Hello from the History Department

In the early 1970s, scholar and Longview, WA, resident Judith Irwin (1924–2010) helped record the Cowlitz history. At the time of her passing, she was one of only two non-Cowlitz Indians to be named an honorary member of the tribe. This piece was excerpted from Irwin’s article, “The Dispossessed: The Cowlitz Indians in Cowlitz Corridor,” published in The Vancouver Columbian in 1994.

In the image below, contemporary members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe drum and sing a native song of blessing for the new bridge and interchange near the Ilani Resort and Casino in Ridgefield, WA. Photo by Cale Johnson, The Reflector, April 11, 2017.

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The Cowlitz were originally considered to be “a large and powerful Salishan tribe.” Because they were an interior tribe, they were more cohesive than other Salish groups on the coast and Columbia River. Conscious of social stratification, they valued coop­eration and had a desire for smooth relationships with neighbors. Speaking Salishan like many of their neighbors in the 1800s the Lower Cowlitz occupied 30 villages dotting the Cowlitz River from present-day Mossyrock, WA, southward to within a mile or two of the Columbia River. The name Cowlitz means “seeker” in a spiritual sense, according to some Cowlitz living today. Place Names of Washington also spells the name as Ta-wa-l-litch, which meant “capturing the medicine spirit,” referring to the Cowlitz practice of sending their youths to the river’s prairies to seek their tomanawas, or spirit power.

The earliest historical accounts of the Lower Cowlitz do not begin with Lewis and Clark, but rather with the Astorians of the Pacific Fur Company, who arrived in 1811. One of their first excursions up the Columbia River from Fort Astoria brought them to the 150-foot-high Mount Coffin, the Chinook burial rock studded with canoes outfitted with funeral offerings of clothing and baskets of food. [Ed. note : Sadly, this sacred site in present-day Longview was turned into gravel in the early 1940s.]

The epidemic of 1829–30 was thought to be a virulent Asian flu, brought in by the American ship Owyhee. The traditional native treatment for illnesses – sweat bath followed by a plunge into a cold stream – doomed most Indians. Hudson’s Bay Company Governor George Simpson said three-fourths of those in the Fort Vancouver vicinity died. Dr. John McLaughlin of the HBC thought the number to be more like seven-eighths after several summers of the fever’s recurrence. Many of the Cowlitz fled toward the coast. [Early pioneer] Joseph Meek estimated that 500 Indians remained on the Cowlitz River.

Trading or visiting, the Cowlitz used the rivers and trails to reach other tribes. Trade goods included slaves, horses, dried camas and wapato roots, dried berries and meats, hides and furs. Also prized were the Cowlitz women’s water-tight baskets, thought by some specialists to be the most “perfect imbricated baskets with more stitches in the same space and also more beautiful designs” than baskets anywhere else. In addition to trading, the Cowlitz avidly exchanged goods through games such as bone gambling, horse racing and “fairs or exposi­tions.” Fairs and races were held near present-day Longview as well as on Cowlitz Prairie.

In search of tomanawas, or spirit power, Cowlitz youths reaching adolescence went on fasting quests seeking visions of a spirit guide, guardian, or helper in such undertakings a s hunting, fishing, felling trees, shaping canoes, making baskets or healing the sick. The main purpose of the tomanawas ceremony was religious. Participants sought to avert evil and assure a supply of food for ongoing life. Through all their senses they also “tuned in” for physical and spiritual survival.

In winter the Cowlitz lived near the fishing streams in well-built cedar plank longhouses with gabled roofs. Five to fifteen families shared a longhouse. Story-telling and ceremonials occupied their winter evenings. Days were spent carving, making baskets and mats, dressing skins, sewing clothing and weaving blankets. In the springtime families moved to the prairies to dig camas bulbs and wapato. As the different berries ripened, Cowlitz families trekked toward the mountains. While men hunted small and large game, women picked and dried blackberries, blueberries and huckleberries.

As more Euro-American families arrived looking for productive land, the settlers asked Congress to authorize a territorial government. During the treaty session with territorial governor Isaac Stevens in 1855, the Cowlitz declined to sign away their rights to village sites, prairies , fishing places and burial grounds. The Cowlitz remained on their land but had no reservation of their own.

When war erupted in 1855 between the Indians and the whites, Chief Atwin Stockam was given to understand that the Cowlitz tribe would be given a reservation if the restive Cowlitz warriors remained peaceful. So, instead of joining the militant Yakimas and Klickitats, 300 Cowlitz people were held in a detention camp on the Cowlitz Prairie. Their men were conscripted into building blockhouses and roads, transporting supplies and scouting, all of which they did with honor. After the fighting was over [and] upon returning to their homes, the Cowlitz people found that their possessions had been destroyed. The promise made to Chief Atwin Stockam of a Cowlitz reservation in return for cooperation was forgotten. Settlers assumed that at the war’s end all Indians lost their rights, particularly title to the land.

In the decades following the war the Cowlitz were pressured by settlers to be monogamous in their marriages; to forego using sweat houses and flattening their newborns’ heads; and to quit relying on medicine men, going on spirit quests, holding pow-wows and speaking their own language. They were described in 1870 by the Secretary of Interior as “the most thrifty and industrious” of the tribes he reported on. Yet, that very success was the reason given by the government to deny them recognition and compensation for lands taken.

The tribe reorganized in 1912 and selected a chairman, instead of a chief , to head an elected tribal council. They began system­atically seeking compensation and recognition. When their bill finally passed both houses of Congress in 1928, it was vetoed by President Coolidge because they were voting citizens and were “industrious, self-supporting and reasonably intelligent.” It was as if the officials thought the Cowlitz were asking for a handout instead of the right to be justly acknowledged as an enduring tribal entity and compensated for lands taken.

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Update: The Cowlitz Indian Tribe was federally recognized on February 14, 2000, and their acknowledgement was reaffirmed in 2002. They are now recognized officially by the United States federal government, and are establishing federally recognized tribal lands near Longview, WA.

1 Comment

  1. Peggy Lyons on January 30, 2020 at 7:26 pm

    Very interesting.

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