Tribal Identity: setting the record straight

THIS PAST September, a story ran in the local paper about the descendants of the Clark family returning a canoe stolen from the Chinook tribe by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806. That story was picked up by the wire services and ran in many papers across the country and around the world. The Clark descendants named in the story were 7th generation descendants of Captain William Clark. I am a 7th generation descendant of Chief Coboway, the Clatsop chief they stole the canoe from, and on behalf of all the Clatsops, I would like to set the record straight.

I and the other descendants of Chief Coboway I have spoken with all applaud the Clark family for making the effort to right a wrong done long ago, but it would have been nice if they had done it in a truly just and correct way by returning the canoe to the tribe it was actually stolen from.   As stated in the article, they gave the canoe to the descendants of “Chinook” Chief Coboway – who never existed.  Coboway was a Clatsop. We were and are a distinct tribe from the Chinook with our own traditions, language, and history. It is very hard for me and the rest of the tribe to understand how this whole story could unfold without any consultation from the Clatsop tribe.

Descendants of Coboway, as well as most Clatsop, Nehalem and Chinook were forced out of our homelands and ended up being welcomed in several neighboring tribal communities.  In Washington these included Bay Center, Shoalwater Bay, Chehalis, Quinault, Skokomish and Quilleute.  The Oregon communities included Siletz, Grande Rond and Hobsonville.  However, some of us were able to hang on and stayed in our homelands.    Some Clatsop and Nehalem chose to become members of those tribes; others chose to remain Clatsop or Nehalem.  There’s no confusion that some Clatsop and Nehalem are represented by other tribal groups, however, as a tribe, we are represented by the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes.

My ancestor Chief Coboway was one of many that hosted the Lewis and Clark Expedition in our homelands.  He was frequently mentioned in the Journals as being an honest and generous man, traits we value greatly to this day.  It is my responsibility and privilege to carry on his legacy by supporting all people in our most traditional and sacred ways.  We as individual Indian Nations have similar struggles, but in today’s world, now more important than any other time, in order to save our culture, our heritage, and our inherit rights,  we must learn when to leave the pettiness at home and to stand united and help each other.   It is important that we see beyond the difficulties that are thrown in front of us to divide and conquer.  It is my fondest hope that we muster up support for our individual nations for each one of our tribes, and ignore the words, actions, or non-action, that are meant to harm or destroy.  It is the duty of ALL of us to support the truths of our histories.

– Richard Basch, Vice-Chairman of Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes

There isn’t any dispute that Lewis and Clark stole a Clatsop canoe, and Chief Coboway went to fort Clatsop to get it back. The journals of the Corps of discovery make that all very clear. They named their winter encampment Ft. Clatsop for a reason. It has been a common misconception that the Clatsop were some part of a larger “Chinook Nation” or tribe due to the similarities of our languages. In truth, the Clatsop had been deeply intertwined with the Nehalem and other Tillamook long before the Corp of Discovery came to Oregon.  Lewis and Clark commented on this as did Franz Boas and others studying Indian cultures in later years. There is a great summary of our history on our website here:

We in fact signed a treaty, with the US government in 1851 (not ratified for economic reasons.) There were also individual treaties for the Lower Band of Chinooks, Cathlamet Band of Chinooks, etc. and Nehalem, Tillamook and several other bands or tribes.
Assuming tribal affiliations based on language is a gross oversimplification of native relationships that Europeans have tried to inflict on us for hundreds of years. It is more convenient to lump tribes into groups, but it probably does not in fact represent anything Native Americans recognize themselves. For example, the Apache and Navaho languages are both Athabascan, but no one would suggest that they are the same tribe. In fact, there were many individual Apache tribes that did not associate themselves with the Apache nation. Likewise, the Shoshone, Piute, Ute, Comanche, Diegueno, and many other tribes speak Uto-Aztecan languages, but bear little resemblance to one another culturally.

The gift of an old growth cedar from the Quinault Nation to the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribes, federal grant funding, and a master carver helped to create the Dragonfly Canoe; this in conjunction with the L&C Bicentennial. For the Clatsop-Nehalem, their new canoe was reparation for one that was stolen from them by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Photo courtesy "The Journey of the Clatsop-Nehalem Canoe," by Roberta Basch. Available through the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

I have been told that the truth about the relationship of the Clatsop and Chinook tribes is “murky” and can’t be sorted out with any certainty. It is not murky to us; it is clear in our oral traditions and is supported by all available evidence. I have also heard this situation being dismissed as some “squabble” between the two groups, and that we would have a better chance at federal recognition if we did it as one “Chinook” tribe. There is no squabble, and it is condescending to ask us to relinquish our identity and history for a convenient “feel good” story.

The story of the Clatsop and other Western Oregon tribes has been a long tale of loss and death since contact with Europeans began in earnest in the late 1700s’. Death mostly from disease, and loss of our homelands from the American Government not honoring the treaties they signed with us. In the case of the Clatsop, the government thought we would just die off before they had to deal with us. They succeeded in getting our land, but we didn’t all die. We are still here, and intend to stay. This story about the Clark family returning the canoe to the Chinook tribe, and calling MY Great Great Grandfather a Chinook chief is yet another case of others trying to ignore our existence, oral and written histories. It does not sit well with me or the other members of my tribe.

One other point regarding the canoe; the Clatsop-Nehalem tribe was awarded a grant from the national park service to build a canoe for the bicentennial comemoration of the journey of the corps of discovery, and as reparation for the canoe stolen 200 years before. You will find pictures and information on our canoe, “Dragonfly” on our website: Dragonfly was the first canoe built on the Oregon coast using traditional methods since the 19th century. We took part in those commemorations as the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes.

At the end of the day, we would like people to understand the true story. We wish the best for our cousins across the big river. We are all people of the river, but we have our own identity.