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Cowlitz Indians Recover Heritage, Verse by Verse

Decades after forced assimilation into 'white' society nearly erased their culture, America's Native tribes are reclaiming their lost heritage, rediscovering dances, rituals and even languages. The 3000 or so members of the Cowlitz Tribe of the Pacific Northwest are relearning their almost forgotten traditional songs, verse by verse.

A dozen men, women, and children stand in a circle in a chilly gym. It's at a former boarding school in rural Lewis County, Washington. The music is a Cowlitz paddle song. The verses have returned to these parts after an absence of at least fifty years.

Patty Kinswa-Gaiser holds a hand drum tucked against a rib close to her heart. The 58-year-old is one of the founders of the Cowlitz drum group. She says the need to bring back things is what started her in the drum group. "I never thought I'd do this. My family tells me I'm not musical. [chuckle] This is probably something I'll never ever put down now" says Patty.

Kinswa-Gaiser says traditional Cowlitz music came very close to being lost for good. Centuries of epidemics, resettlement, and forced assimilation took a toll. The 35-hundred-member tribe is a fraction of its historic size. The people are scattered. Tribal treasurer Jess Groll says Cowlitz members tried to revive their music several times in the past couple decades. "In prior groups as I understand it, they tried to go out and find Cowlitz songs. No one had any luck. It died on the vine."

This time fortune is smiling. Word of the new drum group spread through a grapevine of interested people, including Johnny Moses. The north Puget Sound Indian with Cowlitz ancestry went into a studio to record words and songs he remembered from his youth.

A drummer loads the Moses CD in a portable music player. It's set to repeat tracks. The new potlatch song plays over and over. The drummers concentrate on memorizing verses in the Cowlitz language that none of them speak.

The family that kept this song alive "gifted" it back to the Cowlitz. Drum group member Ellene Porter explains there's a system of rights to tribal songs that predates record labels and copyrights. She says that they're owned by families. There are personal songs. "When you gift that song," she adds, "you have relationships with people and with tribes that build and continue. And you also potlatch - or give back - to that family or to that person who gives you a song."

The search for fading songs benefited from another stroke of good fortune. This one came via the U-S postal service.

Indiana University sent three CD's with dozens of songs copied from its Archives of Traditional Music. The archives hold some Cowlitz songs recorded onto wax cylinders in 1927.

"They're difficult to hear" says Patty Kinswa-Gaiser. "But our goal is to learn all of these songs, learn all the correct words, when you drum them, when you sing them."

According to Patty Kinswa-Gaiser the ancient rhythms evoke strong emotions. They can make a tribal leader like Jess Groll choke up. "It's hard to put into words" he says. "Our people are hungry for culture." Patty Kinswa-Gaiser chimes in "we couldn't have written a script for what's happened."

The year-old drum group finds itself in high demand. Its repertoire has grown to well over 20 songs. The drummers say their performances have become an effective way to remind the world that "the Cowlitz are still here."