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News / Life / Clark County Life

‘The coyote path’: Vancouver’s Tanna Engdahl is spiritual leader of the tested, triumphant Cowlitz Indian Tribe

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 7, 2023, 6:14am
15 Photos
Tanna Engdahl, the spiritual leader of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, pauses in “Cowlitz Culture Corridor” at the new ilani hotel in September.
Tanna Engdahl, the spiritual leader of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, pauses in “Cowlitz Culture Corridor” at the new ilani hotel in September. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — Some people’s lives move along a predictable and tidy timeline.

Cowlitz tribal elder Tanna Engdahl views her personal path as the sort of zigzagging, indirect course followed by coyotes, whether they’re patrolling familiar territory or exploring far beyond it, as Engdahl has always done.

“The coyote path, it goes this way and then it goes that way,” said Engdahl, the spiritual leader of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. “There are lot of switchbacks. Each time, there’s a lesson to be learned. The spiritual path I’m on is like that.”

The same can be said of the tribal community that provided Engdahl a reason to persist. Nearly two centuries ago, she said, the Cowlitz gently but firmly refused to be moved to a reservation far from their traditional lands.

“They kept pushing us. They said you don’t belong here,” she said. “But the Cowlitz were not pliable. We were unmanageable. We didn’t fight, but we never gave up either. We were like the willow, not the oak. We’d bend, but we’d never break.”

Today’s Cowlitz call themselves “the forever people,” Engdahl pointed out. After a generations-long struggle to prove their cultural and historical identity to authorities that kept changing the rules, the Cowlitz finally won federal recognition in 2000. Since then, the tribe that almost disappeared has become a local economic powerhouse, bringing a growing casino-and-resort complex to 152 acres of reservation land near La Center.

The tribe named Engdahl its spiritual leader in 2013. Insurmountably humble and shy as a child, she’s now the omnipresent local face of the Cowlitz, usually beneath a traditional cone-shaped woven cedar hat. She offers blessings, stories and tribal perspectives at county meetings, public events, historical talks and classes like “Cowlitz Tribe: Then and Now” at Clark College.

“I don’t know how to do anything except put my tribe before me,” she said. “There was never a time I was unaware of being Cowlitz.”

Seasonal rounds

“Cowlitz” is actually a simplistic and problematic label for a community that was diverse and dispersed, Engdahl stresses. The very word is the smoothed-down mispronunciation of a more authentic, guttural term from a language that’s one of the most complex ever studied, she said.

“It’s an explosive sound and it didn’t pass easily through the white man’s throat,” Engdahl said.

Those earliest white arrivals encountered a tight-but-scattered network of dozens of villages spanning today’s Southwest Washington, from Vancouver to Olympia and east to the Cascade Mountains. Different groups had different names, languages and lifestyles, depending on whether they were mountain, river, plains or forest dwellers. They were multilingual and semi-nomadic, following sustenance through the seasons, Engdahl said.

“We were people of seasonal rounds,” Engdahl said. “We spent three months at home, then we hit the road.”

The landscape was bountiful and life-sustaining, she said. According to legend, creatures of the land, rivers and air all agreed to sacrifice so the “two-leggeds” would thrive. The greatest symbol of nature’s generosity was the terrifically useful Western redcedar, which provided everything from clothing to housing to canoes and was revered as the “tree of life,” she said.


When settlers started spreading across the continent, “we were blissfully unaware,” Engdahl said.

That changed in benevolent fashion at first, as tribes befriended, traded with and married white settlers. French-Canadian fur trappers found local women irresistible, Engdahl said with a grin: “Why wouldn’t they?”

Engdahl’s own roots trace directly back to that historic moment. She is a descendant of the first white fur trapper known to meet the Cowlitz: Simon Plamondon, originally of Quebec, who journeyed in 1818 from Astoria upriver to the traditional Cowlitz Prairie area (near today’s town of Toledo) where he was captured. Plamondon was eventually embraced by the local chief and married his daughter, Thas-e-muth. They farmed and raised children at Cowlitz Prairie.

“They were my great-great-great grandparents,” Engdahl said.

Death sweeps

Waves of arriving settlers ultimately brought waves of tragedy to local tribes.

First came a fever that arrived on an American ship, sparking what Engdahl called “the death sweep of the 1830s.” Local peoples had no natural resistance to the new European disease, which killed them quickly. Observers reported horrific scenes of scattered bodies and deserted villages, many of which were burned (destroying much historical record) to eliminate the danger, Engdahl said.

“We succumbed in numbers that were unbelievable,” she said. “We may have had 30,000 to 50,000 in … Cowlitz country and we lost about 98 percent. Every Cowlitz member alive today is alive because some ancestor survived. We’re all descendants of survivors of a pandemic.”

What also died was the interlocking village system that had provided vital connections between different Cowlitz peoples. The rare survivors of disease became isolated from one another, Engdahl said.

Next came a different challenge: manifest destiny, that early American faith that the whole continent was meant for white settlement.

“Get that corridor cleared” was the agenda of Isaac Stevens, the Washington territorial governor, who used intimidation, trickery and force in the 1850s to get local tribes to sign reservation treaties. The Cowlitz might have been amenable, but refused to move away from traditional territory to the coast, she said.

“We are not ocean people,” Engdahl said.

Tribal history since then has been a complicated, painful journey along the coyote path, she said. Like the neighboring Chinook, another uncooperative tribal nonsignatory, the Cowlitz were denied federal recognition and the resources that come with it. The tribe pursued reorganizations, applications and lawsuits.

Along the way, they even refused a “per capita” distribution of cash compensation for its lost lands, preferring to wait for formal recognition and an appropriate reservation site, which in the end they had to purchase.

“We dipped and dived and ducked to remain on our own land,” Engdahl said. Meanwhile, the Cowlitz way of life changed from seasonal migration and dependence upon nature to the white man’s way: agriculture, labor and paychecks.

“They were hard times that shredded the soul, but we didn’t give up,” she said. “That is the personality of the Cowlitz.”

Wild start

Tanna Engdahl (born Tanna Warren) was grounded in her tribe, yet deprived of anything like a stable start in life.

“My mother was caught between worlds and her comfort was alcohol,” Engdahl said. “She was a powerful negative role model for me.”

Engdahl’s earliest childhood was spent in the Kelso area, until her mother began an odyssey through hardscrabble lumber camps, mill towns and waterfronts of Oregon and northern California.

“She dragged me up and down the western coastline,” Engdahl recalled in a personal column in the Lakota Times newspaper. “She was a wildcat when aroused. She was aroused when she drank. She drank all the time.”

The young Engdahl was a survivor, according to a letter her future husband, Lynn, wrote to extended family.

“She learned to sleep in hallways, under chairs, sometimes even in bathtubs,” Lynn Engdahl wrote. “While her mother was in bars, Tanna foraged for food.

“Her mother and the ‘stepfather’ of the moment took off, usually at night, to escape their rent bills, bar tabs and other debts,” he wrote. “Tanna would wake up on an entirely different couch than the one she fell asleep on. She would have to repeat the search for a school and the agony of yet another classroom full of strange faces.”

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The self-motivated Engdahl attended 22 different schools, she said. But much of her education came from her beloved grandmother, Mary (Plamondon) Wilson, whose spiritual identity was a blend of Cowlitz and Catholic. Engdahl absorbed all of that, she said.

“My grandmother was the stabilizer,” she said. “She poured as much cultural history into my head as possible. Most I didn’t understand at the time.”

“She was multilingual,” Engdahl wrote in Lakota Times. “She spoke French, Cowlitz, Chinook and, in her words, one foreign language: English. She was a mixture of two centuries. She knew more of the 19th than the 20th.”

Mary Wilson died when Engdahl was 13, but to this day she remains a vital presence.

“I still talk to her all the time,” Engdahl said. That’s an essential part of Cowlitz spirituality, she said: an ongoing, personal connection with ancestors.

But Engdahl parted ways with her itinerant mother at age 16.

“I couch surfed. I lived on the streets of Seattle. I learned to budget. I subsisted on soup,” she said.

Eventually she was taken into protective state custody, then placed in foster care with the family of her best friend in Kelso. Engdahl’s junior and senior years at Kelso High School were the first time she lived in the same place for two consecutive years, she said.

After she graduated in 1962, Engdahl attended community college as she could afford it. She worked for the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington and the Intertribal Council of California. She said at one point she served as vice-president of the Cowlitz tribe when she was really too young for the job.

Every door

In the 1960s, women and nonwhites were rarely welcomed into the news business. But Engdahl won a scholarship to attend an intensive training program for minority journalism students at Columbia University in New York. Those students were expected to master what’s normally a four-year curriculum in one summer, she said.

Then Engdahl interviewed for a journalism job back on familiar turf at Seattle TV station KIRO. Because she didn’t have a strong sense of time — and still doesn’t, she added with a laugh — Endgahl showed up much too early for the interview, then waited patiently for hours.

That seemed like dogged determination to KIRO management, and Engdahl became the first Indigenous TV news reporter in a major media market. (Her post-marriage name at that time was Tanna Chattin.) Assigning this rookie girl the toughest blood-and-guts stories was supposed to be persecution, she said, but she rose to the challenge and her male peers grew resentful that she was always leading KIRO newscasts with the juiciest stuff.

After five years at KIRO, Engdahl embarked upon what became a 30-year career in the federal government as a public affairs official and tribal liaison. Her work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Park Service and the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Land Management took her all over the West.

“I went through every door that was open to me,” she said. “Somebody somewhere kept having faith in me.”

While she ran into plenty of virulent, even violent racism along the way, Engdahl said, the more immediate problem was usually sexism. Some tribes are patriarchal while others are matriarchal and getting them together could be complicated, she said.

“The hardest thing wasn’t being Indian. It was being female,” she said.

Endgahl was running an interagency meeting in New Mexico, where she was long based, when one cowboy-hatted, especially perceptive official with the Bureau of Land Management drew her attention.

“I’d never heard a white man speak the way he did about Indians, with such empathy and understanding and respect,” she remembered. Engdahl found a bureaucratic reason to call him after the meeting. He’d noticed her too, he said.

He promptly informed her that he was her soulmate.

“The room swirled and I had to sit down,” said the former Tanna Chattin, who became Tanna Engdahl before long. While they never had biological children together, Lynn and Tanna brought six prior children into the marriage, including Tanna’s biological child and two children she had adopted “in the Indian way,” she said — that is, informally.

Cowlitz country

One morning, Engdahl woke bolt upright knowing it was time to “go home” to Cowlitz country. She and Lynn moved to Woodland, where they lived for years, and then to a Vancouver retirement facility. Along the way, Engdahl became such a central and influential figure in tribal affairs, she was pronounced spiritual leader just as the Cowlitz started pressing ahead with their casino complex near La Center.

What does it mean to be spiritual leader of a tribe determined to prove that they are “the forever people?”

“I take it very seriously,” Endgahl said. “If you forget the lessons of the past, of the people, you are not going to do well. I try to represent the spiritual flow that’s rushing from centuries past, and through me, and out to the seventh generation.”

If that sounds a little disconnected and dreamy, rest assured that Endgahl stays grounded and busy.

“So sorry for the delay,” she emailed The Columbian recently. “I now have nearly 100 or more unanswered emails. I’ve been slammed working. I was plenary speaker at a major intertribal conference (about) problem gambling. I spoke for an hour and a half (about elders and gambling). Hours of research involved, plus I did my own minor research at ilani.”

“I’ll never know how my great-great grandchildren will benefit by my being on this planet,” Engdahl said. “But if I don’t live for them, I’ve lived a useless life.”