Resources 1984 – B. Role of Crater Lake in Shamanistic Quests

Historic Resource Study, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 1984

IV. Indian Perceptions of Crater Lake

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]


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