Tanna Engdahl: “We Were Excellent Land Managers”

Tanna Enghdal (Cowlitz) speaks about tribal land management.

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.


People do not understand the Indian understanding of care, of the land they stood on. That they built houses on and they lived on and they raised their children on and grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children. They did not understand that we were not passive. I mentioned the Creator gave us this and said work with me. We did. We worked with the Creator. We helped manage lands that would be abundant. We understood what caused that. So yes, we managed land. We harvested as I mentioned, just to the right amount. And we took care of the land so it did not build up to unmanageable strength. So we pushed back when needed and we managed as we needed. We were not passive people. We were not people without knowledge. Now we have the sciences that tell us what we’re supposed to do and when we’re supposed to do it and then we have some people that sue other people to stop that process. Indian people were not like that. We understood how to take care of land.

We were excellent land managers. Which is why this land was so appealing to the new people. It was great land. It had not run wild. It was not a jungle. We had trails, we had passages, we had prairies. Prairies that we used for our needs, the kind of roots and berries and tubers that were needed for our people, to the right amount. Other people saw huge development. You know, we’ve got to build it where we had landings, where we had our canoes come in. They saw that and thought, “this is where we’ll build a port and we’ll have bigger ships coming in. And we’ll have more commerce and we’ll have more trading power.” So they took everything I think, that we understood how to do and magnified it maybe a million times into where it lost contact with the land, the resource. To build it up, to have the trading power, to almost be destructive. They nearly drove a lot of our animals into extinction before finally waking up to conservation values and of course they almost drove us into extinction because we could survive anything, except the bugs they brought in.