On November 6th, under a white canopy blowing in a rain dark sky, representatives of the Chinook Nation met with local elected officials for the first time in the 30 years I’ve lived here. Leaders and citizens of the Chinook Nation came to Cathlamet for the dedication of heritage markers recognizing the Chinook Nation’s history on this unceded land. Like so many places across the country, place names tell the story of the original inhabitants. The five tribes who make up the Chinook Nation include the Clatsop and Cathlamet (Kathlamet) of present-day Oregon and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum (Waukikum) and Willapa (Weelappa) of what is now Washington State.
Chinook Tribal Chairman Tony Johnson and other tribal members traveled to Cathlamet to attend the dedication of heritage markers that Town of Cathlamet Mayor-elect David Olson had erected with the help of the Lewis and Clark Trail Stewardship Endowment. Washington’s US Senator Maria Cantwell and House Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler sent staff to the event. State Senator Jeff Wilson attended and acknowledged the Chinook’s efforts toward recognition.
Chinook heritage markers were designed in conjunction with the Chinook Nation and placed at the marina located where the Ilóxumin, now the Elochoman, River runs into the Columbia River. Another sign was placed near the base of the hill where the spring named after Allipust, later called Queen Sally, is. The marina is located at Ilóxumin, where a village of upwards of 1,000 Chinook lived. Hundreds of canoes lined the beaches at Ilóxumin village.
Heritage signs appeared along the Lower River during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration. What’s unique about this project is that David Olson collaborated with the Chinook Nation. The signs describe current events among the Chinook; they point to a vibrant contemporary people as well as to historic encounters. He also convinced the Town, the Board of County Commissioners and Port District No. 1 to join the project and to welcome the Chinook leaders to the dedication.
This was no small feat. A few years ago, when we struggled to remove racist place names in Wahkiakum County—an initiative US Representative Pramila Jayapal had initiated, I remember the way the county commissioners at the time visibly recoiled when I suggested we contact the Chinook Nation to rename a place along the river called Jim Crow Sands, where an African American, Jim Saules, fleeing the black-exclusion policies of Oregon, had lived.
I’ve watched the perspective of the local commercial fishermen who first told me that the Chinook were “all gone” change. As the pressure on salmon stocks has grown, from environmental causes as well as political muscle from sports fishermen, the need to manage the resource for tribal fisheries up and down the Columbia has helped ensure a portion for the local commercial fishers. Now, the same man who denigrated the local Chinook points to Indians’ fishing rights as one factor in saving the commercial salmon fishery.
When the wind gusted on that Saturday in early November, tearing the white fabric from the frame, the tribal visitors and local townspeople lined the edge of the tent to hold the canopy down. It was a touching gesture: together the community was creating a safe space, a welcoming place that was long overdue.
While the Chinook sang and prayed, a bald eagle watched from a cottonwood branch above the river. As an Osage living on Chinook land, I support the Chinook efforts for federal recognition. The process is again proceeding through the federal bureaucracy. You can read a succinct account of Chinook history and find a link to write a note of support on the Chinook Nation’s website at www.chinooknation.org.
I look forward to the day when the Chinook Indian Nation’s Canoe Family will come to Cathlamet in one of the annual journeys that bring 100s of Natives together.