A. Early Observations by White Men
Although it is relatively easy to document the early impressions of Crater Lake gained by white men, it is much more difficult to assess the role it played in early aboriginal society in southern Oregon. Horace Albright, in an entertaining book on the day-to-day life of a park ranger in which he periodically contemplates the heritage of our parks, stresses
Most early references to the Indians' relationship to Crater Lake tend to place emphasis on their "fear" of it without explaining that their timorous attitude was based on feelings of awe and reverence, leading naturally to reticence in mentioning the place to white men. As one writer explained, "none of the people of the valley of lakes, meadows and rivers dare to regard the land of Gay-was [Crater Lake] carelessly, for it is a High Place and sacred to the tribe." 
Shortly after the Hillman party's discovery of "Deep Blue Lake," they encountered a band of Indians whom they questioned about it. "None would acknowledge such a lake existed," one member of the group reported. "We learned from a medicine man that this place was looked upon as sacred, and death came to any Indian who gazed upon the lake."  It was, in fact, the general consensus of most early settlers in the area that
Later writings have perpetuated this belief:
One of the features of Crater Lake that was reportedly held in awe by the Indians was the jagged island known as Phantom Ship:
A party of California adventurers who journeyed to Crater Lake in 1896, besides mentioning a Fort Klamath Indian's unwillingness to accompany them to the lake rim, noted that
Seldon Kirk, a distinguished head of the Klamath Tribal Council, reportedly stated that the story of the Indians' fear of Crater Lake was greatly exaggerated, for he had even swum in it as a boy. Instead, he reasoned, their avoidance was probably due to the fact that it contained neither fish nor game and, in addition, required a long, steep descent in soft pumice to reach the water. If one considers these factors, plus the possibility of encountering an arrow from an unfriendly Umpqua Indian, "then the taboo takes on a meaning not based on religion but on common sense." 
B. Role of Crater Lake in Shamanistic Quests
Several types of personal crises in an individual's life were perceived as occasions for observing a quest involving fasting, isolation, strenuous physical activities, and ritual bathing. These included puberty, chronic illness, the birth or death of one's child, the death of a spouse, or even consistent and heavy gambling losses. The basic ritual pattern was identical for all these situations and consisted of wandering about the woods and hills in areas remote from human settlement where a prophetic and satisfying dream was sought by engaging in arbitrary and energy-consuming activities such as branch-breaking and mountain climbing, followed by short periods of sleep. In all but the puberty ritual, preparation for the dream required ritual swimming in pools or streams significant because of their mythological associations. Most Modoc quest sites were within their own territory, but sometimes distant trips were made, and Crater Lake, in Klamath Indian territory, was often visited.  These waters were used to purify oneself and thereby gain knowledge, strength of body and spirit, and, hopefully, the secrets of the gods. During drought years men made pilgrimmages to Crater Lake and other places known for powerful spirits in order to fill small skin sacks with water that was then poured ceremoniously over the marshes in hopes of restoring them to life. 
Crater Lake's role as a quest site was noted by some observant visitors as early as 1873:
Three years later another visitor remarked:
The assumption that the Indians believed death would result from viewing the lake is questionable, but it is true that the Klamath and Modoc Indians in the vicinity of Crater Lake felt the lake should be respected for its status as the dwelling place of powerful spirits and approached only when necessary to perform certain ceremonial acts. The medicine men, or shamans, of the tribes who participated in diligent quests for power given in the form of songs and visions were much respected:
C. Indian Myths Explaining Geological Occurrences
The religious tales and creation myths of the Modocs and Klamaths and other Northwestern tribes revolve around ethereal beings, such as gods and spirits, and also around more visible elements, such as the sun, moon, and stars. One author, Stanton Lapham, feels that these stories "are to be admired for their pure imaginative beauty, astonishing us with their suggestion of the mythological characters and conduct of the gods and hero-creations of the ancient Greeks and early Romans."  He points out that, as exemplified by the creation myths for Crater Lake,
So also were the effects of good and evil on human hopes, conduct, and aspirations. The stories and legends of Indian peoples reveal their thinking patterns, philosophy, and most of all their identification and interrelationship with animals and with Nature, whose power and presence was always felt. By countless acts of self-sacrifice, prayer, and ceremony, the Indian sought the pity and friendship of the supernatural.
Elaborate myths were passed down from the ancestors of the Klamath and Modoc tribes to explain the earth-shaking phenomena that resulted in the formation of the vast Cascade Mountain Range. It is interesting to note that certain myths and legends invented by the Indians of the Northwest to explain the origin and form of many prominent geographical features in their environment, if stripped of their supernatural elements, correlate closely with scientific theories. One of the best examples of the close parallel between an Indian myth and modern geological theory is the Klamath Indian tradition concerning the formation of Crater Lake. According to one author, the basic myth was probably recorded for the first time in 1865, when old Chief Lalek at Fort Klamath related the tale to young William Colvig after the latter's first trip to see the lake.
As Colvig noticed during his years in southern Oregon, many variations of the basic story were circulated, although the essential details remained fairly uniform. Ms. Ella Clark, in a discussion of the relationship between Indian mythology and actual geological occurrences, debated whether or not Colvig's notes on the myth (recorded in 1892 after his earlier notes were lost) might have been influenced by new geological evidence on Mount Mazama s eruption. She determined, however, that they probably had not been, for several reasons. First, no detailed theory on the formation of the caldera was published until 1897; second, Colvig was known to have related the myth to his children several times after he first heard it and was also known to possess a remarkable memory; and third, it does conform with the Klamath Indian belief in a large number of nature spirits and with Indian explanations of eruptions of other volcanic peaks.
Finally, it is not impossible to suppose that human memory goes back several thousand years. Indians were known to have inhabited the area of Mount Mazama before its final eruption, and it is highly logical that the story of such a terrifying event could have become an integral part of tribal history and have been transmitted orally for thousands of years. Oral narration has always been an important part of Indian culture. There is no way of telling, however, how much of the nineteenth-century rendition that Colvig first heard was Klamath history and how much it had been embellished through the years by the imagination of various storytellers.
Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002