Cowlitz Tribe Celebrates Legal Victory: A New Start

Cowlitz Tribe celebrates legal victory on Saturday, December 27, 2014

Cowlitz Tribe celebrates legal victory on Saturday, December 27, 2014

COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — Members of the Cowlitz Tribe in Washington state on Saturday, December 27, 2014 celebrated its legal victory that allowed land to be put into trust at the Tribe’s LaCenter site.

Hundreds of tribal members and their supporters sat together as Bill Iyall, Cowlitz Tribal Chairman, spoke of the more than a hundred and fifty years of struggle to regain a reservation, a land base, and a chance for complete economic self-sufficiency. Roy Wilson, former tribal chairman, spoke of the long struggles to overcome the obstacles thrown up by the United States Government, the State of Washington, and the Plaintiffs in The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, et. al V. Sally Jewel; Civil Action 13-849 (BJR).

Long History

In 1848, Isaac Stevens, later to be the first governor of Washington Territory, was charged with drawing up treaties that allotted the tribes of Washington territory onto reservations. The Cowlitz Tribe was one such group. The Cowlitz Tribe originally claimed 1.6 million acres as their hunting and fishing and ancestral territories. The tribe consists of two distinct groups: the Upper Cowlitz or Taidnapam people and the lower Cowlitz and Kwalhiokwa.

At one point in time, the Cowlitz people were considered one of the most powerful tribes in Western Washington. The lower Cowlitz were part of the Salish group while the Taidnapam people were of the Sahaptin linguistic and cultural group. At the time of contact, the Cowlitz people numbered 22,000. By 1973, their numbers had dwindled to 1976 members, a reduction of 91% due to disease and displacement. At this time, the membership of the tribe is 3800 with enrollment based on lineal descendency.

In 1848, Governor Stevens set aside a total of 640 acres of land on the west side of the Cowlitz River for the express use of the Cowlitz people whose villages had originally spread along the Cowlitz River from just south of the Columbia River through most of what is now southwest Washington and to the east of the Cascades to the land of the Yakama. The 640 acres set aside was occupied by the head chief of the Cowlitz people and was referred to as the “Cowlitz Reservation.” In 1852, the Cowlitz signed a treaty with the United States Government that was never ratified, leaving the tribe landless and denying them their rights.

Some tribal members were allotted onto the Yakama reservation on the east side of the Cascades. Others were allotted onto the Quinault reservation, a situation that would cause rancor, resentment, and a whole scale attack by the Quinault Tribe to block federal recognition for the Cowlitz Tribe. The Cowlitz Tribe settled a land claim in 1973 with the Indian Claims Commission for 1.55 million dollars, less than a dollar an acre for the land that had been stripped from them more than a hundred years in the past. Despite settlement of this claim, the Cowlitz Tribe was denied federal recognition until February 14, 2000 with recognition reaffirmed in 2002.

As soon as recognition was affirmed, the tribe began the lengthy and tedious and, at times, almost insurmountable task of regaining a reservation near LaCenter, Washington sixteen miles north of the Columbia River and Oregon border. Those opposing of the Cowlitz Tribe gaining a reservation of 152 acres have included an odd assortment of allies:

  • Citizens Against Reservation Shopping
  • The City of Vancouver and Clark County
  • The Grand Ronde Tribe of Oregon
  • Two non-Indian gaming companies, Dragonslayer, Inc. and Michaels Development LLC who own four La Center card rooms
  • Two individuals who live near the proposed casino site.

Legal Victory

After years of litigation, the Cowlitz tribe prevailed in the court of the Honorable Judge Barbara J. Rothstein who denied the motions of the Plaintiffs and cleared the way for the Cowlitz Tribe to move ahead with transferring the 152 acres into trust. The Grand Ronde Tribe has already appealed the ruling but it appears, hopefully, that the Cowlitz Tribe will be able to begin the process of taking the land into trust and beginning construction on their casino.

Prayers were offered, songs were sung, people hugged and cried and laughed as a meal was served. But, most of all, a sense of restoration, of hope, of a different and prosperous future for the Cowlitz people was celebrated.

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  1. Sandi Billington 3 years ago