Native American Legends about Mountains in the Pacific Northwest

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Many Native Amer­i­can tribes in the Pacif­ic North­west believed that pow­er­ful spir­its lived on top of moun­tains. Spir­its you wouldn’t want to mess with.

In 1833, Sluiskin, a Native Amer­i­can guide, led a par­ty of Euro­pean set­tlers to the base of Taco­ma, or Mount Rainier as we now call it. When he heard that these men intend­ed to climb the moun­tain, Sluiskin was con­cerned. The sum­mit of Taco­ma housed a lake of fire, in which a malev­o­lent spir­it lived. All the natives knew this, which is why they nev­er climbed above the mountain’s snow­line. He plead­ed them to stay, but the climbers wouldn’t lis­ten. They set off for the sum­mit, and Sluiskin was sure he would nev­er see them again.

Two days lat­er, he was incred­u­lous at the sight of the tired but vic­to­ri­ous climbers, believ­ing them to be ghosts.

Pre-mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tions of the nat­ur­al world can be edi­fy­ing to the mod­ern Amer­i­can liv­ing in a sci­en­tif­ic age. With the world com­plete­ly chart­ed and all nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na account­ed for in our the­o­ries, it’s easy to for­get that nature can be a sub­lime pow­er beyond our comprehension.

For the Native Amer­i­cans in the Pacif­ic North­west, the moun­tains in the Cas­cades pos­sessed a malev­o­lent pow­er. The giant vol­ca­noes in their sto­ries are capri­cious and vin­dic­tive deities, almost human-like with their roman­tic entan­gle­ments with oth­er mountains.

Mount Hood and the Fall of Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mount Hood and the Fall of Man
Many of these leg­ends allude to moun­tain erup­tions. One of the most inter­est­ing is the sto­ry of the ori­gin of Mount Hood.

In a prelap­sar­i­an state, the humans around Mount Hood were as tall as trees, and the tallest among them was their great chief. One day an evil spir­it who lived on the moun­tain began spew­ing lava and rocks from the sum­mit, rain­ing death onto the tribe. That night, the Chang­er, the great­est of the Gods, appeared to the chief in a dream. “You must con­quer the spir­it,” he said. “Or else your tribe will per­ish from this earth.”

The chief, undaunt­ed by the spirit’s pow­er, climbed to the top of the moun­tain. He began to hurl rocks at the spir­it. The spir­it heat­ed those rocks up and threw them down the moun­tain. The bat­tle was waged for sev­er­al days until the spir­it was defeat­ed. The chief looked out on the land where his peo­ple lived, black­ened and destroyed from the rain­ing rocks.

The chief wept at what he saw. Then he died.

The oth­er tribe mem­bers, luck­i­ly, had sur­vived the anni­hi­la­tion by tak­ing shel­ter on oth­er moun­tain peaks. For a time they starved because of the land’s des­o­la­tion and grew small­er. The for­mer giants would no longer be as large as they once were.

3Per­son­i­fi­ca­tion
Before the moun­tains became Gods in these sto­ries, they were peo­ple. In the ori­gin sto­ries of Mount Rainier, the moun­tain is described as a large woman who lived west of Puget Sound, in what is now the Olympic Moun­tains. Her hus­band had two wives, both of whom fought with the oth­er. Feel­ing cramped and embat­tled, the woman left the crowd­ed Olympics with her son and went to the open plains out east. With room to breath, the woman and her son grew quite large, becom­ing Mount Rainier and Lit­tle Tahoma respectively.

Moun­tains in oth­er sto­ries are also quite peri­patet­ic. They trav­eled all over the land­scape because of con­flicts with oth­er moun­tains, or just because of their whim.

The Great Flood
The great flood is a leit­mo­tif of all the world’s mys­ti­cal thought, and it plays a big role in the leg­ends of the Pacif­ic North­west natives. Many of the tribes have flood sto­ries in which moun­tains become saviors.

In one sto­ry, Coy­ote, the trick­ster spir­it, who appears in many Native Amer­i­can leg­ends, looks for wood near a lake. The lake pos­sess­es an evil spir­it. “There’s no wood here,” says the spir­it as he floods the val­ley and tries to drown Coy­ote. Coy­ote sur­vives, but he is angry. So he shoots the spir­it with an arrow.

This time, the spir­it floods all the lands. Coy­ote runs away from the flood, even­tu­al­ly reach­ing the top of Mount Shas­ta, whose sum­mit is the only thing out of the water. The oth­er ani­mals all come to the moun­tain. Once the waters retreat, the ani­mals leave the moun­tain and once again pop­u­late the earth.