It is a rainy morning in late April, less than two months after his tribe signed a formal agreement with the federal government for a 152-acre reservation near La Center, and Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall has come to his tribe’s Vancouver offices to discuss plans for the land.
On this particular day, the Cowlitz leader is caught between celebration and sorrow – celebration because his people finally have land to call their own; sorrow because the tribe’s eldest member has passed away.
A positive man, Iyall finds the silver lining: Before she died, this 108-year-old Cowlitz woman, born two decades before the start of the Great Depression, knew that her people had been victorious.
“We’ve lost a lot of elders, waiting for this (reservation) to happen, but this elder knew that the tribe got their land back. She saw it in her lifetime,” Iyall says. “I’m glad we were able to provide that for her.”
Certainly, the reservation has been a long time coming for the Cowlitz people. Landless for more than 160 years, the Cowlitz is a tribe that has fought to retain its identity as its members scattered, settling with other tribes and finding homes many miles away from their ancestors’ aboriginal lands. In December of 2014, a federal judge cleared the way for the Cowlitz reservation, taking the land into federal trust for the Washington tribe.
Christine Dupres, a Cowlitz Tribal Council member and author of the book, Being Cowlitz: How One Tribe Renewed and Sustained Its Identity, gathered with her fellow and sister Cowlitz on the tribe’s new land in late December to celebrate the judge’s ruling.
“The air was thick with burning sage and anticipation,” Dupres wrote for Indian Country Today media network. “Drums sounded and elders strode around in red woolen honor robes, bedecked in antique abalone shells … It was a day to celebrate, but it was a day not without controversy.”
Over the past 12 years – since a developer first purchased the 152-acre property outside La Center for the Cowlitz tribe – Cowlitz leaders have been fighting for legal approval of the reservation. Their plans to build a Las Vegas-style casino on the reservation land garnered several opponents including Clark County, the city of Vancouver, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, owners of private cardrooms in La Center, a group calling itself Citizens Against Reservation Shopping and three neighbors of the reservation land.
These opponents have claimed the Cowlitz casino will negatively impact the environment and regional economy; burden the local housing and transportation infrastructures; result in lost revenue for the local cardrooms and for the city of La Center, which collects about $2.5 million a year in tax revenues from those cardrooms; ruin the land’s livability; destroy habitats for native wildlife; and pollute nearby rivers.
From the outside, it is easy to focus on these opponents’ arguments and to dwell on the still-ongoing legal battles that have held up the tribe’s casino plans for several years. But the Cowlitz are not known for going down without a fight.
“We’ll be here long after the opposition is gone,” Iyall says. “We’ve been fighting for many years. It’s been a tough road, but we’ve tried to take the high road. The Cowlitz have always been good stewards of the land and anyone who says otherwise is misinformed.”
Providing opportunities for future generations
When it comes to the future of their reservation, Cowlitz leaders posit a much different scenario than their opponents. They say the casino project will help the local economy by hiring union construction workers, produce living-wage jobs and create an influx of tourists with money to spend on hotels, restaurants, gas stations and nearby shops. What’s more, revenues from the tribal casino will help the Cowlitz take care of their tribal elders, educate their youth, provide health services, pay for environmental restoration projects throughout southwest Washington and fund the tribe’s reclamation of valuable Cowlitz artifacts.
Dupres grew up in Newport on the Oregon Coast, and saw tribal casino revenues in action at the nearby schools and health centers operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, which run the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, about 30 miles north of Newport.
“(Siletz) is a good example of what you can do,” Dupres says. “When I look at the data on native people, it’s unsettling. So many native people, urban and reservation-based, are poor compared to their white counterparts. I’m guessing that a lot of the Cowlitz people, my people, are significantly poor and, when they’re elderly or young, especially vulnerable. This money (from the casino revenues) will be invested in education, in health care and social services. We’ll be able to provide living wage jobs and benefits for people.”
Even without the advantage of a reservation and the income that a tribal casino-resort could generate, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has persevered, securing grant money to build a health clinic in Longview and housing units near Toledo; running administrative offices out of Vancouver, Longview and Tukwila; operating health and human services programs for native people throughout 10 counties in Washington State; and doing environmental restoration work on the lower Columbia River.
The casino-resort will take up a large chunk of the reservation land – more than 40 percent – but the rest of the reservation will host administrative offices as well as additional health and human services and educational programs. Iyall hopes the tribe can also fund a cultural center on the land, to store the tribe’s recovered artifacts and house its archives.
“A lot of our (artifacts) are in museums, but we’ve found some of our most prized baskets are being sold on the commercial market,” Iyall says. “So we need to buy back our cultural pieces.”
Debbie Hassler is a member of the Cowlitz tribe and manages the tribe’s Pathways to Healing program, which provides holistic services to Native American families affected by domestic violence and sexual assault. She sees the new reservation land as a way for the Cowlitz to show off the vast array of services they’re already providing to native peoples in a 5,000-square-mile area that includes 10 Washington counties.
“I hope people will see this reservation as more than just a casino,” Hassler says. “The casino is something we want to do because it means community and economic development and preservation of our future, of the future of our youth.”
Iyall says the tribe’s history of having no land to call their own meant that many families dispersed to other parts of the state and country.
“We had to go where the services were, where we could live,” Iyall says of the Cowlitz people. “Primarily, this was the Puget Sound area.”
In fact, Iyall lived in the Puget Sound area for more than 35 years, working as an engineer for the city of Tacoma, and raising his family.
Now, Iyall hopes the reservation will provide economic incentives to draw young Cowlitz families back to the Clark County region.
“We need to have these types of economic opportunities for our future generations,” Iyall says. “We want the youth to stay, to become leaders in the tribe, and to have a way to earn a living.”
Providing services for Cowlitz youth is key to tribal elders, who see the writing on the wall – of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s 3,900 members, more than half are 18 or younger.
“We are a very young tribe,” Iyall says. “We are growing, we need room to expand, to provide more services … and this land will help us do that.”
A spiritual connection to the land
Hassler, who lives in Battle Ground, says she often encounters people in Clark County who don’t understand what the reservation really means for the tribe. They tend to think it’s all about the casino, Hassler says. But for members of the Cowlitz who have been waiting several lifetimes to have a land to call their own, the reservation is about more than economic opportunities. For many Cowlitz, the reservation is a source of deep spiritual and emotional connection.
In early March, Dupres accompanied other Cowlitz leaders to the formal reservation signing ceremony at the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Northwest Regional Office in Portland.
“There were few dry eyes in the room,” Dupres recalls. “People were talking about their ancestors and you could feel the love, you could feel the ancestors’ presence. The elders were just completely broken up. There was some sadness, in thinking about all of the elders who fought so hard but didn’t get to see this day … but there was also just sheer joy.”
Iyall says the physical act of standing on the reservation land is something that brings up a deep emotional connection – to his ancestors, his tribe and his spirituality.
“The ground is sacred. To have our feet on that ground … there is a real spiritual connection,” Iyall says. “It’s a phenomenal feeling.”
In her book, Dupres seeks to answer the question, “How do you know you’re Cowlitz?” She interviewed a number of Cowlitz tribal elders over a period of several years, from 1998 to 2005, and describes the Cowlitz as “a tribe whose sense of identity was in a constant state of danger of dissolving into the blankness of unrecorded history.” Dupres writes that, for the Cowlitz, who scattered across the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the United States, there has always been a deep attachment to the lands of southwest Washington.
“The Cowlitz claim to be their own voice and agency often centers on a claim to their land,” Dupres writes. “For the Cowlitz, a key component of their ethnic identity is their attachment to the land of southwest Washington.”
That’s why securing a reservation in southwest Washington was a profound moment for the Cowlitz people, Dupres says.
“Having an actual place, an actual site, is a huge resource for the tribe,” she said. “We know that the land is ours. We didn’t need anyone to tell us that. But getting this formal recognition after so many years was a huge relief and vindication.”
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