River Was Used as a Source of Food, Transportation

Roy Wilson, honorary chief of the Cowlitz Tribe and chairman of the cultural committee, talks about the villages that were once scattered along the banks of the Cowlitz River on Tuesday. In all, 43 villages were situated along the waters.

Roy Wilson, honorary chief of the Cowlitz Tribe and chairman of the cultural committee, talks about the villages that were once scattered along the banks of the Cowlitz River on Tuesday. In all, 43 villages were situated along the waters.

For one American Indian tribe, the Cowlitz is far more than a river: It’s a place they used to call home, a resource that provided them food and a channel for transportation.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe once had the largest land use area in the state, stretching into six counties in Southwest Washington and covering approximately 3,000 square miles.

The river ran through the area from its source on top of Mount Rainier down to the confluence of the Columbia River, creating a “source of life,” said the Cowlitz Tribe’s honorary chief Roy Wilson, who now lives not far from the river near Winlock.

At one point, 43 villages scattered the banks of the Cowlitz, housing a variety of dialects of the tribe.

Honorary chief and chairman of the cultural commitee of the Cowlitz tribe, Roy Wilson, looks over the banks of the Cowlitz River where his people once thrived. The river was a "source of life" for the tribe as it provided them with water, food and transportation.

Honorary chief and chairman of the cultural commitee of the Cowlitz tribe, Roy Wilson, looks over the banks of the Cowlitz River where his people once thrived. The river was a “source of life” for the tribe as it provided them with water, food and transportation.

“The river not only provided water for survival, bathing, for cooking and transportation, but it also provided our food,” said Wilson, who is also the chairman of the tribe’s Cultural Committee.

The tribe’s origins are estimated to date back between 10,000 and 15,000 years, although radiocarbon artifacts can only pinpoint their existence to just over 5,000 years ago, Wilson said.

Roy Wilson dressed in a traditional button blanket and a hat specific to the Cowlitz Tribe discusses the importance of the river. The honorary chief and chairman of the tribe's cultural committee said 43 villages once existed on the banks of the Cowlitz River.

Roy Wilson dressed in a traditional button blanket and a hat specific to the Cowlitz Tribe discusses the importance of the river. The honorary chief and chairman of the tribe’s cultural committee said 43 villages once existed on the banks of the Cowlitz River.

Bill Iyall, tribal chairman, said the river also played a key role with how the natives traveled.

“The Cowlitz River, in addition to being a lifeline as far as food and resources, it was also a transportation route,” he said.

The canoe was a main method of transportation for the tribe, Wilson said, and provided routes to what is now Portland and Olympia, among other places.

Known as the salmon people, the Cowlitz tribe harvested the fish, along with other wildlife that thrived along the water’s banks.

A01_150618“I can remember when I was a boy you could go down there when the salmon was on and if you were lucky you’d walk across the river on the backs of the salmon,” Wilson said. “They’re not there anymore.”

The change is credited to the arrival of the “white man.” The first white settler stepped foot in Cowlitz country when the Lewis and Clark party arrived in 1806. Along with them, later settlers brought measles, smallpox and other diseases, nearly eradicating the tribe.

Wilson said in the 1830s the tribe’s population was approximately 50,000 people and by the end of the decade, only 2,400 were left.

With the new settlers, a lot changed. The tribe’s land use area was homesteaded and turned into wilderness areas, national forests and state forests. According to Wilson, much of the land was given to Weyerhaeuser and the railroad, creating change throughout the area.

A10_150618The water of the free-flowing Cowlitz was later subdued by dams, which were built on the upper portions of the river, hindering fish populations because of the blockage of the upstream passages.

“All of our villages on the river disappeared,” Wilson said. “Today the river is still important to us … there’s not only a sad feeling, but sometimes in many ways the Cowlitz have become very angry (about the changes).”

Much of the tribe has since dispersed, traveling to other reservations where services were available, Iyall said. Aboriginally, he estimated about 50 percent of the tribe was located along the banks of the Cowlitz, while now although the tribe still uses the river for resources, only about 5 to 10 percent remain in Lewis County.

Iyall said the tribe resisted the changes, but the new landscape created by the developments can also provide the Cowlitz a measure of insurance to restore and maintain the resources for future generations.

“They are sacred waters all the way to the source on Mount Rainier: It’s the transportation corridor, the lifeblood of our people, and it will also be our asset symbol as we restore our ability to recover our reservation,” Iyall said. “We will be able to make better use of the river.”

The tribe has been working on creating habitat for the fish, one of its top priorities. Several conservation projects are in the process to help secure and maintain good conditions, Iyall said.

The tribe is also working on getting state recognition for its right to fish, something Iyall said the tribe will recover.

“I think that the very importance of the whole system is the most important aspect of the river and looking at how it impacts the community,” he said. “… It’s a cultural component of our life that’s really critical.”

By Justyna Tomtas / jtomtas@chronline.com