Who among us has not been awestruck by the mystery and majesty of the mountain that seems to disappear and reappear at her discretion? That mountain, called Mount Rainier since 1792, when Captain George Vancouver gave the name to honor Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, had been called T’qo’bəd, Taqo’ma, Tacobet or Tax̌uma by Native groups for untold generations. These names are all variations that may mean “the source of all waters,” “white mountain” or “snow peak.”
Dominating the southern Puget Sound landscape for thousands of years, the mountain has inspired many legends and lives in the hearts of anyone who makes South Sound their home.
Long ago, at the time of change, the Transformer changed some of the first people of the myth age into animals useful to people and transformed dangerous people into stone. He named all the places in this land, giving them their right names. The simplest story about the creation of T’qo’bəd is that when the five big mountains along the coast, Baker, Adams, St. Helens, Hood and T’qo’bəd came to be, the Transformer told T’qo’bəd she would supply water and be useful in that way.
Some say they were five sisters. One sister, probably the oldest, T’qo’bəd, married a man from Hood Canal and went to live there with him and his first wife. She had a son and left her husband to go home to the Upper Puyallup, bringing their child, who became the little mountain attached to the east flank of Mount Rainier.
A more dramatic twist in this story is that the man in the Olympic Range had several argumentative wives. He sent them to different places east of Puget Sound where they became mountains. T’qo’bəd was a big woman and especially combative. He placed her in southern Puget Sound and gave her mountain goats for her food. T’qo’bəd continued her quarrelsome ways with another wife, the two hurling lightning at one another.
Another myth features T’qo’bəd as an ogress who ate people and any animal that she drew to her. The Transformer changed the ogress into a harmless stone, with water running from inside her. The legs of the body of the ogress are today the mountain ridges branching from T’qo’bəd. Although there are many stories in the Native mythology, most groups agree that T’qo’bəd is the source of water. The headwaters of the White, Carbon, Puyallup, Nisqually and Cowlitz rivers all flow from T’qo’bəd.
The body of oral literature of the Native people of Puget Sound, told around the fire in the longhouse, especially in the winter, could be delivered as vignettes, cycles of stories or epics. The wisest people shared information about the origin of the world, its inhabitants, and proper behavior. Many myths addressed natural phenomena with embedded references to actual geological events, such as earthquakes and the big flood.
One such event memorialized in the myth was the explosive lahar that swept down the northeast flank of T’qo’bəd 5,600 years ago. One of the largest lahars on record, the near-liquid Osceola Mudflow overran the White and West Fork White river channels. It inundated entire sections of forest, filled the Enumclaw Plateau to an average depth of 60 feet with a mixture of clay, silt, gravel, cobbles and boulders, and swept through the sites of the current cities of Auburn and Kent. The debris flow trickled out into Commencement Bay and around Renton, in the Duwamish drainage. Sixty miles of the Salish Sea were filled, forcing the White and Green rivers to cut new pathways through the mudflow deposits.
The myths describe great whales carving river channels in the vicinity of Auburn, Sumner and Puyallup. Because the White River Valley was an arm of Puget Sound before the lahar, whales were most likely visitors then and were credited with creating the new river courses. They also tell us of old land that refused to be changed by the Transformer. One of these places is a series of small hills in the Renton area that were untouched by the lahar. An isolated knoll there is a sacred place, part of the “old” world, before the Transformer came. Another such place is Filucy Bay, on the Key Peninsula, considered to be the oldest part of Puget Sound; the bay would not allow the Transformer to change it.
T’qo’bəd is sacred to all Indigenous groups who rely on the rivers fed by the glaciers of the mountain once thought to be permanently covered in snow. I am uneasy now when I catch a glimpse of T’qo’bəd, knowing that “permanent snow” may not be as certain as it once was. The glaciers are receding, the lowland rivers are overwhelmed with sediment, causing problems for all sorts of plants, animals and fish, not to mention city, county and tribal planners.
On the other hand, T’qo’bəd survived her move from the Olympics, her transformation from ogress, her eruptions, and a lahar. I am hopeful.
Lynn Larson is an archaeologist and anthropologist. She lives on Filucy Bay.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS