Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

A Most Sacred Place : The Significance of Crater Lake among the Indians of Southern Oregon

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

A Most Sacred Place : The Significance of Crater Lake among the Indians of Southern Oregon

Article excerpt

There's nowhere else in the world like Crater Lake. It was one of our most sacred places. It still is. --Klamath elder, 1999

Long before Europeans glimpsed the Pacific Northwest, Crater Lake was well known to many Native peoples of the region. To the east of the lake, Klamaths lived alongside the high-altitude desert lakes of south-central Oregon. To the west, in the rugged and densely forested western slopes of the Cascades, were the Molalas. Farther to the west, in the river valleys of the western Cascades, the Takelmas lived in the Upper Rogue River Basin and the Athapaskan-speaking Upper Umpquas lived on the river of the same name. All of these peoples knew of Crater Lake, and all had legends of its genesis. Some of them visited the lake and its environs in the summertime. Others -- the Modocs of northeastern California, the Yahooskin Paiutes of Oregon's arid southern interior, and those from even greater distances -- were aware of this significant landmark. Their association with the landscape that would become Crater Lake National Park stretched back into distant antiquity.

After decades of geologic and archaeological research, scientists have widely accepted that "by the time the eruption of Mount Mazama created Crater Lake and strewed its pumice in thick beds over the countryside, some 6,500 years ago, [the Klamath Indians] had long been in occupation."[1] Archaeological evidence in the form of artifacts and other evidence buried beneath Mazama ash provide abundant evidence to support this conclusion. The oral traditions of the Indians of southern Oregon also provide evidence of their long-standing association with the volcanic landscapes of this region. Klamath legends of the eruption of Mount Mazama, passed from generation to generation, provide a striking corroboration of scientifically verified geologic accounts.

It is appropriate, therefore, that we juxtapose the Klamaths' description of the Mazama eruption with the currently accepted geological account. The descriptions are quoted directly from two readable, if somewhat condensed, accounts: geologist Stephen Harris's text, Fire Mountains of the West, and Ella Clark's collection of tales, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest.[2] As Harris suggests, geologists have determined that Mount Mazama was a snow-capped peak of perhaps ten thousand feet elevation for the 170 years preceding the cataclysmic eruption, and there was a series of relatively minor eruptions at "vents along Mazama's north flank." The Klamaths recall that Mount Mazama was a tall peak that had become increasingly prone to minor volcanic events: "At that time there was no lake up there. Instead, there was an opening which led to the lower world." Both stories proceed from there:

Harris. The opening blasts that heralded Mazama's doom began as a crater somewhere north of the principal summit ejected a titanic mushroom cloud miles into the stratosphere.

Clark. When [the Chief of the Below World] came up from his lodge below [the mountain], his tall form towered above the snow-capped peaks.

Harris. Winds carried the ash plume northeast, blanketing over 500,000 square miles....glowing avalanches...raced outward through forested valleys....Pyroclastic flows that moved east sped over 25 miles of flat ground beyond the base of the volcano. Pumice blocks six feet across were carried 20 miles from their source.

Clark. Red-hot rocks as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain....Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountains and in the valleys...until it reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, the people found refuge in the waters of Klamath Lake.

Harris. [The] tremendous explosive eruption ejected a great volume of material from the magma reservoir beneath the volcano. That removed support from the former summit, allowing it to collapse inward....Where a snow-capped peak once towered, there was now only a colossal depression. …

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