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The Gods Of The Mountains

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The prairie tribes, and even tribes of the forest region, held the western mountains in veneration, for to them the Rockies were the limits of the known world. They regarded them as the pillars of heaven, whose summits were the abode of mighty beings, who spoke in the thunders and revealed themselves in the lightning's flash. There, too, on the Mountains of the Setting Sun, many a tribe placed the Village of Souls, to reach which the adventurous spirit must run a gauntlet of terrors snow-storm and torrent, shaking rock and perilous bridge; only the valiant soul could pass these obstacles and arrive at last in the land of plenty and verdure which lay beyond. Again, the mountains were the seats of revelation; thither went mighty medicine-men, the prophets of the nations, to keep their solitary vigils, or to receive, in the bosom of these lodges of the gods, instruction in the mysteries which were to be the salvation of their people.

It is not extraordinary that the mountains exercised a like fascination over the mythopoetic imaginations of the tribes who inhabited their valleys or dwelt on the intermontane plateau. There are many myths accounting for the formation of natural wonders, and the wilds are peopled with monstrous beings, oft-times reminiscent of European folk-lore. Giants, dwelling in stone houses or armoured with stone shirts, are familiar figures, as are also eaters of human flesh, fang-mouthed and huge-bellied. The cannibal's wife, who warns and protects her husband's visitors, even to the point where they destroy him, is a frequent theme; and the Ute tell stories of mortal men capturing bird-women by stealing their bird-clothes while they are bathing exactly as the swan-maidens are taken in Teutonic and Oriental folk-lore. The home of these bird-women is far away in the mountains, whither the human hero makes his adventurous flight with magic feathers and a mantle of invisibility. In a Shoshonean tale, published by Powell, Stone Shirt, the giant, slays Sikor, the crane, and carries away the wife of the bird, but her babe is left behind and is reared by his grandmother. One day a ghost appears and tells the boy of the fate of his parents. He returns to his grand-mother: "Grandmother, why have you lied to me about my father and mother?" but she answers nothing, for she knows that a ghost has told him all; and the boy sobs himself to sleep. There a vision came to him, promising him vengeance, and he resolved to enlist all nations in his enterprise; but first he compelled his grandmother to cut him in twain with a magic axe, which, when she had done, lo, there were two boys, whole and beautiful, where before there had been only one. With Wolf and Rattlesnake as their counsellors, the brothers set out across the desert. From a never-failing cup they gave water to their followers, when threatened with death from thirst; and when hunger beset them, all were fed from the flesh of the thousand-eyed antelope which was the watchman of Stone Shirt, but which Rattlesnake, who had the power of making himself invisible, approached and slew. In the form of doves the brothers spied out the home of Stone Shirt, to which they were taken by the giant's daughters, to whom the two birds came while the maidens bathed. In the form of mice, they gnawed the bowstrings of the magic bows which the young girls owned; and when Stone Shirt appeared, glorying in his strength and fancied immunity, the Rattlesnake struck and hurt him to the death. The two maidens, finding their weapons useless, sang their death-song and danced their death-dance, and passed away beside their father. The girls were buried on the shore of the lake where their home had been, but the bones of Stone Shirt were left to bleach as he had left the bones of Sikor, the crane.

This myth surely recounts the conquests of the mountains by the animal-powers, with the birds at their head. The northern Shoshoni say that formerly there were numerous Stone Giants (Dzoavits) dwelling in the hills; many of these were killed by the Weasels, but most of them were destroyed by birds who built fires which exterminated the race. In a familiar western form of the Theft of Fire, it is a mountain genius who is the fire's jealous guardian, and from whom, by craft and fleetness, the animals steal the precious element for the succour of a cold and cheerless world.

It is not always the animals, however, who war against the mountains. On the Columbia River, the canyon by which it passes through the Cascade Range was at one time, the Indians say, bridged by rock, a veritable Bridge of the Gods; but the snow-capped hills of the region engaged in war, hurling enormous boulders at one another, and one of these, thrown by Mt. Hood at Mt. Adams, fell short of its mark, struck and broke the bridge, and dammed the river where is now the great cascade. A Salishan legend tells that this bridge was made by Sahale, the creator, to unite the tribes of men who dwelt on either side of the mountains. He stationed Loowit, the witch, on guard at this bridge, where was the only fire in the world, but she, pitying the Indians, besought Sahale to permit her to bestow upon them the gift of fire. This was done, to the end that men's lot was vastly bettered, and Sahale, pleased with the result, transformed Loowit into a beautiful maiden. But the wars brought on by the rivalry of two chiefs, Klickitat and Wiyeast, for the hand of Loowit were so disastrous to men that Sahale repented his act, broke down the bridge, and, putting to death the lovers and their beloved, reared over them, as memorials, the three great mountains over Loowit the height that is now St. Helens, over Wiyeast Mt. Hood, and over Klickitat Mt. Adams.

Another great elevation of the vicinity, Mt. Tacoma, has its own legends. Of its beautiful Paradise Valley, near the snow line, the Indians made a sanctuary, a place of refuge for the pursued, upon attaining which none dared harm him, a place of penance for the repentant, a place of vigil for the seeker after visions. But beyond this valley, toward the mountain-top, no Indian ventured. Long ago, they said, a man was told in a dream that on the mountain's top was great wealth of shell money. He made his way thither, and under a great rock, elk-shaped like the spirit that had directed him, he found stores of treasure; but in his greed he took all, leaving naught as an offering to the mountain. Then it, in its anger, shook and smoked and belched forth fire; and the man, throwing down his riches, fell insensible. When he awoke, he was at his old camp in Saghalie Illahie, "the Land of Peace," now called Paradise Valley; but the time he had passed, instead of a single day, had been years, and he was now an old man, whose remaining life was passed as a counsellor of his tribe, venerated because of his ascent of the divine mountain."

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