Tony Johnson: Determined to “Stay with the Bones of Our Ancestors”

Tony Johnson explains how the Chinook would not leave their homeland and how their treaty was never ratified.

Bio: Tony Johnson is the tribal chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, as well as the chair of the tribal cultural committee. He is also the Cultural Education Director for the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe.


The people up the Columbia, they end up being moved either to Warm Springs or to Yakama and they’re the minorities in those communities. And that’s a hard place to be when you’ve left your place on your river of ten thousand years where you were always the majority, it was your place. But then you come down into the Portland basin and the folks that were there got moved to Grande Ronde and ended up there by the Willamette Valley treaty. Well it’s worth saying that west of their treaty, west of Oak Point, that’s our territory. The territory of Wahkiakum and lower Chinook, and Willapa and Clatsop and Cathlamet. And we signed treaties in 1851 that was not ratified in the normal way so they actually just kind of languished in the senate. There’s some arguments about constructive ratification that we believe in and that we’re continuing to try to clarify. But regardless they didn’t ratify those treaties in 1851. In 1855 they asked us to go to a treaty negotiation but before that they came to us and they asked what we wanted. And we told them wanted the Naselle, this territory up the bay. It would’ve been a really great place for us and that’s what we agreed to. That’s where we would go. We would take or reserve land for us there but when we got to the treaty negotiation, this was the Chehalis River Treaty. They told us what we heard was going to happen which was that we had to move north out of our territory. So we refused to do that, we said that we were going to stay with the bones of our ancestors and there was no way we were going to do it. So the Chehalis people and the Chinook people were beside themselves, ‘we’re not going to go North’. And because of that we’ve just kind of been neglected. I don’t mean entirely neglected because we kind of lived and operated like we would’ve wanted to. I mean lot of our families ended up with Indian Trust land. The land they were living became trust land. We hunted and fished in this territory–our own place here– as natives for many many years. But without the guarantees of a treaty and without a firmly established land base that’s just been taken away, taken away, taken away.

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