Indians – 07 Belief and Ritual of Crater Lake

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades

 Belief and Ritual of Crater Lake

Native peoples of the region traveled to the Crater Lake area for many purposes. The Park environs were used for both hunting and gathering. Huckleberry Mountain, an important gathering site for the Klamath, lies about ten miles southwest of the lake. Nonetheless, the primary significance of Crater Lake appears to have been as a place of power and danger, renowned as a spirit quest site, yet also feared for the dangerous beings residing in the lake.

For the Klamath, spirit power could be found in many sources, among these “such natural features as mountains, streams, rocks, or even landmarks like Crater Lake” (Spencer 1952b:218). The ritual significance of giwas, or Crater Lake (Barker 1963b: 145), reflects a more general Klamath understanding of the natural world, involving not only reverence but the capacity for significant interaction with certain mountains, lakes, and streams, as the individual sought comfort, assistance, or power. One Klamath woman, speaking in the late 1940s, noted that,

those old Indians had a lot of sense. They kind of felt at home around here and they would get a lift from just talking to the mountains and lakes. It was like praying and it made them feel at peace. (Spencer 1952b:223)

As one Klamath individual noted, Crater Lake was a particularly dangerous site for the spirit quest. (1) Gaining a vision of the supernatural beings residing in the lake was a major goal of that quest (Spencer 1952b:222). The seeker would often swim at night, underwater, to encounter the spirits lurking in the depths (Spier 1930:98). Leslie Spier commented regarding the father of one of his consultants, “having lost a child, he went swimming in Crater lake; before evening he had become a shaman” (Spier 1930:96). The quest for such spirits required courage and resolution:

He must not be frightened even if he sees something moving under the water. prays before diving, “I want to be a shaman. Give me power. Catch me. I need the power.” (Spier 1930:96)

A fuller account of the quest for spirit power is recorded in a manuscript by Jeremiah Curtin:

Indians used to believe. Doctors said “we begin to be doctors by swimming and camping on top the mountains where there is a pond of lake and breaking willows and piling rocks on top the mountains and swimming in the lake.” On ***** Mountain they used to camp. And at Crater Lake they used to say they got to the water and swam. And after swimming and camping and keeping awake all night piling rocks and breaking up twigs and tying them together till daylight [then] they would sleep. They sit down and slept, then they would dream. And whatever they dreamed of, Grizzly Bear, Black Bear or Wolf, Coyote, Skunk or all kinds of birds. Whatever they dreamed of became their medicine and they doctored with it and snakes, fishes[,] everything became their medicine. (Curtin, n.d.) (2)

An elderly Klamath woman recounted in the late 1940s her experience of seeing a spirit being on the lake:

When I was young, I went up to Crater Lake with a woman I knew. She tied my eyes and led my horse. … Then she said, “Untie your eyes,” and I nearly fell off the horse. I saw a man standing on the water far away, just like in the Bible. He scared me so, I don’t know who that was, but I like to think of that man now. (Spencer 1952b:222)

In other Klamath accounts the floor of the lake contains a mythical world:

People were stolen and taken down into Crater lake by beings there. Some say they have found no water in the lake. Instead there were rocks as big as trees and deep tunnels in the bottom. There are animals, snakes, and a sort of people who live at (or in) the ocean. (Spier 1930:98)

Individuals also undertook strenuous and dangerous climbing along the caldera wall. Spier’s informants noted a site termed makwalks: a point of rock projecting over Crater lake from the western cliff. The seeker clambers down and piles rocks on the point. (Spier 1930:98)

Individuals would often start at the western rim of Crater Lake and run down the wall of the crater to the lake. One who could reach the lake without falling was thought to have superior spirit powers. Sometimes such quests were undertaken by groups. (3)

The Modoc also made spirit quest trips to Crater Lake. Verne Ray noted that “most quest sites were within Modoc territory but sometimes distant trips were made. Crater Lake, in Klamath territory, was not infrequently visited” (Ray 1963:81).

The Crater Lake area was also significant for the Cow Creeks. Although used for hunting and gathering, the Crater Lake area had spiritual importance as well. The lake was regarded with both reverence and fear, because the souls of evil persons were believed to inhabit it. One informant commented that her grandmother would travel there for “quiet communion.” (4)

The historian A. G. Walling, apparently referring to the Upper Umpquas, noted in 1884 that,

In the past, none but medicine men visited [Crater Lake]. When one of the tribe felt called upon to become a teacher and healer, he spent several weeks on the shore of the lake in fasting, in communion with the dead, and in prayer. (in Bakken 1973:17)


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