Courtesy Cowlitz Tribe
BIA Regional Director Stanley Speaks and Chairman Bill Iyall sign the Cowlitz Reservation into trust.

A Place to Call Home; Cowlitz Tribe Signs Land Into Trust for Reservation

Richard Walker

Before the ink was dry on the documents placing 152 acres of Cowlitz Tribe land into trust, Cowlitz Tribe Chairman William B. Iyall welcomed his people “to come home.”

This land represents a homecoming in many ways.

Here, economic development on a portion of the site will generate revenue that will fund more land acquisition for housing, public services, social services and jobs, ensuring more Cowlitz indeed return home.

Here, a place will be built so the ancestors’ belongings can be properly cared for – not just the belongings that the Cowlitz have now, but those items they know are in museums and repositories elsewhere, waiting to come home.

Here, an administrative center will be built, with government offices appropriate for carrying out the work of a sovereign indigenous nation.

One hundred and fifty two acres is a small footprint, Chairman Iyall said March 11. But it’s a starting point. And the nation building that is being done is being done not just for the 3,000 Cowlitz citizens alive today, but for the seventh generation.

“We are standing on the threshold of the future,” Iyall said.

On March 9, Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Director Stanley Speaks signed the final documents which immediately established the Cowlitz Tribe Reservation. The act of taking the land into trust also treats the Cowlitz Tribe with the same level of consideration of other government bodies in the United States. Local, county, state and federal governments don’t pay tax on property they own, because the land is considered “public land,” owned by their constituents. But before it was taken into trust, Cowlitz’s land was owned “fee simple” and was subject to taxation by local authorities.

Now that Cowlitz’s land is being treated like that owed by other governments, money it formerly spent on property taxes can instead be invested in meeting the needs of its constituents – the citizens of the Cowlitz Tribe.

Because the land is now held in trust, it’s considered “Indian country” under the U.S. Code and Cowlitz has sovereign authority. Cowlitz can participate in federal grant and low-interest/no-interest loan programs that other governments participate in, such as those for business development, housing, law and justice, natural resources, and transportation.

It’s been a long journey to this homecoming.

According to the BIA, Cowlitz’s historical territory “ranged a distance of 60 miles from the source to the mouth of the Cowlitz River.” (According to the Center for World Indigenous Studies, the Cowlitz Tribe’s historical territory encompassed 2.4 million acres.) Historically, the Cowlitz maintained political and trade relations with other indigenous nations and, in the early 1800s, with the Hudson Bay Co.

The Treaty of 1818 between Great Britain and the United States defined the boundaries of Britain’s claim in the region, which included Cowlitz’s territory. In 1838, St. Francis Xavier Mission was established on 640 acres of Cowlitz land, and in 1839 the Hudson Bay Co. established Fort Cowlitz and a farm in Cowlitz territory. Britain’s claim on the region was transferred to the United States by the Treaty of Oregon of 1846. In 1847, Hudson Bay Co. employees claimed 1,920 acres of the company’s former farm.

Cowlitz was never compensated for its lands by those who claimed them.

The U.S. attempted to extinguish Cowlitz’s “aboriginal title” to its lands via the Chehalis River Treaty of 1855, but Cowlitz representatives refused to sign the treaty because they and their people “did not consent to be transferred away from their traditional territory to a federally established reservation,” the BIA reported in 2000.

“In subsequent years, agents of the Office of Indian Affairs recorded the tribe's members on census and other records,” the BIA reported. “Between 1855 and the end of the 19th century, such chiefs as Kiskox, Henry Cheholtz, Atwin Stockum, and Captain Peter were well-known leaders.”

In 1904, on behalf of the Cowlitz people, the surviving traditional leaders began the process of filing a claim against the federal government for compensation for the taking of Cowlitz’s land. In 1906, Chief Stockum sued the U.S. government for the return of several parcels of land.

In 1910, Cowlitz reorganized its system of government to one led by elected officers and a board of directors; 40 years later, it adopted the council system of government in use by Cowlitz today.

In 1919, Bureau of Indian Affairs special agent Charles F. Roblin wrote of the Cowlitz people: “The Cowlitz Tribe was a powerful tribe … They were independent, fearless and aggressive; and they refused to subordinate themselves to the white man by entering into a treaty with him. Their descendants have the same qualities which placed their ancestors in the position of leaders. They have been progressive and industrious, and there are very few of the present representatives of the tribe who are not in good circumstances. They have homesteaded lands, made good homes, raised families much above the average, are in good standing in the communities in which they live.”

In 1973, the Indian Claims Commission settled Cowlitz’s claim for compensation filed almost 70 years earlier, but withheld disbursement pending the U.S. government’s acknowledgment of the Cowlitz Tribe as an indigenous nation.

In the 1974 decision of U.S. v. Washington, also known as the Boldt decision, which upheld indigenous nations’ treaty right to fish in their usual and accustomed territories, Cowlitz was omitted because it was considered a “landless tribe.” (Iyall said the Cowlitz Tribe owns other non-contiguous lands not held in trust; he estimated it at about 150 acres. St. Mary’s Mission, housing for Cowlitz Tribe citizens, is located on some of the land, in the city of Toledo, Washington.)

The Cowlitz Tribe submitted a request for federal acknowledgment to the BIA in 1975; acknowledgment came in 2000. Meanwhile, efforts of the Cowlitz Tribe to establish a land base were met with opposition in court by the City of Vancouver, Clark County, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon.

The 152 acres taken into trust are located along Interstate 5 about 15 miles north of the Columbia River, which flows between Washington and Oregon. Rob Greene, attorney for the Grand Ronde, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that that land is more associated with Grand Ronde ancestors. “Were they north along the Cowlitz River, we would not have brought this case,” Greene told OPB.

In addition, the Cowlitz Tribe’s proposed hotel casino resort, while in Washington state, would be located closer to Portland than Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Casino, and Grand Ronde says that could have a negative economic impact on its economy.

On December 12, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein rejected the challenges and reaffirmed the U.S. government’s decision to take the 152 acres into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe.

“After 160 years of longing for a Reservation within our aboriginal lands … we are no longer a landless tribe,” Iyall said in an announcement of the trust signing.

Iyall said Cowlitz is developing a master plan for the 152 acres. “We’re in the process of hiring a contractor. We’ve hired an architect. By the end of the year, we expect we’ll be ready to pursue financing and break ground,” he said.

The Cowlitz government has several departments that serve its citizens: childcare and development, cultural resources, education, health and human services, housing, natural resources, and transportation.

The 152 acres in trust will rev Cowlitz’s economic development engine. According to the Cowlitz Resort project website, the proposed resort will consist of a casino of up to 134,150 square feet; restaurants and retail stores comprising up to 260,225 square feet; up to 147,500 square feet of convention and entertainment space; and a hotel with 250 rooms. There will be parking structures for 7,250 vehicles and an RV park for 200 recreational vehicles.

Also on the 152 acres: Cowlitz Tribe government offices, a cultural center, and approximately 16 housing units for Cowlitz elders.

Cowlitz expects the project will generate more than 1,000 construction jobs during an 18-month build-out and, once open, the resort will provide more than 1,500 jobs “ranging from hourly workers to managerial fields like accounting and human resources. Most, if not all, will include full benefits,” according to the website.

Iyall told ICTMN on March 11, “Many people have passed who had hoped for this day. My grandfather worked for this. This is a once in a lifetime. This is once in many, many generations. I am so thankful.”

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