Tanna Engdahl: The Art of Trade

Tanna Engdahl discusses the knowledge behind Cowlitz trading and crafting.

Bio: Tanna Engdahl is a Cowlitz Elder and spiritual leader. She is also an associate supervisor of the Clark Conservation District and a board member with the Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Her past career has included work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working as Public Affairs Chief for both NPS and Bureau of Land Management. She is the founder of the Cowlitz Medicine Women.


When the bead came in and when the buttons came in, like everything else we would take it to an art form. We were fascinating by these little tiny– we used bone, fashioning it into beads and things that we decorated with–but then came these little tiny glass things that were colorful and had holes in them that you could actually weave into a pattern. So we did that. We loved that. And when we found out these new people had these things called buttons…we had a kind of a button, but again it was made out of a shell or antlers or porcupine quills we could use, we used that as a decoration and we had something else that most of the other tribes didn’t. We had mountain goats. And we harvested tremendous amounts of that. And we had a strange little animal that’s become extinct. We called it the curly dog. We had animals in our villages that were dogs and they a very nice hair and we would take the hair from the dogs and from the mountain goats and weave it into blankets. So that was a fabulous thing we could trade. So we took the buttons that we could find and started adorning pieces of cloth with it until it became very high art. And now, of course, it’s just amazing what people, what the kind of blankets that are made or the kind of vestments that are made with the buttons–but that’s more of a modern era. Prior to that we did have anything that could be harvested from an animal, that could be made into an art form. We had totemic art and we related that again to spirit. So we saw the spirit in the baskets that we made and we saw the spirit in the paddles that we crafted for our pullers to push our canoes across the waters. So anything that we needed, we had such a bountiful land, we could trade for. We could dig up our tubers and roast them so that they would last and take those out to people that did not have camas prairies or did not have wapato. We could trade specific food items, you know specialty houses you have now where you go and get fancy foods, that would be our fancy foods and we could trade for that. You would have had to been born in that particular century to know how much our very crafty and wise commercial traders were of the era, of the time. So I couldn’t tell you how much could be traded for a horse or how much could be traded for a beaver pelt or even a canoe. But we had the knowledge. Great knowledge.

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