The name Cowlitz Tribe refers to two Northwest Native American groups, the Lower and Upper Cowlitz, and the river drainage that was their aboriginal home. Positioned in the interior southwest of today's Washington State, the tribes' original territory comprised some 3,750 square miles. By some accounts, the name Cowlitz means "spiritual seeker."
The more numerous Lower Cowlitz inhabited 30 villages along the Cowlitz River, about a mile from the Columbia River northward to the present-day town of Mossyrock. The Upper Cowlitz lived in villages east of Mossyrock, then camped during warm weather at loftier elevations of the Cascade Crest, then along the Tieton River several miles east of the crest.
In winter, the Cowlitz lived near fish-laden streams in sturdy cedar longhouses. Storytelling and ceremonies enlivened their cold-weather evenings. The performance of dance and song sought to ensure availability of food and to avoid evil.
In the spring, families moved to the prairies to dig up wapato (Indian potato) and camas bulbs, which provided starch for their diet. They trekked to the mountains to harvest game and berries. In addition to its food-gathering function, camping provided a setting for social interaction.
Upon reaching adolescence, Cowlitz youths departed on fasting quests to seek visions of a spirit guide to help them become productive members of the tribe.
Owing to their insular location, the Cowlitz were more tightly knit than other Salish-speaking bands on the Columbia River and the coast. Nevertheless, the Cowlitz pursued trade and relations with neighboring tribes. They traveled on trail and river routes to contact their neighbors. On the rivers they used snub-nosed canoes capable of negotiating rapids. Barter items included slaves, horses, various plant and meat foodstuffs, pelts, hides and baskets. They also exchanged items through gaming, horse racing and powwows.
The earliest historical accounts of the Cowlitz began in 1811 with the arrival of Pacific Fur Company agents out of Astoria. The second engagement between the Cowlitz and non-Indians took place after the North West Company, which had bought out the Pacific Fur Company in 1813, dispatched hunters and trappers including Iroquois Indians up the Cowlitz River. This opening into Cowlitz country provided the Hudson Bay Company, which merged with the North West Company, a chance to trade with the natives.
An epidemic in 1829 and 1830, believed to be a virulent Asian influenza, was carried in by Captain John Domines' American ship Owyhee. Affected villages became hellish scenes of sickness and death, and populations dropped precipitously.
In the mid-19th century, native and non-native relations grew episodically ugly as pioneers, backed by the U.S. government, began to set roots on Cowlitz lands. The principal aims of Cowlitz chiefs were to establish cooperation with the federal government and a permanent Cowlitz territory. Two treaties were negotiated in the middle 1800s. The Congress failed to ratify the first one. In 1855, during a second treaty session with territorial governor Isaac Stevens, the Cowlitz refused to become parties to a document that would eliminate their rights to traditional homelands, then relegate them to the alien coastal Quinault reservation. The treaty collapse led to the United States government's confiscation of territory and resources without the Cowlitz' assent.
When war between the Indians and whites erupted that same year, the Cowlitz tribe was assured they would be provided with a reservation if their agitated young braves did not join in the fighting. As a result, the Cowlitz area remained free of native-initiated violence during the war. However, the assurance of a Cowlitz reservation in return for cooperation was evidently ignored.
In 1906, a Cowlitz chief named Atwin Stockum sued the federal government to retrieve several pieces of land for his tribe, thus inspiring a series of disputes with the government over decades. Throughout the 1900s, the Cowlitz Tribe carried on a lonely defense of its interests.
Also at the beginning of the 20th century, the system of chiefs evolved into a system of elected presidents. In addition, by 1950, a constitutional elective tribal council structure came into being.
The State of Washington commenced to enforce its fish and wildlife regulations against Indians in 1920, provoking confrontations between enforcers and the Cowlitz. The long-term struggle was finally resolved with the issuance of ID cards to the Cowlitz, which entitled bearers to fish and hunt for subsistence.
In the 1950s, the Cowlitz tried to dissuade the City of Tacoma from building a hydroelectric dam on the Cowlitz River near the site of Taoup, an old Cowlitz village. The city prevailed and dam backwaters inundated individual holdings and tribal burial grounds.
In 1946, the Cowlitz land-claims efforts shifted from dealing with the Congress to the new Indian Claims Commission set up by the United States. In 1951, the Cowlitz leaders entered a land-claims petition against the federal government. Twenty-two years later, the commission found in favor of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe by asserting that the government had in effect deprived the tribe "...of its aboriginal Indian title as of March 20, 1863, without payment of any compensation therefore." The commission further acknowledged a total area of 1.66 million acres, about two-thirds of the aboriginal land area. The settlement put forth by the United States came to about a half dollar an acre.
Throughout the last two decades of the century, the Cowlitz pressed their efforts to win formal recognition from the federal government.