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Reclaiming the Land That Was Ours

In late December of last year, I braved slogging rain and dropping temperatures to join a sizable crowd of my fellow Cowlitz people and supporters as we gathered to celebrate a future reservation on beautiful, tree-graced acreage near La Center, Washington. The air was thick with both burning sage and anticipation; drums sounded, and elders strode around in red woolen honor robes, bedecked in antique abalone shells. It was a day to celebrate, but it was a day not without controversy.

Just a couple weeks earlier, the U.S. District Court decided the federal government could take 151 acres of land near La Center into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe. Practically speaking, this summary judgment means we will finally have our own land as of January 11, 2015. The judgment was 12 years in the making, withstanding appeals by the City of Vancouver, Clark County, La Center Cardrooms, and others along the way that slowed down the process considerably.

Twelve years might seem like a long time to wait but we Cowlitz people have had our share of waiting. Because we never signed a treaty with the United States, and refused terms presented to us by territorial governor Isaac Stevens in 1855, we were landless for more than 160 years. We were not formally recognized by the federal government until February 14, 2000. That fight took about 150 years.

Clearly, Cowlitz people are used to lengthy battles. We've summoned a tremendous amount of intellectual and financial resource to be recognized as the people we always we were, and to reclaim land that was rightfully ours.

It is true, as many people have speculated, that the Cowlitz Tribe plans to build a casino on the new reservation land, though, despite what some folks think, casinos are far from a guaranteed cash cow. Still, the odds are good that the tribe will have a successful casino and I'm glad. Casino revenue means jobs will be created, tribal services will increase, and philanthropic dollars will potentially flow back to the community.

But if you think this land-into-trust decision is only about a casino, I urge you to think again.

The Cowlitz people continue to respond to and survive the pressures common to every tribe in the United States: the effects of historical trauma, poverty, and government policies that threaten to estrange us from our land, lifeways, and culture.

The Cowlitz Tribe has managed to keep it together as a people despite all these pressures. Doing so required political savvy, considerable resources of time and money, and a lot of guts and gumption. The decision of the federal government to place land into trust for us is a good one, and reservation land will be a source of security and pride for the Cowlitz people.

For those who hold resistance to the idea of land being restored to the Cowlitz people, please consider our perseverance and realize that our presence on these prairies predates your own. Ultimately, I hope our neighbors welcome us home again, just as we welcomed you.

Christine Dupres,Cowlitz/Cree, Ph.D., is the author of “Being Cowlitz: How One Tribe Renewed and Sustained Its Identity” (University of Washington Press 2014).