Posted by: MC | September 17, 2012

Libya, the Chinook Nation and Who We are as Americans

Captions beneath three undated photos provided to the Chinook Observer by Ambassador Chris Stevens’ mother read:

Chris Stevens. Stevens was among four Americans who died Tuesday night, Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi after they were attacked by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Stevens’ death deprives the United States of someone widely regarded as one of the most effective American envoys to the Arab world.

Chris Stevens, the ambassador to Libya who was killed in the attack on the Embassy where he worked, was also a member of the Chinook Indian Tribe.  Most people who were not raised Native American and many Native Americans on tribal lands or in urban centers outside the Pacific Northwest region will likely not know this.

A brief article appeared in the Chinook Observer on September 13. The Observer is the 111 year old paper of Pacific County, Washington.  From the beginning, the paper has been owned and operated by people of European ancestry who had immigrated to Washington beginning in the middle of the 19th century.  The Chinookans who were living in the area when the European descendants arrived include people of the tribes and bands that had been on the land of the lower Columbia in western Washington for thousands of years.

Like most non-Indian people, I know very little about the Chinook Nation and its people.  I really have little excuse for that.  I’ve been on the Chinook lands for a few meetings, but haven’t had the opportunity to learn yet about the current interests and concerns of the Chinook people.  There must be some good relationship between tribal members and the Observer staff– at least enough to allow for this article and its clarification from the tribal and family perspective of who Chris Stevens was.

Stevens’ mother Mary Commanday is the first cousin of Chinook tribal elders Catherine Herrold Troeh and Charlotte Davis, both of whom are well known in Pacific County, the historic homeland of the tribe that met Lewis and Clark at the mouth of the Columbia River. Willapa Bay resident John Herrold is one of Stevens’ local first cousins. 

“This will be a hard time for their family and they will need our prayers,” [Chinook Tribal Chairman, Ray] Gardner wrote.

Yes, they and the Chinook Nation need our prayers – all of us need prayers in this country following this tragedy, as do all of us on the globe.  These are volatile times.  Too often they are deadly.

I had the opportunity to co-teach a graduate course with Roy Sampsel (Wyandotte/Choctaw) again this weekend.  He and I teach at least once every term and have full classes of students preparing to be educators, counselors and community leaders.  Most of our students are non-Indian.  Our job is to pass forward history of culture, of contact with European immigrants, and of the interactions between the Federal and Tribal governments.  We also provide opportunity for students to interact with indigenous peoples and communities in America today.  Mr. Sampsel is a tribal leader of vast renown and standing who provides the knowledge.  I support the students as they consider what this knowledge means for their work.

I was raised non-Indian.  I have learned a great deal about the original people of this region and this country through the privilege of teaching with Roy Sampsel, but I still know little compared to what more there is to learn.  And learning is through relationship.  It was through Elizabeth Woody’s (Navajo, Warm Springs, Wasco, Yakama)   facebook post that I learned that Ambassador Stevens was a Chinook tribal member.

One of the primary skills I’ve found crucial to this learning is listening.  In a film we showed yesterday, Rita Pitka Blumenstein,  a Yu’pik Elder in Alaska said, “You ask too many questions.  You must be quiet and listen to the stories the people have to tell you about who they are.”

Who we are as Americans in 2012 is revealed by listening – by refusing the tendency to avoid or run from people we think we already know about because of the limited stories we carry with us.  For example, lots of citizens of this country assume Native Americans are people of the past.

This is what the Chinook Nation says of itself today on the web:

The Chinook Nation consists of the western most Chinookan people. Our history and constitution define us as being Lower Chinook, Clatsop, Willapa, Wahkiakum and Kathlamet. We have always resided in the lower Columbia River region and always will. We are proud of our heritage and inheritance and ask you to join us in celebrating our rich history and bright futures.

The first people of this land are of the past, the present and the future.  The words of the Chinookans carry the same truth I have heard from Billy Frank of the Nisqually, Terry Williams of the Tullalip, Patricia Paul of the Inupiat, Alan Parker of the Chippewa/Cree, Bobbie Connor of the Cayuse and Nez Perce, Patsy Whitefoot of the Yakama and Elizabeth Woody and Roy Sampsel and all the other leaders of the Tribal peoples of this region and across the entire country.

“We have always resided [here] and always will.”

The Chinook Observer article came to a close with a quote from Ambassador Stevens’ relative, Joe Brown – words he had put on his facebook page:

My cousin Mary (Chris Stevens’ mom) got two very important phone calls today. One was from President Obama. The other was from from Ray Gardner, Chief of the Chinook Indian Nation, who told me, “I did call Mary Commanday and let her know that the prayers of the Chinook Nation are with all of your family during this difficult time. I will pass this information along to all of our members tomorrow and I will go down to the banks of the Willapa and give a special prayer for all of you. No better place to give prayers then on the banks of the rivers of our ancestors.”

We’re covered. Thank you, Ray Gardner, and klahowya.


  1. Mary, I am a cry baby… I cried…. I pray we find our humanitarianism… Our government is now using drones on indigenous people… Killing families at weddings and funerals. President Obama says about the use of Drones…This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists… Why does this have anything to do with topic… by the use of Drones, we Americans are creating terrorists by our flippant attitude towards collateral damage. Training the drone operators in a game… like the movie The Last Starfighter … but unlike the movie, these boys do not experience, personally, the effect of their efforts… The world does.

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