Classic Profile

A Cowlitz Indian Mother

On 27 March 1806, five days and, by their estimate, 65 miles into their homeward trip from Fort Clatsop, the Corps of Discovery encountered a group of Salish-speaking Cowlitz Indians–the captains called them Skillutes–who came along side in their small canoe to trade roots and fish. At midmorning the Americans stopped for breakfast at two Cowlitz houses, where the very hospitable residents gave them dried anchovies, sturgeon, wappeto, and camas roots. "Most of the party," Lewis remarked gratefully, "were served by the natives with as much as they could eat." The Cowlitz insisted, he continued, "on our remaining all day with them and hunting the Elk and deer which they informed us were very abundant in their neighbourhood." But the expedition's hunters who had gone ahead of the main party, had worked the vicinity over without shooting any game at all. Besides, Lewis remarked, it was raining so hard they wouldn't have been able to dry and caulk their canoes, which would have been their main reason for stopping, so "we declined their friendly invitation, and resumed our voyage at 12 OCk."

Forty years later, nearly to the day (30 March 1846), the Irish artist Paul Kane (1810-1871) spent a week at the foot of Mount St. Helens, sketching and painting the Indians who lived on the banks of the Cowlitz River. One of the results was the colorful painting below.

Cowlitz Mother

"We landed at the Cowlitz farm," Kane wrote, "which belongs to the Hudson's Bay Company. Large quantities of wheat are raised at this place. I had a fine view of Mount St. Helen's throwing up a long column of dark smoke into the clear blue sky. Here I remained until the 5th of April, and took the likeness of Kiscox, the chief of the Cowlitz Indians, a small tribe of about 200. They flatten their heads and speak a language very similar to the Chinooks. They were very friendly to me and I was a good deal amongst them. Sketch No. 10 [above] is Caw-wacham, a woman of the tribe, with her child under the process of having its head flattened. It was with some difficulty that I persuaded her to sit, as she seemed apprehensive that it would be injurious to her."1

Beginning in 1852 the ethnographer James G. Swan (1818-1900) lived for three years among the Indians on Willapa Bay–then known as Shoalwater Bay–in southwestern Washington some 25 miles north of the mouth of the Columbia. Swan wrote a brief account of the custom of head-flattening to accompany his sketch of a Chinook woman with her infant.

Chinook woman with child

Chinook Woman and Child

"The most singular custom among these people," Swan observed, "is that of flattening or compressing the head of the infant. Where this custom originated is hard to tell. Lewis and Clarke state that it is not peculiar to that part of the continent, since it was among the first objects that struck the attention of Columbus. 'But,' they add, 'wherever it began, or what was its origin, the practice is now universal among the tribes west of the Rocky Mountains, in the region of the Columbia, and it is confined to them, for, with the exception of the Snake Indians, who are called Flat-heads, the fashion is not known to the east of that barrier."

"The method adopted to produce this deformity is as follows: A cradle, like a bread trough, is hollowed out from a piece of cedar, and, according to the taste of the parent, is either fancifully carved, or is as simple in its artistic appearance as a pig's trough. This cradle, or canim, or canoe, as they term it, is lined inside with the softest of cedar bark, well pounded and cleaned so as to be as soft as wool. On this the infant is placed as soon as it is born, and covered with the softest cloth or skins they can find. A little pillow at one end slightly elevates the head. The child is placed flat on its back, and a cushion of wool or feathers laid on its forehead. An oblong square piece of wood or bark, having one end fastened by strings to the head of the canoe, is now brought down on the cushion, and firmly secured by strings tied to the sides of the cradle, and causing the cushion to press upon the child's forehead. The infant is then so bound into the cradle that it can not stir hand or foot, and in this position it remains a year or more, only being taken out to be washed and for exercise."

"This pressure on the forehead causes the head to expand laterally, giving an expression of great broadness to the face; but I never perceived that it affected the mind at all, although it disfigures them very much in appearance. I have seen several whose heads had not been thus pressed, and they were smart, intelligent, and quite good-looking; but they were laughed at by the others, who asserted that their mothers were too lazy to shape their heads properly. This flattening of the head appears to be a sort of mark of royalty or badge of aristocracy, for their slaves are not permitted to treat their children thus; but, although I have seen persons with and others without this deformity, I never could discover any superiority of intellect of one over the other."2

1. Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America: From Canada to Vancouver's Island and Oregon through the Hudson's Bay Company Territory and Back Again (London: Longman, Brown, Green Longmans, and Roberts, 1859), 205. Internet Archive.

2. James G. Swan, The Northwest Coast; or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), 167-68. Internet Archive. A brief biography of this remarkably versatile man may be seen at HistoryLink.org, http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=5029.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's
Challenge Cost Share Program