The Cowlitz lived on streams and were good fishermen. They were also good hunters who followed the dear at all seasons. Salmon was the tribe’s principal food, while venison was the principal flesh food. Elk were easily driven at the season when they herded and a single hunter would pursue the elk with the aid of two or three dogs. Besides deer and elk, they hunted bear, the big horn mountain goat, beaver, mountain beaver, and raccoon. Much of the meat would be dried for winter. The sinew would be saved for thread with which to sew the hides that were tanned. The teeth were saved for decoration, and the beaver fur for trim.
Ancient Cowlitz legends tell us about the building of fish traps. Sticks would be pounded into the stream bed creating a wall or fence forcing the fish to enter through the door of the enclosure of the fish trap. Other means of taking the fish were either by spearing or dip netting.
The Upper Cowlitz lacked some of the resources of the Lower Cowlitz, such as the salmon, which were cut off from them by high falls, and the advantages of rapid canoe travel. Cowlitz Falls, Koapk, provided an important fishing site for the Upper Cowlitz Indians. However, like their downriver tribesmen, they possessed open spaces for the grazing of horses, numerous broad mountain meadows, and they were able to travel in their pursuit of mountain game. Of great importance were the several varieties of berries which grew in great abundance, but only for a short season in the surrounding mountains. Their horses were essential for carrying home the large harvest, needed for current use and storage for winter. The specialized conditions under which they grew meant that they were widely scattered. The Upper Cowlitz knew their territory with great intimacy. They put the berries on cedar and maple mats, crisscrossed strips on poles over the fire. Berry juice sluiced down into the fire producing more with which to dry and flavor the berries. Dried by fire and sun, preserved from worms by smoke the berries were put into Cowlitz root baskets, lined with maple leaves, and stored for winter.
Archie Iyall said that the Cowlitz would rather go to Mount Adams for huckleberries because the Yakama would also gather there, and they would have a big time. Every day they would want it to be a celebration, but they were only there during the huckleberry season.
They would gather roots on the prairies in May and June, and either cook or dry them. Then they would move up into the hills to gather berries. They had no fishery during February and March, but subsisted mostly on dried salmon and roots. The Cowlitz had the largest open prairies of all the Western Washington tribes; consequently, they had an abundance of the camas. These camas tubers were dug up with a digging stick. Other tribes could be observed traveling up the Cowlitz River in their canoes trading with the Cowlitz for their camas. The camas was cooked by digging a hole in the ground, lining it with rocks, and then building a fire in it. The coals were then raked out when the stones became very hot, and the stone lined hole was then lined with ferns or leaves. The camas tubers were then placed in this oven, and these were then covered with more ferns or leaves which were then covered with earth. After approximately twenty-four hours the earth-fern covering would be removed and the delicious camas would be extracted from the earth oven for consumption. The camas is a member of the wild lily family. It was the sweetener in their diet. It smells like vanilla, and tastes like brown/maple sugar. It can be made into molasses. It appears to be starchy, but it has no starch. It contains insulin, and affects action in the pancreas. It maintains the blood sugar level and avoids diabetes. It was a very important part of the ancient Cowlitz diet.
Some of the more common roots that were gathered include: camas, wild potatoes, wild carrots, sunflower roots, and wild onion. There was an abundant growth of berries: three kinds of the huckleberry – blue, purple, and red; the blackberry, raspberry, thimble-berry, gooseberry, service-berry, salmon berry, sahlalberry, and the Oregon grape; the wild cherry and hazel-nut were also gathered.
Next week: Their social and political life – Part One