At the start of spring this year, the Port of Ridgefield commission began opening its meetings with a new statement by its chair, Scott Hughes. The statement is one of respect for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and all the other indigenous tribes – some forgotten by the history books –which called this area home for thousands of years before
European settlement. At each commission meeting Chairman Hughes now says this:
“We’d like to acknowledge that our port meetings are being held on the ancestral lands of the people of the Lower Columbia River.”
To honor the 20 or more tribes that existed in the region, and whose names live on in the names of towns and cities in the region, the Cowlitz Tribe use, and encourage others to use, the term “peoples of the Lower Columbia River.”
This acknowledgment led to the idea of learning and sharing some information about those who came before us, and the significance of the indigenous peoples’ presence here to modern times in our community. Our focus is on
our friends, the Cowlitz.
“For newcomers and even some old-timers, the historic arc of this place may not be known,” says Brent Grening, Port of Ridgefield CEO. “It’s important for us to understand that there is a shared history with the original population that saw the benefits of this location and utilized it effectively as we do today for transportation,
trade and commerce.”
Cowlitz Trade & Transportation
The rivers and streams in this region teem with fish and wildlife, serving as a food source for people and the greater ecosystem. Additionally, these waterways provide for the efficient transportation of goods and people. This is not,
however, emblematic of the modern world alone. For the Native peoples, including the Cowlitz, whose ancestral land encompassed a huge swath of river and stream bank land in what is today Oregon and Washington, these rivers and streams served the same purpose for centuries. Vigorous trade was carried out between various
tribes in the region and beyond, with the flow of water and the best canoe landing spots central to successful trade centers and settlements.
The Cowlitz had large settlements throughout the region, one of the largest of which was at the site of present-day Fort Vancouver. Highways and roads we travel today also have a link to native commerce and culture.
Tanna Engdahl is tribal elder and spiritual advisor to the Cowlitz. She explains the historic importance of her people’s past to White settlement in the region.
“Efficient routes established long ago by the Cowlitz and other natives forged the direct ways to travel throughout the region. Today’s roadways often mirror those same paths,” Engdahl says.
She notes that modern imaging technologies reveal patterns that indicate Indian routes under roadbeds and freeways. One of the best-known historic foot, horse and later wagon paths of the Cowlitz was the Cowlitz Trail.
“Today it’s better known as I-5,” says Mike Iyall, Cowlitz tribal historian and elder.
Engdahl likens the economic health of these historic native territories in the region to being as grand and diverse as Istanbul.
“Before European contact, the Columbia River was like an aquatic Silk Road,” Engdahl says. “Based on trade and trade routes, the Native world here did very well – even inland tribes established routes to trade with the coastal tribes – it was a powerful trade area.”
White explorers and settlers later enjoyed the beneficial trade and transportation provided by the powerful Cowlitz Tribe.
“Imagine,” says Engdahl, “incoming settlers leaving Fort Vancouver, being paddled to the Cowlitz River by Cowlitz pullers (paddlers), north on the Cowlitz River to Cowlitz Landing near Toledo, where the river bends toward the east, and then travel overland to the Salish Sea, formally called Puget Sound.”
Cowlitz Presence Catalyst for Clark County Development
In 1825, the presence of large Cowlitz settlements and the trade center in the area moved the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish Fort Vancouver nearby as the company’s interior fur trade headquarters.
“Fort Vancouver became the Hudson’s Bay Company’s biggest and most successful trading post,” says Iyall. “The Cowlitz trading power and expertise was very valuable to Hudson’s Bay.“
The establishment of the fort led to the birth of the City of Vancouver and the growth of Clark County.
“Port of Ridgefield,” says Iyall, “is right there in what was part of the trading hub of North America.”
A Return to Economic Strength
With land taken from them by the federal government and disease brought by White explorers and settlers decimating the Cowlitz Tribe, the tribe’s regional power and influence waned. Today, however, the tribe is once again a significant economic force in the region. The establishment of ilani, the tribe’s casino resort near LaCenter brings jobs to many area residents and draws tourists to north Clark County. With an emphasis on education and health care, the tribe prides itself on its highly educated population and established health clinics for Cowlitz tribal members and other Native people.
“We’re currently one of the largest employers in Clark County and Washington’s Indian tribes are the seventh largest employer in the state,” says Iyall. “We have high hopes that we’ll be a substantial force in the economy into the future.”
Today the Cowlitz provide over 1,500 jobs and more when the 14-story ilani hotel is completed, with additional business diversification slated in the future.
COWLITZ TRIBE AT-A-GLANCE
Who are they? The Cowlitz Tribe consists of two distinct groups: the Sahaptan speaking Upper Cowlitz and the Salish speaking Lower Cowlitz. The Kwalhiokwa Cowlitz (Mountain Cowlitz of the Willapa Hills) maintained an Athabascan language brought in from the north by migrating peoples. The Athabascan language eventually disappeared but was still noted in the mid-1800’s.
TERRITORY of Cowlitz ancestral lands and settlements dating to at least 9,000 years ago encompassed a vast area that extended from the Columbia River near Portland and Vancouver, north to the southern end of Puget Sound. The Lower Cowlitz occupied numerous villages along the Columbia River, and all major river systems that drained into the Columbia in what is now southwest Washington.
TRADING AREA of Cowlitz goods followed river systems into Canada, and overland into southern states and into the mid-continent.
POPULATION of the tribe was estimated to be from 30,000 to 50,000 strong at the time of European contact in the early 1800s. Disease brought by White settlers killed many; by the early 1900s the population was only 600. Today there are approximately 4,300 tribal members, two-thirds of whom are in Washington State, the remainder are spread across the nation and in Canada.
FEDERAL RECOGNITION was denied in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge, who feared acknowledgment would require reparations for a vast amount of land taken from the tribe and given to White settlers. Federal recognition was finally awarded in 2000 and upheld after two years in appeals.
REPARATIONS were made after World War II when the Indian Claims Commission offered $1.55 million for 1,790,000 acres, or about 90 cents an acre. At the time, timberland alone was worth about $30,000 an acre, but the sum was grudgingly accepted by the tribe. Although proof of many more acres of Cowlitz territory was discovered later in Vancouver treaty notes from the 1850s, the tribe was denied further recompense.
RESERVATION STATUS was awarded in November of 2015. The Cowlitz received 156 acres of reservation land. The ilani Casino Resort opened on the reservation in April 2017. The project was developed by the Cowlitz in partnership with the
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE COWLITZ TRIBE
Folk Tales of the Coast Salish, Thelma Adamson, Editor
Legends of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, by Roy Wilson
The Dispossessed: The Cowlitz Tribe of Southwest Washington in the Nineteenth
Century, by Judith Weatherford Irwin