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Cowlitz tribe blocks path to so called "Easy Street"

by Thacher Schmid
Longview, Washington (AP)

When the Cowlitz Tribe decided last year to close its enrollment rolls to all but newborns, Judi Abbott was "devastated." Abbott says she can trace her lineage directly to Veronica Scanewa and Simon Plamondon, the couple from whom many modern Cowlitz are descended.

"Even as a young girl, I felt there was a secret in our family," Abbott wrote in an e-mail.

Her grandmother Leontenna Agnes, a Cowlitz raised "by nuns" - probably at one of the infamous American Indian boarding schools - never told her daughters about their heritage. Abbott's quest to become enrolled, she said, began after receiving a letter from her aunt Karolyn Moriarty in the late 1990s when Moriarty enrolled her own children.

"I want so very much to be counted a member of the Cowlitz Tribe," Abbott said.

She won't be, unless the tribe changes its policies.

Tribal leaders say they adopted the 2006 rule change for good reason: Enrollment exploded from 1,482 at the tribe's 2002 final federal recognition to 3,600 today. Now, only those under age 1 and able to prove "direct lineal descendancy" are added.

"This is not uncommon. This is the way a lot of tribes are doing it," Tribal Council Chairman John Barnett said.

Though the tribe prefers to downplay this problem of surging enrollment, it has been struggling with the burdens that came with recognition - including a few potential members who might see getting on the tribe's rolls as a path to Easy Street.

"There are a lot of ways that people would become an Indian, and (a few) would go to any lengths to do it," Barnett said.

"They think that just because you're a federally recognized tribe that all these dollars drop out of the sky," said Nancy Osbourne

"They think that just because you're a federally recognized tribe that all these dollars drop out of the sky," said Nancy Osbourne, who sits on the tribe's Enrollment Committee. "That's not the case."

There's also a proposed Cowlitz casino near La Center, which would generate millions of dollars each year. Prospective tribal members could see enrollment as a way of getting a piece of that pie.

While the recent change has slowed the growth, over the last few years thousands in the tribal "family" returned to the area, enrolled for the first time, or renewed their connection to the tribe.

New members have taken advantage of expanded services, many federally funded, like a bigger health clinic, college scholarships, housing programs, weatherization, and cultural and biological programs.

For Taylor Aalvik, when the Cowlitz earned recognition as a tribe he knew he wanted to enroll and return to the area, which he did in 2002. Aalvik grew up in Newfoundland in eastern Canada and "spent a lot of time with tribes in Eastern Washington," he said.

"Actually, I'm here because once I knew the tribe was recognized and there was federal dollars, I came back and asked, 'What can I do to help serve?"'

A biologist by training who is working on a master's in environmental science, Aalvik settled in Kelso with partner Tracy, a Tlingit Indian, and their 2-year-old daughter, Kayla. Aalvik enrolled in 2002 and now sits on the Tribal Council and the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board.

Aalvik said his motivation in returning was to help the tribe. He is currently "researching and recording the history of our connection to the land."

Aalvik registered Kayla soon after her birth.

"Obviously, I'm going to get my daughter in," he said. "I want her to grow up knowing who she is and who her ancestors were, and being part of the culture and tribe."

For a people accustomed to an ancient oral tradition, all the paperwork is a new twist.

"I knew I was Indian, but I didn't know anything about being an Indian on paper," Aalvik remembers.

One test for enrolling in a tribe is through use of "blood quantums," where potential enrollees must show a certain percentage of their blood traces to a tribe's roots. The method has been controversial throughout Indian tribes. The Cowlitz tribe moved away from the use of blood quantums - it used to require members be 1/16th Cowlitz - either in the 1980s or 1990s, depending on who you ask.

"Is the blood in a quart bottle more important than the blood in the end of my finger?" Barnett asked. "I'm part Finn, part Irish, part French, and part Indian. I ask the question, 'Is this my Indian blood in this arm?' It's not the Indian blood that makes the Indian. It's how he feels about himself and his heritage."

Getting information about enrollment is tough. Barnett and spokesman Phil Harju initially offered to let a reporter see the tribe's constitution and membership policies, but later requested a formal letter to the Tribal Council. The Tribal Council then refused the request. In the end, Barnett, Osbourne and Randy Russell, enrollment director since 2005, made themselves available for interviews, but they refused to talk about details they said are "classified," such as the tribe's constitution and enrollment application.

Even the application itself is frequently revised, apparently. Russell said he often sends "three, four, five" applications to parents of new babies - because the applications expire after 60 days, he said. Why the short shelf life?

"For control purposes."

The tribe's move away from blood quantums allowed it to grow faster, but other restrictions, including the 2006 rule change, made enrollment more difficult.

In 1999, Osbourne said, the tribe began requiring direct lineal descendancy from three key families. Before, there could be a gap in generations, she said, "as long as you could prove your grandparent or great-grandparent was on the roll. But you still had to be a direct descendent."

By 2006, with sustained growth of well over 100 percent in total membership since 2002, the tribe clamped down harder.

"We needed to get some kind of control of the tribe," Russell said. "We needed to come up with some way to control the population (growth)."

The decision reflects the tribe's belief that the vast majority of adults were already on the rolls by 2006.

"We figured six years after recognition (in 2000), most of the adults would be enrolled," Russell said. He said other requirements haven't changed.

New members must be approved by the Enrollment Committee, then the Tribal Council. Telling individuals they didn't get in is the hardest part of his job, Russell said.

"Some understand, and some don't want to accept that," Russell said.

"Frequently, what I hear is, 'I thought my parents enrolled me as a child,' or, 'I thought since my parent was a tribal member I was automatically enrolled,"' Russell said. "It's the parent's responsibility to enroll the child."

"Frequently, what I hear is, 'I thought my parents enrolled me as a child,' or, 'I thought since my parent was a tribal member I was automatically enrolled,"' Russell said. "It's the parent's responsibility to enroll the child."

The tough part is that given the complicated history of whites' efforts to quash American Indian traditions, tribal members' ethnic heritage has in some cases been obscured for decades.

Abbott's aunt, Karolyn Moriarty, now a Cowlitz elder, registered in 1997, at age 72. She empathized with Abbott's confusion about her heritage.

"A lady at school asked me if I could be in an 'Indian program,"' Moriarty recalled, thinking back to her youth. "I said, 'I don't know,' and she said, 'Well, why don't you go home and ask your mother?"'

Moriarty said her mother, Leontenna Agnes, born in 1885, used to receive information from the Cowlitz tribe but didn't identify as American Indian.

"The thing was, I always felt that my mother should have benefitted from (enrollment)," said Moriarty. "I felt that I should stand up for her. She would receive letters, and I would say, 'Why don't you answer this?' And she wouldn't. She just shook her head and wouldn't discuss it."

The tribe's fight for recognition, long delayed after the tribe refused Washington Territory governor Isaac Stevenson's 1855 offer of shared reservation space with the Quinault, dates to 1912. It ended in 2002 with new hope, but no new lands.

"I signed a piece of paper in (Washington) D.C. and they said, 'Good luck, boys,"' Barnett recalled. "We got nothing but a piece of paper. But it was a great moment for our people. At least we got back the programs."

The recognition also forced the Cowlitz to formally define who is, and isn't, a member of the tribe.

"Before the tribe was recognized, nobody was an Indian," Aalvik said. "It's a burden that's placed on all (recognized) tribes, having to go through, saying who is and who isn't."

The tribe's federal funding hasn't kept pace with the rolls: The funds received through Indian Health and federal Housing and Urban Development, Osbourne said, are calculated using the 2002 "base roll" number of 1,482.

"We've come an awful long way in five years," Barnett said. "People can say what they want to say, but basically a lot of (American Indians) don't have health coverage, they don't have housing. They're destitute. If we can reach a hand down to them, that's what the Cowlitz tribe is all about."

The tribe is now the primary health service agency for the seven-county "Contract Health Service Delivery Area," tribal officials said. The area includes Pierce, Cowlitz, Lewis, Clark, Skamania, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties.

"You service all Indians, whether or not they're part of your tribe," Barnett said. How many American Indians in the seven-county area?

"We don't know that figure," Barnett said. "They come and they go."

Applicants for enrollment are required to demonstrate lineage in one of three historic Cowlitz families, Russell said. The largest descends from the union of Veronica Scanewa, daughter of Chief Scanewa, and French trader/explorer Simon Plamondon, the first white man on the Cowlitz Prairie (the area around and east of Toledo), according to tribal documents. The second traces its roots to Luce Skloutwout; the third family is the Bernier. All three are on the Roblin Roll, a key historical document from 1919 that documents 900 Cowlitz.

"That's the document that we used for a long period of time," Barnett said. "That was used to document the ties."

Like Aalvik, Dana Petersen, 23, traces her lineage to the second of the three families; she has Skloutwout roots. For Petersen, who works in accounts payable for the tribe, registration in 2004 helped her get a college education.

With a scholarship from the tribe, Petersen graduated from The Evergreen State College in June. She also completed an internship with the tribe during her final term. Petersen said she doesn't recall much about the enrollment process except it was "very complicated and time-consuming," - partly because she was born in a military hospital in Germany.

"I just remember having to gather a lot of things," she said.

Petersen said she feels lucky to be a part of the tribe during this "exciting" time. While the tribe is focused on getting its initial reservation and casino approved - the final draft of the project's Environmental Impact Statement should be made public soon - the tribe's future depends on young members, like Petersen.

"The younger members are going to have to continue the tribe, the younger members are going to have to step up and be involved," she said.