Many federally recognized tribes throughout the U.S. have had great success vaccinating their members against COVID-19. But those without federal recognition say they have a very different story.


The Indian Health Service has been praised for the success of its vaccination campaign, but it has not reached every Native American. Tribes that aren’t recognized by the U.S. government have received none of the federal help meant for Indian country. Ellis O’Neill of member station KUOW reports from southwest Washington.

ELLIS O’NEILL, BYLINE: The Chinook Indian Nation has about 3,000 members who mostly live near the mouth of the Columbia River. But they’re not on the list of federally recognized tribes, so they get nothing from the Indian Health Service.

TONY JOHNSON: We have all the problems of Indian country, but no means of dealing with it.

O’NEILL: Chinook chair Tony Johnson says without recognition, they get no reservation, no housing allowance, no clinics. And during the pandemic, it’s meant no testing supplies or vaccine allocations.

JOHNSON: So we rely on our neighboring tribes, which means that people are traveling an hour or two or three to be able to access vaccinations, testing and other resources.

O’NEILL: The nearby Shoalwater Bay Tribe, for example, gave Johnson his COVID vaccine. He says unemployment spiked in southwest Washington during the pandemic and with it, addiction problems. But the Chinook receive no federal funds for drug and alcohol programs. Johnson says no local tribal members have died of COVID, but several have died because of COVID – not only of addiction, but of untreated chronic conditions like diabetes.

JOHNSON: We have lost folks in the community over the last year that would not have been lost were Chinook to have been a federally recognized community. And that is unbearable.

O’NEILL: Many tribes are federally recognized because at some point they signed a treaty agreeing to give up their land. For complicated reasons, the Chinook Nation isn’t recognized, even though they did at one point sign a treaty.

JOHN NORWOOD: It was an accident of history that left some off the list and included others.

O’NEILL: John Norwood, of the National Congress of American Indians, works on federal recognition issues. He says gaining federal recognition now can be nearly impossible regardless of a tribe’s history. On paper, it’s one thing…

NORWOOD: The regulations, as they stood, appeared to be just fine.

O’NEILL: …But how they’re used is a different story.

NORWOOD: The problem was their interpretation and application became more stringent, less transparent, very inconsistent, oftentimes punitive.

O’NEILL: Another western Washington tribe the U.S. government refuses to recognize is the Snohomish. They’re the namesake of the county north of Seattle.

MIKE EVANS: We’ll continue to be here as long as the mountains still exist and the rivers run through the forest out into the sea.

O’NEILL: The Snohomish Tribe’s chair, Mike Evans, says today, the tribe has about 1,500 enrolled members, but…

EVANS: We don’t have a clinic, we don’t have the vaccines to distribute and there’s no money to deal with that.

O’NEILL: And without federal recognition, there won’t be any money in the future either. The most recent COVID relief package included more than $31 billion for the tribes on the federal government’s list, adding to funds earmarked in the prior two relief bills. Tony Johnson, chair of the Chinook Nation, says tribes used those funds for unemployment relief, food programs and infrastructure projects.

JOHNSON: The once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation infusions of funds will be having impact on those communities generations to come.

O’NEILL: He says it’s heartbreaking that his own Chinook Indian Nation won’t have access to any of those resources. For NPR News, I’m Ellis O’Neill in southwest Washington.


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