RIDGEFIELD — One March afternoon, rain clouds parted, revealing a gentle glow onto the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s sloping grasslands and woodlands below.
A group of Cowlitz Indian Tribe members, refuge staff and neighbors walked along the Oaks to Wetlands trail, surveying native plants, such as cattail, nettle, wapato and blackberries. They’re just a few examples of what the tribe can use for food, medicine, weaving and ceremonies.
The excursion is the first of its kind — born from a partnership between the tribe and government agency that allows Cowlitz tribal members to harvest plants on the federally protected site.
“We got to come back to our own land and look at the plants that we might be able to take to sustain our people,” said Tanna Engdahl, Cowlitz Tribe elder and spiritual leader.
Every few paces, someone stopped to observe a plant, pointing to its stems or budding leaves.
At one point, the group collected around an osoberry shrub that had just begun to emerge from the clutches of winter. Some plucked a few of its leaves and chewed them thoroughly. The greens delivered a sweet earthy taste, followed with a sharp bitterness. The shrub, also known as Indian plum, will grow hanging purplish drupes as it matures.
The outing is one example of how the Cowlitz Tribe is rekindling a lost connection with traditional foods, a means of keeping its people healthy and culture alive. Last year, responding to a survey, tribal members said they wanted to learn more about these foods, rather than relying on grocery stores that don’t provide Indigenous produce.
Food sovereignty is a people’s ability to grow their food, mindful of its cultural significance, said Emma Johnson, a Portland State University instructor of Indigenous ecological and cultural studies. For some, it leads to better health or a connection to the way their ancestors lived.
Clay Koch, tribal member and youth program coordinator, said access to plants on the refuge will play an important role in teaching kids about land stewardship.
A first for Cowlitz Tribe, agency
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge, works with several tribes at the refuge, and harvests are only one facet of that relationship, said Juliette Fernandez, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge manager.
Cowlitz tribal members may harvest at all refuges within the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge complex — encompassing Ridgefield, Pierce, Steigerwald Lake and Franz Lake refuges — though some areas may have varying degrees of plant abundance. Fish and Wildlife and the tribe collaborate to identify what plants and quantities can be harvested, as well as what opportunities may exist for future plantings.
Visitors are welcome to pick up rocks and flop them over in their palms, as well as lean in and smell the flowers or brush the soft petals with their fingers. But plants, because they are considered protected habitat, must stay intact.
But the new partnership between Fish and Wildlife and the Cowlitz Tribe allows for an exception. And both the refuge and Cowlitz Tribe will benefit from the partnership, Fernandez said.
“As biologists and land managers, we can easily teach about petals and pollinators, but our tribal partners like the Cowlitz bring the stories of the medicines offered by the plants, traditional techniques for helping them grow and the plants’ origin stories that shape why they exist as they do,” Fernandez said.
The Cowlitz Cultural Resources Board will establish a team to plan harvests, which will begin in the summer.
“We will go slowly and carefully just as we are in reestablishing our own camas prairie,” Engdahl said.
Johnson, who is Cowlitz and joined the surveying group in March, said her favorite component of food sovereignty is working with traditional foods, such as camas — a blue-purple flower that made up a significant portion of the Cowlitz’s diet.
The plant, a relative of the lily family, has small white bulbs that can be eaten fresh or cooked, the latter which generates a sweet taste. In January, tribal members planted thousands of the bulbs in a field northwest of Toledo to restore its once vast and abundant presence to the land.
“Those plant relatives have taken care of ancestors of this place for thousands of years and now we get to help return them to the landscape, which is really exciting,” she said.
During the walk, tribal members pointed out other plants equally significant, including wapato and osoberry.
All plants are worth learning about, even those that aren’t native to the area or are invasive, Johnson said. What matters is people treat the landscape with curiosity and respect, which, she added, cultivates belonging and connection.
Western culture normalizes objectifying plants because it makes overharvesting a common practice, she said. If plants are given agency, for example, people can create a relationship with them and begin caring more deeply for the environment.
They’ll become aware of an ecosystem’s challenges, overharvesting or contamination.
Meanwhile, in Toledo, the Cowlitz Tribe manages its Community Wellness Garden, growing fruits and vegetables year-round, along with herbs to use for medicine, cooking and ceremonies. The tribe’s fish distribution program, established in 2003, provides salmon and steelhead to members, connecting them with traditional first foods.
The Cowlitz Tribe isn’t the only tribe emphasizing the value of food sovereignty. The Nisqually Indian Tribe near Tacoma, for example, operates a community garden to feed members, and the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project educates its members on first foods.
There’s a powerful truth in the Cowlitz’s moniker, “The Forever People.”
The Cowlitz once maintained the largest land base of all Western Washington tribes.
Sharp boundary lines can’t illustrate where their villages existed, though they collectively occupied what is now Cowlitz and Clark counties, as well as portions of Lewis, Pierce, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties.
Following European contact in the 1800s, the Cowlitz Tribe abstained from signing a treaty with the government because it didn’t want to lose ancestral land, Engdahl said.
The tribe first sought government acknowledgement in 1923 from then-President Calvin Coolidge, who denied the request. By being “recognized,” the Cowlitz Indian Tribe would officially exist as a self-governing nation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Finally, 160 years later, in February 2000, the Cowlitz won recognition, but it was a grueling process for the tribe, who had to provide documentation that met court standards — something required to prove it existed — while being met with pushback.
“There was an almost unattainable bar to gain acknowledgement,” Engdahl said, adding that the Cowlitz are the most litigated tribe in the state. “(We) had to prove time and time again we were here.”
Even after the Cowlitz Indian Tribe received federal acknowledgment, the tribe needed further government approval to establish a reservation. Finally, in 2010, 152 acres near Ridgefield were designated for the Cowlitz Tribe.
Piece by piece, the Cowlitz people have regained a foothold on strengthening their community, building economic independence and accenting their heritage.
Which is why for Engdahl and the others, the harvest walk went beyond strolling to look at plants. It was another moment where the Cowlitz were able to demonstrate their ability to come back and reunite with their aboriginal land.
“We never had a song for defeat,” she said. “We don’t know how, which is why we keep going.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.