Resources 1984 – C. Indian Myths Explaining Geological Occurrences

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

IV. Indian Perceptions of Crater Lake

 

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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