Cowlitz leader bets on casino

Tribe expects project to fund future generations’ health care, education

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer



Portrait 2017

Find more stories about some of the unique people that are our friends and neighbors in Clark County at Do you know someone we should write about? Send an email to

As long as Bill Iyall can remember, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe had a central quest.

“The main topic was when do we get our land,” he said.

In many ways, it makes sense that Iyall was chairman when the tribe finally realized its centurylong dream of securing property for a reservation.

A look into his family’s history, and it’s almost as if it were his destiny.

Iyall’s great-great-grandfather was known as the Chief of Chiefs. Long before the settlers infiltrated the Pacific Northwest and before it was part of the United States, Chief Scanewa roamed the region. He worked with the Hudson Bay Company, controlling the trade route from the Puget Sound area to Vancouver. Scanewa was a man of great influence, his great-great-grandson said.

Later, Iyall’s grandfather became a crucial champion for tribal issues. He traveled across the country by train to Washington, D.C., to advocate for tribal issues, including the right to vote.

“He was instrumental getting that done,” Iyall said.

There’s a black-and-white photo to prove it; Iyall’s grandfather is dressed in a suit standing next to President Calvin Coolidge who signed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

“Our family has always been one to step up and do what needs to be done to make sure something can be done to preserve the tribe and protect the greater interests of the tribe,” Iyall said.

Tanna Engdahl, a Cowlitz tribal spiritual leader, who can also trace her ancestors to Chief Scanewa, said Iyall is a skilled, diplomatic leader with tact and knowledge.

“I think the tribe is well served by our leadership, and I think that’s evident in the amazing progress the tribe has made,” Engdahl said. “We’ve been a scattered people who would not let go of our tribalism and tribal need to be with each other, no matter how far we were scattered.”

Iyall, who is 69 and has seven children, grew up in the Olympia area. He worked as an engineer for the city of Tacoma for 35 years. In 2008, when former Cowlitz chairman John Barnett died, Iyall succeeded him.

Barnett led the tribe starting in 1982 through its fight to become a federally recognized tribe. In 2000, the tribe received the designation. It was challenged and reaffirmed in 2002.

After another long and vigorous battle in the courts, the tribe was given approval to establish a reservation along Interstate 5 west of La Center and build a casino.

With the $510 million casino-resort project now under construction and scheduled to open in April, Iyall said he feels good about where the tribe is at now.

“We’re fortunate to be in this position,” he said.

The Ilani Casino Resort includes a one-story building of 368,000 total square feet with a gaming floor, meeting and facility rooms, 15 restaurants, bars and retail shops.

“Our heritage was basically stolen from our ancestors,” he said. “Now, we have a chance to return some of that back to our tribal members.”

In 1975, the tribe received $1.5 million for land that was stolen from them in 1862. The government looked at the value of the land the year it was taken, in 1862, and decided it was about 90 cents an acre for about 1.66 million acres.

The tribe invested the money and was able to create a scholarship fund of about $45,000 to help its younger members attend college. About 50 students applied, however, so the fund was immediately stretched thin.

“We have limited resources,” Iyall said.

The casino, Iyall hopes, is just the beginning. It’s a way for the tribe to diversify its economic base and to begin to offer its younger members more services.

“The federal government is obligated to take care of housing, educational and health needs for Native Americans, and they’ve always underfunded it by a factor of about 20,” Iyall said. “By taking our revenues, we can allocate those services out of that profit.”

His dream is to one day be able to pay for every tribal member’s college education.

“The goal is to fully fund all tuition and college-related experiences for our kids,” he said. “That’s our top priority. They are the future leaders of our tribe.”

There are about 4,400 enrolled members. Nearly 1,800 of the current tribal members are of college age.

The casino is a milestone for the tribe, the first step in diversifying its economy, he said.

Iyall also sees the tribe looking at ways to harvest more of its timberlands and possibly owning and operating some outlet malls.

“We’re using the (casino) revenues to look for other future economic opportunities in Clark County,” he said.

In addition to fully funding tribal student’s education, Iyall wants to see the tribe improve health care access and offer more housing opportunities for its elderly members.

Finally, he sees securing land for his reservation as a turning point in the tribe’s history. It’s a chance to reconnect the tribe to some of its cultural roots.

Engdahl, the tribe’s spiritual leader, is confident Iyall will lead the tribe in the right direction.

“He has a unique ability to hold us together, keep us focused and going in the same direction we need to go,” she said. “Not only to honor our ancestors, but to understand we need the strength to pass on to our children, our grandchildren and the many unborns that are yet to come.”