For members of the Cowlitz Tribe, the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at ilani Casino Resort was more than just the opening of the casino’s Meeting and Entertainment Center.

The April 5 ceremony marked the first time the Cowlitz Tribe flag had been flown over their reservation land. That significance was not lost on Cowlitz leaders who spoke at a flag-raising prior to the official opening of ilani’s newest addition.

Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall took time to briefly talk about the history of the tribe, specifically on its struggles for recognition and land. The tribe itself was not recognized federally until 2000, and it wasn’t until 2015 that the tribe was able to acquire the parcel where the casino now sits.

“It’s been a long 160 years back to our homeland,” Iyall remarked. He commented that ilani was key in bringing the tribe back together, now in a resurgence after being dispersed for a long time.

“ilani gives us the opportunity to be self-sufficient. We are proud of what we have achieved,” Iyall remarked.

“It’s been a long journey for the tribe,” said Stan Speaks, regional office director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Northwest. He had worked with the tribe for more than three decades, realizing the tribe’s struggle for recognition and progress.

“Today you can see what has been accomplished in the last 18 to 20 years,” Speaks said, adding that along with benefitting the tribe accomplishments like ilani also benefit surrounding communities.

During the ribbon-cutting proper casino president and general manager Kara Fox-LaRose talked about the 30,000 square-foot Meeting and Entertainment Center, explaining how it was a goal from the outset for ilani to be “Pacific Northwest’s premiere gaming, dining, meeting and entertainment destination.”

“Today, we are one step closer to that goal,” Fox-LaRose remarked, listing off the number of amenities the new addition will have. The major part of the complex was the Cowlitz Ballroom, a 22,000 square-foot space which could be divided into up to six different rooms with 30 different configurations, seating up to 1,000 banquet-style and 2,500 in concert-style when fully opened up.

Fox-LaRose noted that the first event was only a week away from the opening, as country group Little Big Town will play the ballroom April 12. Other acts to come included the I “Love the 90s” Tour featuring the likes of Vanilla Ice, Salt N Pepa with Spinderella, Young MC, Tone Loc and C&C Music factory featuring Freedom Williams, and an invitation-only one-year anniversary party featuring Jay Leno.

Fox-LaRose commented that the venue was the most intimate in the region to be bringing the caliber of acts they book.

Introduced as the “founder” of ilani by Fox-LaRose, former Cowlitz Tribe Chairman David Barnett also spoke. He thanked the Mohegan Tribe from Connecticut for their more than a decade of help in trying to get the casino open.

Barnett remarked that the high ceilings and spaciousness of the event was a big improvement to his days attending concerts in garages during the grunge music explosion of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“I wanted a better venue for this (casino),” Barnett remarked.

The opening also received a special message from the governor as Schuyler Hoss, a representative for Jay Inslee’s office, relayed the governor’s support of ilani and the Cowlitz.

Though excitement for the Meeting and Entertainment Center was high during the event, the Cowlitz Tribe members banged their drums loudest when tribe spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl spoke. Alongside fellow spiritual leader and honorary chief Roy Wilson who gave a blessing in both English and Chinook Jargon, Engdahl put the rightful return to the land in the context of the flag raising prior to the ribbon cutting.

“I want you to know that for the drummers here, and for the Cowlitz people here, that the real event was the the raising of the Cowlitz flag upon the resting places of our ancestors,” Engdahl said along with a chorus of drums.

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