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
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.
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.