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The Unseen Power of the Cowlitz Tribe

The Unseen Power of the Cowlitz Tribe
By Tanna Engdahl, Cowlitz Indian Tribe Elder and Spiritual Leader

As published in the Vancouver Washington Magazine 

The landscapes of untold centuries lie beneath the city of Vancouver and the surrounding towns of Southwest Washington. Fragments of old civilizations whisper through the texts of the new people who settled on top of the old. Descendants of these ancient villages have stubbornly backed away from the edge of extinction, bought their land back, and have become an economic force in their homelands in defiance of pandemics, land taking, and unbelievable prejudice.

Yet, the original land-keepers remain optimistic, welcoming, and surprisingly generous in modern times. The Cowlitz villages that once dotted the rivers and streams of the Columbia River Watershed, including the Columbia River itself, are like the leaves of time, falling to their earthly burials. The modern Cowlitz are astute businessmen and women operating under a Tribal Council that is both futuristic and painfully aware of the losses of culture, language, art, and leadership based on village headmen and experienced matriarchs. 

The early Cowlitz had strongholds in mountains, lowlands, hills, and riverine shorelines, over thousands of square miles. Their intermarriages maintained an unbreakable grid of alliances that held through the worst of disease, land losses, and the breaking apart of families as they scattered across the northwest, struggling for survival.   Refusing to sign a treaty that offered them a reservation over 100 miles away, they were left without federal protection, becoming the “unseens” in numerous communities. It was the amazing strength of associated bloodlines and the resolute search of disseminated documents that proved their existence in the federal acknowledgment system. As a federally recognized tribe, the pent-up energy of the descendants went nuclear. 

In less than a decade, following years of setbacks, they secured their fee land with trust status (meaning the title is held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Tribe). Operating under the federal policy of tribal self-determination, the Tribe moved quickly to create what it never had through more than a century of deprivation—economic security.

The Tribe partnered with Connecticut’s Mohegan Tribe to finance its now famous ilani resort and entertainment center, featuring not only gaming but concerts, sports viewing, and award-winning restaurants. Its hotel is designed to be a destination property offering an array of luxury services, including childcare.

Years ago, the Tribe formed a special alliance with the Clark County Council to distribute millions to nonprofit organizations and into the economy. Under the radar, the Tribe has spent millions rehabbing streams and rivers to accommodate salmon.

In summary, the Tribe, as a sovereign government, operates like a county or city government with departments specializing in housing, health, public safety, public works, transportation, natural resources, culture, nutrition, and education and emphasizing youth, elder, and veteran programs. It has relationships with other governments, colleges, businesses, and environmental associations. 

More importantly, the Tribe has revived dormant cultural practices of drumming, weaving, beading, processing native plants, canoe journeys, ceremonies, and any event that touches the earth. The earth keeps the ancestors in memory. The Cowlitz keep the ancestors in their hearts, understanding the genetic drive to survive and flourish is a gift from the bones they walk on.

Woman in tribal regalia holding a drum by a river

Tanna Engdahl,

Cowlitz Indian Tribe Elder and Spiritual Leader


The legacy of an ancient people in southwest Washington is rich with descendants who manage a growing portfolio of health, education, scientific research, housing, transportation, development, elder care, conservation and legal issues. The Cowlitz Tribe is a growing force in community building in what are now Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis and parts of Pierce, Skamania and Wahkiakum Counties, a vast territory occupied by numerous Cowlitz villages prior to non-Cowlitz exploration and seizure. Today, an elected Tribal Council is composed of professionals adept at managing multiple programs and projects.