the property, today’s proprietary family members have maintained the treaty grounds as a natural haven for more than six decades. The property is bordered by two creeks and Youngs Bay, rich with Chinook salmon at its confluence with the Columbia River. It remains a serene enclave of forest, meadow, wetland, and water, and a habitat for elk, deer, bald eagles, otters, beavers, and other native creatures. 

Over the years, the family members have fended off various development and industrial encroachments. In 2004, they joined the citizen uprising that prevented the establishment of a massive multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas production facility, oceangoing shipping terminal, and wide-scale deep dredging operation along the ecologically precious waterfront that stretches only a mile beyond the Tansy Point treaty grounds. At the citizen victory celebration in 2016, one of the family members approached a Chinook Indian Nation representative to inquire about selling the treaty grounds property to us—and only to us. The family needed to be assured that this irreplaceable territory would remain natural and undefiled in the revitalizing care of the native Chinook people—who profoundly realized its value beyond any price.

At the time, the below-market sale price of the first treaty grounds parcel was greater than our entire Chinook Indian Nation operating budget for that fiscal year. Even today, our ongoing tribal activities are accomplished by our dedicated unpaid council and volunteers, uncompensated friends and organizations, some paid accounting and legal professionals, a grant-funded maintenance crew, a single full-time administrative assistant, a part-time grounds and facilities maintenance manager, and a contracted tribal member grant liaison. To commit to a land purchase far beyond our existing means presented a quandary. How could we—but how could we not? The owners graciously offered the possibility of payment over time. Initially by spoken agreement and trust, we planned and commenced an intense five-year purchasing process for the first parcel, and one lasting another five years for the second parcel, hoping that within about ten years we would own about ten acres of the Tansy Point treaty grounds.

During the past two years, we have been stunned by the outpouring of generosity from tribal members, old friends, new friends, foundations, trusts, and others that have learned of our Tansy Point treaty grounds purchase and preservation. We completed our reacquisition of the modest yet monumental ten acres in 2019. We look forward to stewardship; flora, fauna, and fish counts; stream and habitat revitalization; and historical, environmental, and cultural preservation in partnership with others who care. On our tidal shoreline property far downriver, anything occurring anywhere in the Columbia River estuary ecosystem concerns us.

At Tansy Point, the birthplace of one of the most laborious hopes and traumatic abandonments in our history, we raise our banner of heritage and life. We will reassemble as dignified owners of the treaty grounds, resilient Chinook people honoring the Creator, sanctifying the site, enjoying the lands and waters that nurture familiar trees, plants, wildlife, and birds, and our namesake salmon along its shores. We will identify and tend the natural resources that have been our renewable sustenance since antiquity. The smooth tideland will be a canoe journey destination. We hope to construct a Chinook plank house on the treaty grounds. We will tell our story on our territory.

We seek to preserve and restore the legacy of our ancestors and the inheritance of our descendants. Even as the great Pacific tides cause the mighty Columbia to rise, lifting our canoes along the riverbank, when the tides roll out and the waters recede, we are still here.

Comments

8 comments have been posted.

This is a awesome article. Where can we get a copy of it?

Donald G Lagergren | August 2019 |

I've read this many times, even in draft form, and tears come every time. Thank you, Oregon Humanities, for helping us to tell a significant part of our story. Hayu masi from Leslie's twin.

Marie Sheahan Brown | August 2019 | Camp Sherman, Oregon

A powerful, beautifully written affirmation of dignity. Thank you.

Brenda Gilmer | August 2019 | Florence, Oregon

So BEAUTIFULLY written and expressed! My husband and I are proud to call ourselves supporters of the Chinook Nation! Happiness fills my heart knowing that our friends have this important piece of their Ancestral land.

Donna Martinez | August 2019 |

Loved this article...how can we get a copy of it?

Ellen Fuller | August 2019 | Bay Center, WA

An evocative accounting of Chinook perseverance resulting in long overdue justice. A well done collaborative works.

Karen Sheldahl | August 2019 | Camp Sherman OR

Hayu Masi! Leslie . Hopefully,the purchase of Tansy Point will make it possible for the Federal Government to recognize the Chinook Nation as the 574th tribe. It's long overdue! -Mark D. Shelton(Honorary Chinook Tribal Artist)

Mark D. Shelton | August 2019 | Beaverton,Oregon

An excellent article. It's time that the US government made things right for this ancient tribe! Let's do it!!

Edwin J Peterson | August 2019 |

Add a Comment

Also in this Issue

Editor's Note: Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

Strengthening Communities Through Art

The Power of Telling

Turning the Page

From the director: Fights You Know You'll Lose

Dropping In

Castles Made of Sand

“Our Story on Our Territory”

Saturdays Inside

Boxing Lessons

Senior Dance Night

Posts