Yesterday was my 23rd wedding anniversary, and I happen to be lucky because it lands on the anniversary of the eruption of America’s most active volcano, Mt. St. Helens. It has been 33 years since her last major eruption, but that hasn’t put her out of everyone’s minds. The front page article of our local newspaper told of scientists around the world coming to our mountain for study among recollections of that dreadful day. The natives have a different interest in her, and yesterday I was hoping to hear her story from that point of view. When I was eight years old and a year before the mountain blew, I went on a field trip to the Lelooska Cultural Center where Chief Lelooska told the story of the “Loowitlatkla (Lady of Fire),” or Mt. St. Helens. He described her as a beautiful maiden with two brothers fighting over. When the chief became angry he turned all three of them into mountains. The brothers became Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. Chief Lelooska explained that Mt. St. Helens does not sleep, nor can she rest because of the way she was transformed into the mountain.
30 plus years later, I wish to hear that story told orally again and hoped that heading once again up to the Lelooska Cultural Center for a night of mask transformation and story telling would include this legend. The timing of their opening night on May 18th had special significance to me.
Even though Chief Lelooska passed away several years ago, his brother Chief Tsungani continues to tell the stories that are his family’s to tell. The ceremony involves music, dance, story telling with the special masks central to each story. Potlatches in the Northwest were outlawed by the Canadian and American governments and illegal until the 1950s. Masks were confiscated and I assume some of the rich oral stories were lost. Missionaries expressed concern over what to them seemed to be evil (what Chief Tsungani attributed to a sleight of hand for purposes of telling stories). For example, a fire that starts at the coaxing of a shaman’s dance/song/prayer was seen as the work of the devil.
Last night, the chief did not tell the story of Loowit (the Little Smoking Mountain), but I felt that I understood the possible reasoning why. Perhaps it was not his to tell. I will continue to search for this story, and maybe that means that I will need to attend more potlatches in the Northwest area. I understand why the stories are guarded, but I feel that there must be a personal significance because from a young age I lived in the mountain’s backyard and have felt her rumblings. I long to hear her story-her story told by people who understood the earth as sacred-even alive with stories to tell.
Click on the links to watch a couple of short documentaries about the more recent return of the potlatch: Potlatch 1 & Potlatch 2