UPDATED SEPTEMBER 28, 5:26 P.M.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated J. Christopher Stevens was 1/8th Chinook, when he was 1/16th along with certain family details.
When President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25th, he began his speech memorializing United States Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The president spoke of Steven’s birthplace of Grass Valley, California and of his parents, a lawyer and a cellist who would see their son grow up to join the Peace Corps, learn to speak Arabic, before becoming what many have regarded as a diplomatic hero. “Chris Stevens embodied the best of America,” said Obama. “He built bridges across oceans and cultures, and was deeply invested in the international cooperation that the United Nations represents.”
Stevens was among four Americans who lost their lives on the evening of September 11th after the U.S. Consulate was attacked in Benghazi, Libya. The 52-year-old diplomat arrived in the country’s second largest city to unveil an American cultural center and to modernize a hospital.
Family and friends mourning Stevens’ death have noted the small irony and overwhelming tragedy tied to his tireless work to support a free Libya. Meanwhile, his diplomacy has not gone ignored among thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Benghazi denouncing the Consulate attacks; from those who changed their Facebook photos to one of Stevens in solemn recognition of his service; and among the signs that turned up on Youtube that read ‘Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.’
While the world has learned in greater detail about the ambassador’s life and work, what also surfaced in the days following his passing was the little-known fact that Stevens was also a direct descendent to a great Chinook Indian chief who reigned throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Chief Comcomly, also spelled Concomly, according to cemetery records, was principal chief of the Chinook Confederacy that extended along the Pacific coastline in what is present-day Oregon and Washington State. Considered a friend of the white man, Comcomly received medals from Lewis and Clark upon their initial encounter in 1805.
The chief had a daughter by the name of Elvamox, also known as Marianne. She married a Scottish fur trader who later joined the Astor Expedition—the ambitious trade war financed by millionaire John Jacob Astor and led by Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century. When the voyage made its way to the mouth of the Columbia River, Comcomly helped the Americans fight the British during the War of 1812.
Elvamox’s husband would never return. So, she remarried, this time to Etienne Alexis Aubichon, a French fur trader. Mary Commanday, Stevens’ 75-year-old mother, says relations with white explorers impacted the way of life for her Chinook ancestors. “The interesting thing about this story to me is that Elvamox, considered a privileged woman in Chinook society—she somehow saw the handwriting on the wall and realized that the future lay with these white men who were coming out,” Commanday said.
According to Stevens’ mother, formerly Mary J. Floris, Elvamox is her great-great-great grandmother. Their shared family legacy lives on in the pages of a book that was penned by Commanday’s mother, Beryl Marjory Brown Floris, in 1980. Entitled, Elvamox: Memories of a Pacific Northwest Family, the bound manuscript was never commercially distributed, despite its 200 copies that ultimately went to print. Rather, the book has become a source of prideful representation of a family lineage Commanday says helped shape her own identity along with that of the young Stevens and his two siblings, Anne and Thomas. “There’s always been kind of a close feeling although we haven’t lived up there [in Washington State],” said Commanday, in a telephone interview from her home in Oakland, California.
Today, there is a cemetery in the coastal community of Ilwaco, Washington where as many as four generations of Commanday’s family lay at rest. By description, the public graveyard bears aging headstones weathered by centuries of salty air. A marker for Chief Comcomly is recorded in the cemetery records. Commanday says other familiar names of ancestors-passed can be found on those burial grounds.
In August, one month before Stevens’ death, Commanday and her 50-year-old daughter Anne visited the cemetery. It’s where, in 1979, Commanday said Stevens, then 19-years-old, helped spread and preserve the ashes of his grandmother Floris. She was the author of the book that has chronicled the stories of the family’s rich Chinook heritage. “Chris went with my dad and took my mother’s ashes up there and took care of the whole burial in Ilwaco because he was very much a part of that whole process,” said Commanday.
During their recent visit to Ilwaco, Commanday said she and her daughter lunched with their relative, Charlotte Killien, the daughter of Charlotte Davis, a twin of the late historian and Chinook elder, Catherine Troeh. Commanday was second cousins with Davis and Troeh who have walked on in recent years. Both of the sisters were well known throughout Pacific County, the region in which Ilwaco is situated. Chinook tribal leaders say the twins were well skilled in crafting traditional button blankets and straw hats—customary regalia that have long been used among the Chinook people over the generations.
Yet, much of Stevens’ and Commanday’s Chinook heritage is rooted in a family bloodline that was seemingly destined for integration into white society. As Commanday put it, “There was very little connection with the Indian population in these generations because they had intermarried with the French, and as you know, there was a great amount of prejudice of non-Caucasian people in that time.”
Even so, there are places in Ilwaco that stand as a testament to Stevens’ forebears, including the 19th century home built by Commanday’s great grandfather, Frederick Colbert, the husband of Catherine Petit Colbert, Chief Comcomly’s great-granddaughter. The two-story Victorian house, known as the Colbert House, was passed down through three generations of Commanday’s matriarchal ancestors until it was enlisted in the state of Washington’s National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
An endearing chuckle escapes from Commanday upon recalling a certain story about the home. After Catherine inherited the house from her mother, Amelia Aubichon Petit, she was fixated on permanently moving the kitchen stove. As Commanday recounts, Catherine was an “able woman” who took to the task all on her own, including building a new chimney that would scale through two stories and an attic before reaching the roof. But Commanday says Catherine caved into the ways of the 19th century and its views on women in society. “You know it wasn’t ladylike to be climbing around, seen on the roof, finishing your own chimney,” Commanday laughed. “So, she hired somebody to go out on the roof to finish it even though she was perfectly able to do it herself.”
While Commanday’s and Stevens’ family stories remain vibrant in the southern Washington hamlet of Ilwaco, it’s about 30 miles north in the community of Bay Center—home of the Chinook Indian Nation headquarters— where Chairman of the tribe, Ray Gardner looks on with pride. “I’m very proud to say [Commanday’s family] are from Chinook people and that they promote that lineage within themselves, even making sure their children are enrolled and keeping their traditions and cultures alive.”
According to Commanday, Stevens was a 1/16th enrolled citizen of the Chinook Indian Nation; she is listed as an 1/8th. All three of her children are members of the tribe that today represents a citizenry of an estimated 3,000 people. Yet, the Chinook are not considered a federally recognized Indian Nation—a status people like Gardner have doggedly been fighting to obtain over the years.
Like many tribes across North America, the Chinook people lost their lands to white encroachment in the 19th and 20th centuries. By the 1950’s the Chinook Nation dissolved under federal termination policies designed to assimilate Native Peoples into white society. In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior initially granted the tribe federal recognition. Yet, it’s unclear why this status was overturned under George W. Bush’s administration in 2002. Since then, Gardner and other tribal leaders have been engaged in regaining their formal recognition as a sovereign tribal government—a status that would open the doors to a host of federal Indian entitlement programs linked to trust lands, low to no-cost healthcare, education benefits, housing assistance, and gaming opportunities.
In an editorial published in Ilwaco’s local newspaper, the Chinook Observer, it described the tribe’s federal government wrangling as “unjust” and brought similar comparison to Stevens’ untimely death. “The innocent suffer while the guilty often go free,” the editorial read. “Will it be any different this time?” Despite these correlations that have been drawn in the aftermath of Stevens’ death, Gardner says he’s been able to take the “good with the bad” in embracing the discovery of the ambassador’s tribal heritage. One instance came in the outpouring of support he received from tribal leaders across the Pacific Northwest and as far north as Canada’s First Nation’s in British Columbia. A special message was even sent by Grand Chief Edward John who currently chairs the UN Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Issues. Gardner said, “Everyone that has come into contact with [Stevens] throughout his life, has had nothing but praise. Even in the fact that it’s bringing nations in the north of the border with nations in the south of the border, shows how far he’s reached out.”
In an email, Commanday echoed similar sentiments. “Someone said to me that Comcomly was bridging the space between two cultures in his kind reception and aid to Lewis & Clark, just as my Chris was doing in his work in the Middle East,” she wrote. “I thought that was an interesting idea, but later remembered that the Chinook’s reward for the Chinooks’ kindness, ultimately, was to be rounded up off their property.”