Julie McDonald Commentary: State Parks Adding Cowlitz Heritage in Revamp of Visitor Center


Nearly four decades ago, as a reporter covering Cowlitz County government for The Daily News in Longview, I spent much time reporting on Commissioner Van Youngquist’s trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal money to recover from the devastating 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Youngquist, who served five four-year terms as a Cowlitz County commissioner, flew 55 times to the nation’s capital, primarily seeking federal money to control flooding, dredge the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, rebuild Spirit Lake Highway and construct the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center. I was saddened to read he had died of lung cancer on Aug. 23, 2022, at the age of 84, but his legacy lives on.

When the center opened in 1986 on Spirit Lake Highway east of Castle Rock near Seaquest State Park, it heralded a new era of welcoming tourists who want to see what occurred during the deadly May 18, 1980, major eruption that killed 57 people, destroyed 200 homes and wiped out 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad tracks and 185 miles of highway. Sediment from a debris avalanche and pyroclastic mudflows clogged rivers throughout the region. For the 10th anniversary, I remember interviewing a logger who survived the eruption that killed his three colleagues.

The U.S. Forest Service managed the 16,000-square-foot visitor center during its first 14 years. Then, Washington State Parks operated it under a permit until it formally accepted transfer of the center in June 2007. At that time, the center received about 300,000 visitors annually.

Last Wednesday morning, I joined the Zoom meeting of the Heritage Caucus, a forum for sharing ideas, identifying legislation, and exploring art, heritage and science projects in Washington state, in large part because an agenda item mentioned “Sharing the Story of Lawetlat’la” and featured Cowlitz tribal members. I learned about plans to revamp exhibits at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, which haven’t been updated since 1986, and include more about the Cowlitz Indian Tribe that has lived on the land since time immemorial.

“As you all know, we can’t tell the full story of the state and the region without partnership with the tribes, and it’s important that they be given a space to tell their own story,” said Owen Rowe, policy and government affairs director for Washington State Parks. “State Parks has been increasing efforts on working with the tribes on interpretation.”

Emily Jacobs, the new interpretive program manager, described her first visit to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, which is one of the parks department’s largest interpretive centers.

“It doesn’t take very long for you to feel like it’s 1986,” she said. “The exhibits are a little bit dated. They’re faded.”

As an interpreter for well over two decades, she said, “I walked into this room and, as a professional, there were three words that came into my mind, and those words were ‘too many words.’”

The idea behind interpretation has changed, she said, as people literally have so much information at their fingertips via cell phones “we don’t need to be an entire encyclopedia on a wall.”

She also noted that only a small portion of the center reflects the indigenous people who lived on the land long before white settlers arrived. So, while updating the center, she said, “We wanted to be more intentional about engaging the tribes in Washington, in particular the Cowlitz Indian Tribe for the site that the visitor center is on. The eruption zone is all in their traditional homelands.”

Updating exhibits is a two-step process, she said. The current state budget provides funding for the design phase, and an exhibit firm from Seattle has consulted with the Cowlitz tribe to better and more accurately represent their story. Governor Jay Inslee’s next biennial budget contains money to fabricate the exhibits. Parks officials also requested more money to operate the center as they anticipate even more visitors.

Suzanne Donaldson, a Cowlitz Tribal Council member, introduced herself as the daughter of Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, council chairwoman, and granddaughter of Ike Kinswa, a well-respected Cowlitz Indian with a state park in the Silver Creek-Mossyrock area named for him. The Kinswas are Taidnapam, which means Upper Cowlitz.

Traditional Cowlitz Indian lands run from Mount Rainier to the Columbia River, Donaldson said.

“That is our original territory, and that is over 1 million acres,” she said. “Our land was taken by the U.S. government for less than $1 per acre. And we are a treaty-less tribe, which means that we do not have a treaty. We did not sign away any rights to the U.S. government.”

The tribe purchased land in Southwest Washington for its initial reservation, which is where the ilani Casino was built.

“Our tribe used to range between 100,000 and 200,000 members,” Donaldson said. “Our tribe was basically wiped out, and we were down to less than 1,000. We are now up to about 5,000 enrolled members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.”

Expressing appreciation to parks employees for working with the tribe, she said, “We feel like it’s really important that we incorporate the history from our perspective. We prefer to not have other people write our history and our culture.”

She said the tribe hopes to work with parks officials on other visitor centers.

“We are connected to Mount St. Helens,” she said. “It’s a sacred place. We actually call it, and I’m  sure you all have heard of it, Lawetlat’la, which translates to She Who Blows or the One Who Smokes.”

Jacobs showed drawings of how the updated visitor center will better reflect the Cowlitz tribe.

“It will be very clear from the beginning as visitors walk in that they are also hearing about the folks who’ve been here since time immemorial,” Jacobs said. 

Entrance to the updated center will feature captivating photo of the 1980 eruption and indigenous art, informing visitors immediately that they are on the traditional homelands of the Cowlitz Tribe. On the wall above indigenous displays will be a quote from Cowlitz tribal elder William Iyall: “It’s our homeland. We’ve always been here. We will be here forever.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.