Sights big and small in Central Oregon provide awe, enjoyment and a sense of connection. One way to enhance the experience of this vast landscape is to look to the stories and legends of the native peoples of Central Oregon. The Paiute people and their ancestors are and have been some of the original stewards of these lands for thousands of years.
Wilson Wewa is the Warm Spring's Paiute Tribe's oral historian. In Wewa's book, "Legends of the Northern Paiute," many of the common sights and landmarks come alive in stories that have been passed down for generations around winter campfires. In April, the Oregon Natural Desert Association hosted a talk presented by Wilson Wewa at The Tower Theatre entitled, "The Land, its People and the Future."
Digging deeper into the stories of this landscape inspires care and preservation. These are some common sights that have longstanding Paiute stories and significance behind them that may help visitors experience and respect them in a deeper way.
The Malheur Cave is the Seat of Creation
The Malheur Cave is the womb of the Paiute creation story. This is where the world and the first people came from, and by first people, we mean animal life. Animals were on earth before humans, are brothers and sisters to man, and therefore, are considered the first people by the Paiute Tribe. There is a lake inside of this cave where a mud hen dove deep, deep down and came back up with some mud on her beak. She kept stacking this mud until land formed for the other animals to inhabit. When the animals had enough land to guide each other out of the cave, Bald Eagle was the first to emerge into the light, so his head and tail became bleached. Next time you visit one of the many caves in Central Oregon, consider that these places have inspired the creation stories of the native peoples here.
Fort Rock is a Giant's Bowl
A scary and violent giant named Nuwuzo'ho roamed all over Central Oregon. He would poke people with a big stick (like how people pick up trash on the side of the road), grind them up in his big bow with a grinding rock and drink them up in a bloody soup. Fort Rock is the Giant's Bowl where he would grind people up in. Coyote was the wise guy of these times and put up to the task of getting rid of the giant Nuwuzo'ho. Coyote took the grinding rock and beat up Nuwuzo'ho with it, clubbing him over and over again, while the giant rolled bloody and battered over and over again across the land.
Red Pumice is the Giant's Blood
As Nuwuzo'ho rolled to his death, his blood smeared all over Central Oregon. This is why cinder pumice is red. It is the giant's blood!
Monkey Face is actually Nuwuzo'ho's Head
According to Wewa's book, there is a rendition of this legend of the battle between Nuwuzo'ho and Coyote where Coyote turns Nuwuzo'ho into stone. This stone is known in modern times as Monkey Face. You can still see Nuwuzo'ho today looking into the "animal village" of Smith Rock, where he used to roam and terrorize the animal people there.
"China Hat" could use a cleanup
China Hat Road is a long stretch of gravel road that connects Highway 97 to south of Bend to Cabin Lake, near Fort Rock, stretching as far north as Highway 20 near the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. This road is extremely popular for off-highway vehicle recreation, camping, firearm target practice and cycling as well as subject to thousands of tons of trash, abandoned vehicles and long-term camping. While efforts to clean up and protect the national forest in this area are ongoing, the name of the road itself is prejudicial and could use a clean-up. China Hat Butte was named after its conical shape, resembling the hats Chinese immigrant laborers wore in the 1800s. When asked about a potential new name for this area that replaces racial undertones with a more accurate reflection of the Paiute culture that once inhabited there, Wewa commented: "It is a good idea (to change the name) to a Paiute name. I would have to see more of the area and drive it to see the terrain in order to come up with something that is appropriate."
River and water banks are people's homes
When people think of Bend in the summer, they think of floating the river, fishing and enjoying the river bank. The Paiute and other tribes of the area relied on the areas along the Deschutes River for berry gathering and creating baskets, as well as for medicine, fish and game. Wewa explained, "it is good conservation to always respect the land you are using and leave it in the condition that you found it so that other people can enjoy it. Riverbank degradation is bad for conservation because there are animals that use the river bank for getting food, making nests and for having a home...people need to be mindful of protecting our natural resources, otherwise there will not be any pristine shorelines to enjoy."
On your next float, or outing in general, look around at how many first people (animals) you can see. We are in their home, so be polite guests.