Tribal government was in the hands of chiefs, whose offices were either hereditary or obtained by some special merit. The Salish inter-tribal word for the English word “chief” was “Tyee,” which would have been better translated in to English as “headman” rather than chief.
Many times the chiefs were people who were automatically followed because of their tomanawas powers that were recognized through their talents or gifts. Their only power was influence; and this was in proportion to their wisdom, benevolence, and courage.
They did not exercise authority by command, but they influenced by persuasion. Their influence was very great, for they rarely expressed an opinion or desire, which was not readily assented to and followed. The authority in each village was the village leader with the headman in each longhouse as his counsel.
The four bands of the Cowlitz each had their Tyee with the village leaders as their counsel. The fact that the four bands of the Cowlitz came under a central tribal authority is seen in various historical events: How-How closed the Cowlitz River to traders and eastern Indians in 1818.
Later Scanewa reopened the river, and authorized the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s farm on Cowlitz Prairie.
Kishkok represented the tribe at the Chehalis River Treaty Council.
There has never been a time in the tribe’s historical record its needs and interests have not been administered by a designated tribal leader.
During the times of war every man belonging to the tribe was bound to follow his chief, and cowards were often punished with death.
The Cowlitz were not on good terms with the natives on the coast and did not like to go there to trade.
Slavery was firmly established among the Coast Salish, including the Cowlitz. A chief’s influence was in direct proportion to the number of his slaves. Among the Cowlitz, slave women not infrequently married native-born men, even men of rank, and ceased to be slaves.
Very few of the common people had slaves. These slaves were usually obtained by the bartering of canoes at the annual gathering at The Dalles of the Columbia, or at Fort Vancouver. They were usually Kalapuya Indians of the Willamette River in Oregon, or Klamath and Shasta Indians from southwestern Oregon and northern California.
Once, there was an expedition to the north, in which the Cowlitz and some Puget Sound tribes pursued a fruitless effort against the Cowichan Tribes of Vancouver Island.
Ralph W. Andrews, in CURTIS’ WESTERN INDIANS, says, “The Skokomish were a band of Twana living on the Hood Canal, which led off of the Strait of Juan De Fuca. They never invaded the territory of other tribes but stood their ground valiantly when Snohomish or Chimakum warriors came raiding by canoe or Cowlitz men by foot.”
Some of the slaves were later passed northward into the hands of the Puget Sound tribes.
Unlike most Salish tribes, the Cowlitz permitted the use of the cradleboard on the children of certain slaves, thus allowing for social progression. The normal use of the cradleboard was for the purpose of flattening the heads of children born into families of royalty. Members of the chief’s families could be easily recognized by their flatheads.
Artist, Paul Kane, painted the likeness of Caw-wacham and her baby in the cradleboard during his visit in the lodge of Chief Kishkok.
Dr. W. F. Tolmie was at a camp south of the Chehalis River one evening in 1833, and was visited by several chiefs. One of these chiefs was on his way to a meeting for the purpose of deliberating on the propriety of accepting two slaves as a peace offering from the northern tribes for the murder of two of his kinsfolk.