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Cowlitz Tribe celebrates homecoming, casino

A crowd of about 500 turns out to mark recent start of construction near La Center

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
2 Photos
The Cowlitz Tribe's casino-resort is beginning to take shape on its reservation west of La Center.
The Cowlitz Tribe's casino-resort is beginning to take shape on its reservation west of La Center. Photo Gallery

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe is home.

With plenty of cheers, and some tears, Cowlitz members celebrated the recent groundbreaking on their $510 million casino-resort and the tribe’s future at a ceremony Sunday. The steel skeleton of the structure already is taking shape near La Center, but the tribe waited until Valentine’s Day to mark the milestone.

Sixteen years ago on Feb. 14, the tribe received recognition from the federal government, said Roy Wilson, a spiritual leader of the Cowlitz Tribe. In 2010 came another victory: the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved an application to take 152 acres of land west of La Center into trust for a new Cowlitz reservation. The Cowlitz then were locked in a legal battle to build a casino on the property, where the tribe said its ancestors had ties.

“I can’t find the words to express what I am feeling inside,” Wilson said. “We have just begun a great journey. … We came a long, long way, and we have a great future ahead of us.”

The ceremony began with members of the tribe drumming and singing their honor song, which includes the words: “The land of the Cowlitz is calling for me. … Come back to the Cowlitz. The Cowlitz is home.”

The celebration drew roughly 500 people, who gathered under a giant tent as rain fell. In the crowd were representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray; past and current state legislators and city officials; former Clark County commissioners; Clark County Fire & Rescue commissioners; people who live near the casino site; and leaders of the Cowlitz Tribe and the Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribe of Indians. The Mohegan Tribe has teamed with the Cowlitz on the casino project, guiding the Cowlitz through the process.

During the event, community members signed a beam that would be used in the casino’s construction, ceremonially dug into the earth and brought forward small mementos to bury on the casino site. Long ago, members of the Cowlitz buried tokens in the ground upon establishing a new village, tribal spiritual leaders said.

The casino-resort is expected to open to the public in the spring of 2017. When construction is completed, the project will feature a 100,000-square-foot gaming floor — with 2,500 slot machines, 75 gaming tables, 60 high-limit slot machines and five high-limit tables — multiple restaurants and meeting spaces.

Construction will include a new Interstate 5 interchange at Exit 16. A concert venue also is in the works, tribal leaders said Sunday.

Friedmutter Group architects, who designed the casino, described its look as “organic contemporary.” They said it will tastefully infuse the casino with elements of Cowlitz culture, including imagery of a blunt-nosed canoe, camas flowers, woven hats and salmon.

Several groups that did not want a casino built on the reservation have sued the Cowlitz because they question the Cowlitz peoples’ ties to the area and believe the tribe is interested in the property only for its proximity to Portland. They did not request an injunction to block the casino’s construction.

The plaintiffs, including the city of Vancouver, Clark County, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Citizens Against Reservation Shopping — a group that includes Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell — and the owners and operators of La Center’s cardrooms, are appealing U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein’s decision in December 2014 to dismiss the lawsuit.

After many struggles, Sunday was a historic day for the tribe, speakers at the ceremony said. The project opens a new chapter, one that includes jobs, prosperity and self-reliance for their tribe, they said.

“We are the continuous Cowlitz. We are the forever people,” spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl said. “We are here, we are home and we are forever.”

Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

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