The Spirit of the Cowlitz: THe Black Robes - Part 4

Roy Wilson


Father Demers described one of the ancient Cowlitz customs with regard to burial.  “They scarcely allowed the eyes of the sick man to close before they are covered with aikwa, a kind of shell they use for money: he is clad in his best clothes and wrapped in a blanket; four posts arte driven into the ground; in these posts holes are bored, through which sticks are passed, upon which is placed the canoe destined to receive the corpse placed in file with his ancestors.  They place him face downward with his head pointing toward the mouth of the river.  Not a handful of dust is placed upon him, the canoe is covered with a great number of mats and all is over.   Then they present their offerings to the dead.  If he was a chief or great warrior amongst his men, they lay beside him his gun, his powder horn and his bag; valuable objects, such as wooden plates, axes, kettles, bows, arrows, skins, etc. are placed upon sticks around his canoe.  Then comes the tribute of tears which the spouses pay to each other and to their children.  Day and night for a month or more, continuous weeping, shouting and wailing may be heard from a great distance.  When the canoe gets rotten and falls to the ground, the remains are taken out, wrapped up in new blankets and laid in a new canoe.”  One of the burial grounds was the “flat” above the river in the place called the “Ram.”

That first winter was unusually mild, permitting plowing and fall planting and work in the woods.  Rochon split 600 rails for fencing and squared timbers for a house and barn.  The timbers were hauled on as soon as he was able to get a loan of oxen from Simon Plamondon.  The first harvest was six bushels of wheat and nine of peas.  Before time for the next planting, Rochon had fenced twenty-four additional acres and put fifteen more under the plow.

Father Blanchet and Father Demers, who had come with him, had almost insurmountable difficulty with the Cowlitz language, making it necessary to employ as many as three interpreters at one time, and sometimes a fourth.

The priests carried with them registers in which they chronologically catalogued their activities.  These records, originally written in French, were maintained at Fort Vancouver until they were transferred to the archdiocesan archives in Seattle for safekeeping.  In 1972, the public translations appeared under the title, Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest. In these registers they recorded the births, deaths, baptisms and marriages of those whom they served in their pastoral duties.  The names of many Cowlitz are found in these records.  In all, the priests administered 162 specific services to the Indians of Cowlitz blood, spanning the period from December 16, 1838 until the registers terminated on October 19, 1844.  In the words of the authors, “It is remarkable that the two volumes have survived, carried as they were across the continent and sometimes to Cowlitz, Fort Colville, the Willamette settlement and others, as the priests ministered to the people.”  Not only remarkable, but very fortunate, that the first two volumes were maintained at Fort Vancouver, because the succeeding registers maintained at the Cowlitz Mission were lost in a series of successive fires that destroyed the mission on several occasions.

The Catholic Mission founded by Fathers Francois Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers, the Cushman Trades School, the Salem Indian School at Chemawa, and the Tulalip Indian School all show records of Cowlitz enrollment.

Numerous Cowlitz Indians were buried in the cemetery on these mission grounds, and many present day Cowlitz have ancestors buried there.

Chinook Jargon phrase for the week: “Kah mitlite chuck?” meaning, “Where is water,” or, “Where is the water?”

Next week: The Black Robes, part four