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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”