A conversation with Tanna Engdahl, spiritual leader of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, on water, salmon, and the spirit of place
“You can hear the sun. You sit quietly, and you can hear the sun because the earth reacts to it and it makes the sound of the sun hitting the leaves and the grasses and the trees.”
As Columbia Land Trust moves forward on its ambitious goal of conserving 1,300 acres of land along Wildboy Creek in partnership with the Cowlitz Tribe, we also made sure to take time to sit and listen to those who have had a relationship with this land and its natural systems for generations.
It was a great privilege to have a deeper conversation with spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl this past July as she shared her perspective on respecting the land, its past, and its future.
What are you feeling as you walk around and take this place in?
We are currently sitting at a site where three streams meet and flow into the Washougal River. Ordinarily, if you have even two bodies of water that join, you would have a native village at that site. I believe that we are sitting on ancient campgrounds of Native Americans…In fact as I say that now…I’m getting a chill. Of course, we’re not alone here. Our ancestors, they like to join us on these little walkabouts. I’m feeling the essence of the people who may have been here, people who understood the movement of water, and understood how water must meander to be healthy, and to serve the earth. Native people probably prayed here, offered ceremony here, and thanked the Creator for the site on which we are standing. I think this is a very profound area, and it is an area worth bringing back to its natural state.
Can you share what you mean when you talk about the spirit of a place?
The spirit of place is a life force that is older than time. It is a combination of sound, what the earth has formed, seasons…We have spiritual solace, we have spiritual connection, and if we quiet our mind, we also have an understanding that we’ve got to do everything we can to help this planet survive.
From the Cowlitz perspective, why is this land critical to conserve?
We have people [in the Cowlitz Tribe] that are passionate about restoring the earth where it’s been damaged and abused and scarred. There are men and women trying to rehab places to bring back our salmon. For our tribe and coastal tribes, salmon is the foundation of our existence. It was one of the most amazing gifts from the Creator, and kept generations alive. Our aim is to bring salmon–bearing streams back. Bringing its habitat back is honoring the earth, the Creator, and our ancestors.
Climate change, species loss, dam removal—it all feels so big. What are your thoughts on this?
Everyone can do something. Everyone can do a little part. Don’t look at the scale, don’t think it’s too big. Don’t go there. Go with what you can do to make one little bit of a difference, and you might be joined by thousands of people that want to make that little difference too. One day you might look back and see a whole big difference. Look at what you can do.
What does the future of this place look like to you?
Looking forward, I would hope that the partnership between the Cowlitz Tribe and Columbia Land Trust becomes a force that can return this water system back to its natural state. We want to see the salmon come back and see all the wildlife that depend on it come back. We want to go back to this river’s past and drag it into the future, so that it can fulfill its own river destiny.
Be sure to learn more about the Wildboy Creek conservation project and hear more from Tanna in our new video, Meander: Restoring Wildboy Creek, at columbialandtrust.org/wildboy