Clatsop-Nehalem Tribes seek federal recognition

When Dick Basch reflects on the many trials and trails of his ancestors, he finds his people’s very presence on the North Coast remarkable.

“It’s amazing that we’re still here,” said Basch, the vice president of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes. “But we are still here.”

“Here” for Basch and the rest of the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe, which comprises roughly 140 enrolled members, is a large coastal swath of land that runs from the Astoria-Warrenton area south past Tillamook to the Cape Lookout area.

The Clatsop-Nehalem tribe is seeking federal recognition: an official acknowledgment that a people long pushed to the peripheries of their sacred land existed,  and continue to exist,  despite the calamitous effects of the arrival of white settlers.

“Everyone thinks the Indians are long, long, gone, when we’re just invisible in the population,” said David Stowe, who sits on the Clatsop-Nehalem tribal council. Recognition would be an opportunity “to come out of the shadows (and) be legitimate in the eyes of greater society.”

The catalyst

The Clatsop-Nehalem’s push for federal recognition began in earnest through the work of Joe Scovell, the tribe’s chairman and hereditary chief, in the late 1970s.

“He’s 92 – he started this many years ago,” said Diane Collier, the chairwoman of the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribal Council and great-granddaughter of Kate Jurhs, the last full-blooded member of the Clatsop tribe. “His main goal was he doesn’t want to lose his ancestors. He didn’t want to lose the Clatsop-Nehalem name. That’s why he started finding people and getting people interested and doing something about it.”

One of the people who Scovell sought out was Basch, who received a call from Scovell about 12 years ago.

“He said you probably don’t remember me, but my name is Joe Scovell,” Basch said. Basch did remember him: The two had met many years prior, in Sitka, Alaska, when Basch had provided Scovell with technical assistance with Native American education.

The two discussed backgrounds and ancestry, and soon found that they shared a common link.

“I said, ‘I didn’t know you were Clatsop or Nehalem,’ and he said, ‘I didn’t know you were either!’” Basch said. “We talked and talked, and it turned out that my great-grandfather was his uncle. And we just thought that was a coincidence – sort of like this basket was starting to get more woven together. The pieces were starting to come together.”

Weaving the past

The Clatsop-Nehalem people have been trying to weave the past together ever since the ill-fated treaty negotiations with Anson Dart, Oregon Territory superintendent of Indian Affairs, at Tansy Point in August 1851.

Around a dozen tribes in the area, including the Clatsop, the Nehalem and the Chinook, among others negotiated with Dart in good faith and signed several treaties with the U.S. government that included promises of reservation lands and unfettered fishing rights.

The Tansy Point treaties were then sent to Washington, D.C. for ratification, where they were blocked and languished, unratified, for years. The indigenous people of the Columbia Pacific region were stuck in a legal logjam.

Since the 1840s, white settlers had begun making claims on native land, and Congress’s passage of the Donation Land Act in 1850, which granted up to 320 acres “to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of eighteen years,” further complicated matters for indigenous North Coasters.

“All of this land here was just gobbled up,” Basch said. “The settlers put up fences — fences were to keep people out, they were to define the property.

“But for people like the Clatsops and the Nehalem, they couldn’t get from one place to another because of all these fences,” he said. “It was a trespassing issue because of that, and we couldn’t access the beaches to fish.”

“Oregon was a very racist place back in those days,” Stowe said. “With no legal rights, they lived one step above the dog on a legal ladder.”

Because the Clatsops and Nehalems lacked a treaty and a reservation and were being driven from their land by white settlers, they began to disperse, joining friends or relatives in nearby tribes like the Siletz, Grand Ronde or Quinault.

But many stayed here, finding relief on the periphery, in the margins of their homeland.

“We wandered around here, trying to find a place we could settle,” Basch said.

Intertwined history

Long before Lewis and Clark arrived on what is now the North Oregon Coast, the Clatsop and Nehalem tribes lived and thrived together, especially in the Cannon Beach and Seaside area, where the two tribes’ homelands overlapped.

Though most Clatsops lived from the Columbia River to the Tillamook Head near Seaside, and most Nehalems lived in villages from Tillamook Head to well south of Tillamook Bay, the lines between the two cultures had been blurred for centuries.

“Long before white people came, back in the days of pre-contact, we were already very integrated,” Stowe said. “Our language was integrated, our artwork was integrated, our baskets were integrated. (Records) indicate that we have probably intermarried and lived as a single country for hundreds of years before Lewis and Clark.”

Lewis and Clark’s journals frequently refer to the presence of Nehalems in Clatsop villages and vice versa.

Archaeologist Thomas Newman concluded in 1959 that, though the two tribes may have been distinct people thousands of years ago, their cultural practices had converged hundreds of years before European contact.

“The whole culture in terms of Nehalem and Clatsop was very much a unified culture – it wasn’t really separate,” Stowe said. “As times went on, the differences became less and less. … The distinctions almost became meaningless at some point in time.”

A tangled web

Because the Clatsops and Nehalems were forced from their land, and many subsequently joined neighboring tribes, untangling the web of Clatsop heritage, in particular, can be difficult.

Many tribes spoke variations of the Chinookan language, which caused early visitors and later ethnographers and historians to group several tribes, including the Clatsop, together as Lower Chinook, according to a 1997 report from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Although some early-19th century visitors grouped all of the Indians of the lower Columbia River together as Chinook,” the report states, “most observers before 1850 described the Chinook as a tribe or band which was separate from the Clatsop, Wahkiakum, and Kathlamet bands along that part of the Columbia.”

Some Clatsop ancestors, especially those with extensive ties with the Chinook, have chosen to join the Chinook Tribe, while those of combined Nehalem ancestry have chosen to become members of the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe.

Dick Basch knows firsthand the complex relationship between the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes and the Chinook Indian Nation, in particular: Basch was once on the Chinook rolls.

“When I was little, my grandmother … enrolled us there,” Basch said. As he spent more time with Scovell and grew more interested in attaining recognition for the Clatsop-Nehalem tribes, Basch knew he had to make a difficult decision.

“I was at a point where I needed to make a choice, so I left the Chinook tribe and enrolled with the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe,” Basch said.

Because both tribes are pursuing federal recognition and both tribes share some Clatsop ancestry, there is a natural tension between the two. However, unlike Basch, the majority of those currently enrolled with Clatsop-Nehalem have no prior relationship to the Chinook tribe.

But Basch sees any squabbling as a distraction from the tribes’ commonalities and shared hardships.

“Bottom line is, this all happened because of visitors that decided to stay, and more visitors decided to stay, and so where we all are, geographically but also politically, is all a result of that disruption,” he said.

The issues between tribes are “caused not by us, meaning not by any of us, but by generations of dealing with treaties that weren’t signed, with government not supporting us,” Basch said. “Because we’ve all been jerked around, and that’s just kind of the personality that develops in communities that have been pushed around.”

Reclaiming their place

From the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, the federal government adopted an assimilationist policy of “Indian termination.”

Congress passed numerous bills that terminated the trust-like relationship between tribes and the government for over 100 Native American tribes; half of those were in Oregon.

In 1954, Congress passed the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, which terminated the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe.

“When we were terminated, a lot of people left the area,” Collier said. “Not a lot of them stayed here.”

In the time between termination and Joe Scovell’s renewed attempts to gain recognition in the 1970s, the Clatsop-Nehalem diaspora has been difficult to reunite.

“We’re scattered,” Collier said. “It’s really hard to do something when you’re living all over the place.”

For the Clatsop-Nehalem, termination had an ironic effect: It was a de facto legal acknowledgment that the tribe existed.

Because termination was enacted through the U.S. Congress, it will take an act of Congress to reinstate the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe, which is why the tribal council has begun working with U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s office and former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Furse on the process.

Working through Congress allows Native American tribes to bypass the exhaustive, often decades-long process of recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which, among other things, requires a tribe to prove it “has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900,” a tall task for a tribe with such a fractured past.

For Dick Basch, gaining federal recognition would mean much more than the increased fishing and hunting rights and possible commercial opportunities that come with federal recognition.

“The main thing that we want from restoration is our status as a tribe and our federal government-to-(tribal) government relationship,” he said. “We want to be in the greater family of tribes that are sovereign. That is the main thing.

“For us it’s not commercial,” Basch said. “It’s to be able to have that status and be able to be in a position where we can more adequately have educational programs and revitalize our culture before it goes ‘poof.’”

As they’ve pushed for recognition, the Clatsop-Nehalem tribal council has stated it will forgo all gaming or casino endeavors as a gesture of goodwill toward the Seaside area.

The City Councils of Cannon Beach, Seaside and Gearhart have all written letters of support for the federal recognition of the Clatsop-Nehalem people.

Local motion

Getting any legislation moving in this historically dysfunctional Congress will be a tough task, but on the local level, the Clatsop-Nehalem tribal council is seeing movement.

At a Nov. 12 work session for the Cannon Beach City Council, Basch and others presented a proposal to turn the former Cannon Beach Elementary School site – which was the site of the Clatsop-Nehalem village where Joe Scovell’s grandmother was born – into a cultural and educational center for the community.

They received a positive response from Cannon Beach Mayor Mike Morgan.

“I really think that this is an exciting project that the city and the tribe can participate in,” Morgan said at the meeting, “and I fervently hope that we can pull it off.”

The proposal would split ownership of the land between the city of Cannon Beach and the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes and retain the county’s reversionary clause, which cedes the land back to the county to “guarantee perpetual integrity or preservation,” as Basch put it.

Basch envisions allowing the land to return to a more natural state, with native plants, medicinal plants and edible plants and “a place where people, children, can imagine life back then.”

For the Clatsop-Nehalem people, the Cannon Beach proposal feels like a step in the right direction and an acknowledgment that their ancestors will not be forgotten.

“All of this was the tribe’s once, and we don’t own anything,” Basch said. “Ownership of a piece of our homeland is important no matter where it is, but that particular piece of property is actually a village site of our people, of both Clatsop and Nehalem people.”

As the recognition process has progressed, members of the scattered tribe can feel the pull of their native land.

“What we’re doing now is saying we need to bring this back together,” David Stowe said. “When we get together we feel this incredible kinship and bond, and we all really want to honor that tradition and give it a home.”

The Seaside Signal, 12.10.13. Link:


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