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This paper discusses a claim made by the Cowlitz that Indians of their Tribe were indigenous to the Lower Lewis River area around Ridgefield and La Center. The Cowlitz' claim is made in support of a fee-to-trust application to acquire land for an Indian casino and other undisclosed purposes. The Cowlitz Tribe is seeking to have the land removed from state jurisdiction and designated as an Indian Reservation.


  1. Cowlitz Indians were not indigenous to Clark County. It was the aboriginal or ancestral land of Chinookan speaking people.
  2. Indians living in the Lewis River area after 1830 were Chinookan and Klickitat.
  3. Very few Cowlitz Indians lived in Clark County at any time.
  4. Indians known as the Lewis River band, observed in the 1850s, did not later merge with the Cowlitz Tribe. The Cowlitz Tribe merged in the second half of the 19th century with a different group of Indians living near Mt. Rainier. [1]

Summary and Conclusion

The argument that Cowlitz aboriginal lands included the Lower Lewis River area is based heavily upon information from 1855 and 1860 about groups of Indians camped near the mouth of the Lewis River. Chief Umtux, apparent leader of the 1855 group, was said by his grandson, 100 years later, to have been of Cowlitz descent. However, the Chief's son, under oath, and his niece both said otherwise. At the time, the people in the two bands referred to themselves as Klickitat and Chinook.

After 1863 there was a merger of Cowlitz Indians with their neighbors to the North, living on Mt. Rainier, and called Taidnapam, Cowlitz Klickitat or Upper Cowlitz. The Indians who did live in Clark County were a separate group that did not merge with the Cowlitz Tribe.

The Lewis River Indians had only a temporary presence and did not establish a tribal homeland in Clark County.

The Tribe's evidence and arguments have been presented twice before to expert tribunals and both times were rejected. Both the Indian Claims Commission and BIA historians have come to the same conclusion: The Lewis River band was not part of the Cowlitz Tribe.

What are the Relevant Questions?

There are two approaches to determining whether the Lewis River Indians were ancestors of present day Cowlitz. If the group was composed of people who identified as Cowlitz at the time, and remained affiliated with the Cowlitz, the current Tribe would have a legitimate connection with Clark County.

A connection is not enough. The Indians' relationship to the land needs to be of sufficient duration, exclusivity and cultural importance that it truly became their homeland. Most of this paper is about these two questions: were they Cowlitz Indians at the time and did they establish an aboriginal homeland in Clark County?

The second approach is to examine whether the Lewis River Indians, if not Cowlitz at the time, later merged with the Cowlitz. After 1863 there was a gradual merger between the Cowlitz and a group of Indians speaking a Sahaptin language who had been enemies of the Cowlitz in the 1850s. The questions under this approach are: did the Lewis River group establish an aboriginal homeland in Clark County and, if so, did this or some other group merge with the Cowlitz?

The two approaches are often mixed in materials and arguments presented by the Cowlitz advocates. This sows confusion because both positions cannot be true. Evidence that supports one theory undermines the other. For example, if Chief Umtux was Cowlitz in the 1850's, then he was not with Sahaptin speaking enemies of the Cowlitz, who merged with them years later.

In either case, a link to the current Cowlitz Tribe is required. If a part of the Cowlitz Tribe had a prehistoric homeland in Clark County, but later separated and joined with a second tribe, only the second tribe can claim the land. This link is missing here because the entire band of Lewis River Indians went to the Yakima Reservation in 1860.

What The Indian Claims Commission Said

It is settled law that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe did not have exclusive use and occupancy of the Lower Lewis River area. Testimony that they did so was given by the Tribe's historian, Dr. Verne Ray, in the 1950s and rejected by the Indian Claims Commission in formal findings.

Neither Ray, nor any other writer, identified the Cowlitz Indians as prehistoric occupants of the area. The Indian Claims Commission is the leading authority on where various tribes lived. It found that the Lower Lewis River land had not been taken from the Cowlitz Tribe and that the people observed there in the mid 1850s were not Cowlitz. The Commission said:

". . .virtually all of the contemporary as well as the historical and anthropological reports have identified the aborigines on the Lewis River as belonging to other tribal groups--specifically the Chinook and the Klickitat." 21 ICC 146.

The Commission emphasized the point by quoting the Government expert, Dr. Riley, who testified:

"I see no evidence whatsoever for considering these Cowlitz. I do not believe these Lewis River people should ever be considered Cowlitz and I do not think on the basis of the evidence that we have here that they were so considered." 21 ICC 166.

The Tribes current historian, Dr. Beckham, may be contending that Cowlitz Tribe members achieved some sort of shared homeland status, because their ancestors used the area, and they can now claim it as reservation land, even if they were not the exclusive occupants.

Assuming the area was used in common with other tribes before white settlement, it does not follow that temporarily comingled tribes should be awarded such areas as locations for reservations or casinos. Because of the melting pot nature of the Fort Vancouver area, better claims could be asserted by many tribes, including the Iroquois, Walla-Walla, even Native Hawaiians. It seems more appropriate to locate reservations and casinos in the home territory of a tribe, closer to the center of its cultural and historic base.

There is a more fundamental flaw. The presence of these Indians on the Lewis River was long after white settlement. The United States had already claimed the land and opened it to settlers. Donation land claims had been filed years before on the exact parcel they occupied. Over two dozen white families were farming the immediate area. Steamers were regularly passing the Indian camp. Mail was being delivered up the Lewis River. Some of the Indians were reading Harper's Weekly delivered out of San Francisco. The Indians were observed on, and removed from, settled land.


[1] This iteration of the paper adds a discussion of the Taidnapam or Upper Cowlitz merger as a separate topic below.

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