Kalapuyan Eyewitnesses to the Megaflood in the Willamette Valley

Native oral history is based in actual historic events of their tribal past. For the Kalapuyans this is also true. Some  15,000 to 12,000 years ago a series of megafloods occurred (upwards of 40 in some theories) in western Oregon. The glacial dams created by the glacial masses which reached the Columbia River during this period, caused a  massive lake or series of lakes to form up to Missoula, Montana, which scholars call Lake Missoula. When the earth began warming, the glaciers began receding causing cracks to form in the ice dams. A series of catastrophic breaches of the dams occurred when the dams suddenly broke, a succession of floods rushed down the Columbia and through the Gorge and into the Willamette Valley creating a great lake in the valley. The flood water reached above Eugene, Oregon. The cause of the lake is the narrows at Kalama which acted as a hourglass to slow the rushing flood and the water instead took the nearest route to expend its energy, into the Willamette Valley. The floodwaters carried with them soils scraped from eastern Washington which settled into the Willamette Valley, depositing soil in some places as deep as 50 feet of topsoil. The science behind the Missoula floods is well respected as being accurate and really the only arguments are how many floods were there. Scholars are still looking into the causes, and other scientific questions around the floods.

Kalapuyans living in the valley would have seen and experienced this flood and reacted to it to save themselves. This statement may seem odd because archaeologists have yet to find 15,000 year dates for the Kalapuyan sites in the valley. A friend of mine, an elder in the Grand Ronde tribe who has a Masters degree in archaeology, Don Day, has said to me on many occasions, “we have not gone deep enough!” He means that archaeology in the Willamette Valley has yet to really explored deep enough to get below the Missoula flood soils to find Native cultural sites. The reasons for this are twofold, first there is a long standing assumption that Kalapuyans were not around that long, and for generations of archaeologist there were assumptions that 8,000 (or so) were going to be the oldest dates for the Willamette Valley. Indeed, Luther Cressman in his Sandal in the Cave in 1960 stated a maximum 5,000 years for the Willamette Valley indigenous settlement. The other reason is that there has been no reason or requirement to explore below the “known” cultural zone in the archaeological record of the Willamette Valley. Today the oldest known sites are 11,000 years in the Long Tom Basin, (O’Neill et al 2004). and the oldest maxim assumed to be 11,500 years.

The non-scientific assumptions, previous to when an archaeological record was built up (1970-present), are built upon a long tradition of archaeologists assuming for generations that Native peoples could not have been on the continent before 14,000 years because they were limited to that time period for travel over the “Bering Strait land bridge.” Native people knew, have always known, that these theories have little to no validity because they were made without the benefit of a discussion with Native people, without reference to living Native culture and technology, without an acceptance that Native people had boats for travel over the ocean as early as 40,000 years ago. Finally until some 20 years ago, Native oral histories were considered more mythology and folklore, and not accurate accounts of history, and therefore not used by archaeologists at all. (See many articles by Jon Erlandson for more about use of boats and canoes for migration to the Americas, and questions about the static and non-scientific nature of the science.)

There are two stories from Kalapuyan oral accounts that address a flood. Both stories are origin stories for the tribe, their technology, and the animal people of the land. The floods likely brought with them instant changes to the culture of the peoples effected. Then, the environment of the land may changed significantly, at one level destroying whole animal and plant species (extinctions), and at another level influencing other animal and plant species to become prominent (evolution and environmental change).

The following story “Panther, coyote, whale’s daughter, the flood, obtaining the fire”  (Jacobs, Melville,  Kalapuya Texts Volume 2 1945,  p 103: see the University of Washington Digital collection for the full text of these books) suggests that great changes came to the Willamette Valley environment in a story centered around a great flood. In the story we witness the birth of panther, of deer, and the death of coyote. The birth and death of these central figures just before a massive flood suggests changes came to the land. We also see that whale and mudfish are powerful figures, not threatened by the waters, and chicken hawk as well is unscathed. This may seem confusing, but Native oral history does not always proceed in a linear manner and so we cannot assume that the birth and death of any figures in the story were literally before the flood. Instead its necessary to look at the story as an attempt by the early Kalapuyans to assign meaning and (unscientific) causality to the changes brought to their lands by the flood.

The section of the longer story below is the flood story as well as some directly related events

(9) And he cut the (two braids of the ) woman’s hair, and he gave it to small chicken hawk. Now coyote’s child (which he removed from her womb) he threw into the stream. Now the man leaped ashore. Then all the people went away.

8. Now the water (flood) came up (rose). And some of the people, the large birds carried them (up) on their backs. They took them to a big mountain (Mary’s Peak). All those people went to that big mountain there. Now the water was coming up higher. All the country was filled with water. (2) Then skunk took an oak puff ball (oak gall), and he made a hole in the oak puff ball, he got inside that. And to be sure that oak puff ball floated on the top of the water. Now all the people were running along, they climbed up a big mountain. Now it was on that one very loftiest mountain, then all those people got (up) to there. (3) And copperhead snake was carrying the fire along as he swam. Now the water pretty nearly got to the top of the mountain. then those people said to Panther, “What have you taken? This water does not want to go back (to recede).” And so he said, ” I took nothing, I took only my child, and I took that woman’s hair.” (4) “Oh,” the people said, “Throw away that hair of hers. maybe it is that which is pursuing.” So panther told him, “throw that hair into the water.” Sure enough small chicken hawk threw the hair into the water, and to be sure the water went down then, it went back (receded).

9. Now then the people said, “What shall we do now? There is no fire.” Then copperhead snake said, “I have put fire here.

Kalapuyan Language (Marys River Kalapuyan by William Hartless) section of the story of the flood, Jacobs 1945: 103.

The story elements are interesting enough. There is a long sequence of creation and causality leading up to the flood. A sequence of birthings involving coyote, who is the main protagonist of the story, until panther survives the flood. Taken literally does the story suggest that there were more panthers after the flood? and less coyotes? That is possible. The story also suggests that deer was created during this event, Then coyote said, “now I will make it a deer.” So he made a deer of that frog. (3) he pulled its ears, he pulled its nose, he pulled its hind legs, he pulled its forelegs. “now turn into a deer!” And sure enough it lay there, it was just like a deer. (p 109) Does this emphasis on the deer suggest that deer became more prominent after the flood?

The section of the excerpt above “Throw away that hair of hers. maybe it is that which is pursuing.” suggests that the people were confused as to why the floods came to the valley. They were seeking for a reason, a causality, and found it in the woman’s hair. Hair for Native people has a lot of power. Hair carries our history as it grows longer each days and thus experiences all of the same things as we do.  Therefore cutting ones long hair suggests that we are getting rid of our history, or letting go of the past so that we can move forward. Does the hair of the story suggest that the people were accepting that they had go into mourning, to let go of the past, of all the people and animal people killed by the floods, and accept the rebirth of the land and the changes that came with it. So rather than the cause of the flood perhaps its more acceptance of the need to move on.

These suggestions are mine alone, based on Jacobs’ English translations. It would be better for me to re-translate the original Kalapuyan story to make sure Jacobs’ translation is completely accurate. In addition, translating with an understanding of the culture may change the meaning of the stories significantly.

Finally, as we get deeper into looking at Native Oregon history as actual history of our past, new understandings will come. Interestingly there are lots of reasons to begin using these stories as eyewitness accounts of the catastrophic events of the past. This suggests that there is an unbroken line of native people, Kalapuyans, who reliably passed the stories of these events from one generation to the next to eventually be written down after some 15,000 to 12,000 years of keeping them. The implications of humans accurately passing history through 15,000 years of history as staggering. This also suggests that we still do not have the oldest archaeological dates for the Willamette valley, sites that are likely buried beneath the Missoula flood soils in the valley.

This first attempt to analyze this story is a baby step in the direction of understanding the oral histories of the Kalapuyans. Many stories likely do not address a point in history, but then many will.


2 thoughts on “Kalapuyan Eyewitnesses to the Megaflood in the Willamette Valley

  1. I did not know Jacobs’ books were online now!! I need to check that out.

    Thinking of translating from the original – always a good idea. I know when I work w/ Jacobs’ Coosan texts, I go back to his notebooks, and translate from there. There are often little notes in the margins too that are helpful (and it helps to build up a wordlist too, to compare as some words have multiple meanings or in some cases get mistranslated now and again, and I try to sort it all out, with varying degrees of success). Do you have copies of his Kalapuya notebooks?


  2. Yes I want to add the link to the published books. I do have the Kalapuyans and Molalan notebooks. I don’t have them all. Like I do not coosan or others for the south coast, do you have these? I have taken extensive notes for the margin notes in the Kalapuyan notebooks and I use the notes. Zenk is now working to translate all of the Conoyer bio notebooks. I hopes he gets to the rest as well.


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