Crater Lake
Historic Resource Study
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IV. Indian Perceptions of Crater Lake

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

the Indian's reverence for the wonders that are now the national parks. The Indian lived daily in the shadow, not only of the mountains, the cliffs, and the waterfalls, but of death. He lived as a wild thing lived, by the caprices of Nature. Life was to him fickle, hazardous, difficult. [1]

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." [2]

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." [3] It was, in fact, the general consensus of most early settlers in the area that

there is probably no point of interest in America that so completely overcomes the ordinary Indian with fear as Crater lake. From time immemorial no power has been strong enough to induce them to approach within sight of it. For a paltry sum they will engage to guide you thither, but before reaching the mountain top will leave you to proceed alone. To the savage mind it is clothed with a deep veil of mystery and is the abode of all manner of demons and unshapely monsters. [4]

Later writings have perpetuated this belief:

The Indians felt this way about it [Crater Lake], too. They lived on the Klamath Lakes not many miles away, yet before the white man came none but the medicine men dared to look upon Crater Lake. [5]

And again:

The Indians long believed that only punishment could come to men who looked upon a lake that was sacred to the spirits.'Do not look upon this place,' the legend warned, 'for it will mean death or lasting sorrow.' [6]

One of the features of Crater Lake that was reportedly held in awe by the Indians was the jagged island known as Phantom Ship:

Near the base of Dutton Cliff stands a solitary rock, probably one hundred feet high, by two hundred in length and nearly the same breadth, that, while not seen by the present generation of Indians, is nevertheless known to them, and is a special object of superstitious dread. They consider it as a peculiarly ferocious monster, but are unable to describe its characteristics. . . . I have never learned its Indian name, but among the whites it is known as the Phantom Ship. [7]

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

around the lake innumerable pinnacles and beetling crags of black, crimson, and yellow bristled to the sky in a vast amphitheatre. Yonder, arching caverns pierced the base of a fearful precipice, whose frowning walls glowered upon the rugged rock island of the Phantom Ship, a fantastic object of unspeakable dread to the Klamath Indians. [8]

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." [9]

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. [10] 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. [11]

Crater Lake's role as a quest site was noted by some observant visitors as early as 1873:

Here their medicine-men still come, as they always came in the olden time, to study spiritual wisdom and learn the secrets of life from the Great Spirit. In the solitude of these wilds they fasted and did penance; to the shores of the wierd [sic] lake they ventured with great danger, to listen to the winds that came from no one knew where--borne there to roam the pent-up waters and bear the mysterious whispers of unseen beings, whose presence they doubted not, and whose words they longed to understand. They watched the shifting shadows of night and day; the hues of sun-light, moon-light, and star-light; saw white sails glisten on the moon-lit waters; caught the sheen of noiseless paddles, as they lifted voiceless spray, and having become inspired with the supernal, they bore back to their tribes charmed lives and souls fenced in with mystery. It is by such inspiration that the Indian medicine-men become infused with the superstitious belief that they are more wise than they are mortal. [12]

Three years later another visitor remarked:

Other lakes have sandy or muddy margins, sloping shores, waves, and sound and motion. Crater Lake has none of these. It lies blue, placid, silent, like a dream of majesty and beauty. How would the imaginative and polytheistic Greeks have sanctified to their gods such a spot as this! So indeed, do the native Indians, who never approach this lake except when preparing themselves by religious ceremonies for "Medicine-Men" or great warriors. Around its margin, at some little distance away, are heaps of stones carefully piled, having with them a significance pointing to their solemn spiritual rites at this place. To them this is sacred ground. [13]

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:

The Indians view Crater lake and its surroundings as holy ground and approach its mystic waters with reverence and awe. They attach to its existence the thought that the Great Spirit hallows it by his presence. The ancient traditions of the tribes relate many supernatural events handed down with the mythical lore of the past. Only medicine men frequented the sacred spot, and when one felt called as teacher and healer it was a feature of his novitiate to spend weeks in fasting, and communion with the dead and prayer to the Sahullah Tyees, and so become imbued with inspiration to qualify him for his work. Beside this wonder-shore they saw visions and dreamed dreams, and when they came down from the mountain mysteries to mingle with mortals they brought the odor of sanctity with them and were viewed with reverence as having communed with the unknown world. [14]

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." [15] He points out that, as exemplified by the creation myths for Crater Lake,

the idea of an Above-world, and a Below world, the one a region of light and all things beautiful and enjoyable, and the other a place of terror and everlasting darkness, with the god rulers Skell and Llao, and their attendant servants, spirits usually taking the forms of animals . . . was firmly impressed in the minds of the Klamath people. [16]

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.

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002