The Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which has historically faced land and cultural degradation, has more control to protect ancestral areas thanks to a new federal designation.
The National Park Service approved the tribe’s 2020 application to join the National Historic Preservation Program in March.
The designation gives the tribe more power if their sites are disturbed by development, and more say in how areas are preserved.
The tribe now has the same responsibilities as a state historic preservation office, according to the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.
The Cowlitz Tribe already has one historic site designated, while others are under review, according to Cowlitz Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Seth Russell.
He could not name specific locationsin order to protect the areas from looters and environmental tampering, he said.
Acceptance into the National Historic Preservation Program created the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s Historic Preservation Office. The office submits site applications for historical designations to the National Park Service and National Register Review Board.
As part of the program, the tribe can also participate in permit reviews and archaeological surveys, Russell said. The tribe will be able to archive artifacts and historical documents and help in the wording of historical plaques.
According to the National Park Service, Mount St. Helens — or Lawetlat’la to the Cowlitz Tribe — has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013 because of the tribe’s historical and cultural relationship to the mountain. Lawetlat’la means “smoker,” reports the park service, after the mountain’s eruptions.
Overall, tribal lands and artifacts have not been protected as well as other national historic sites, Russell said. Today on eBay, he noted arrowheads — tools or weapons used by tribes — are openly sold, even though the sale is restricted by the federal government.
Locally, he said 29 Cowlitz tribal villages along the Cowlitz River — from Longview to Silver Lake — no longer exist due to the federal government, and “immeasurable resources” have been lost.
He said protecting the tribe’s ancestral areas is as important to them as preservation is for other cultures.
“Items and places of indigenous culture are significant in exactly the same way that items and places are significant to everyone else,” he said. “They are where people live and grow. They are what people create, use and treasure. They are the material reality that reflects a lived and shared culture that — despite the best efforts of individuals, policies and organizations — have not been and cannot be broken.”
Since 1990, federal Historic Preservation Fund dollars have supported Indian tribes and Alaskan and Hawaiian natives, according to the park service, even though the National Historic Preservation Act was established 24 years prior.
The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers states 200 tribes — spanning more than 50 million acres in 30 states — are enrolled in the federal program as of March.