The Nez Perce Legend of Wallowa Lake
Rev. E. A. Pollock-1934-The Wallowa Sun
If the geologists are right in their reading of the story of
creation as it is written in the rocks, about the oldest hills on
the North American continent are found in the northeast corner of
the state of Oregon.
The hand of the Almighty lifted hills so high there that for ages they were in the grip of great glaciers, traces of which still remain there among the eternal snows.
And off the east only a few miles that same hand cut far down almost 7,000 feet, and left for the wonder and admiration of man the deepest gash on the surface of the earth and through this gash the Snake River flows.
There are few places on the globe that surpass this little section of our state for beauty.
Long before the white man knew that a great continent existed on the other side of the earth, or before they knew that there was another side to the earth, the red man had stalked the deer in those valleys and mountains and drawn from the lakes and meandering rivers the speckled beauties.
Generation upon generation of Nez Perce braves had contentedly lived in this section with their families.
Among the hundreds of streams there was one which particularly appealed to them, and to it they gave the very euphonious name “Wallowa,” which means “winding water.”
Then the white man when he thrust himself into the history of that section unmindful of the meaning of the word tacked it onto the lake, and also to the mountains beside the lake, and finally gave it to a town.
If you have ever seen this beautiful bit of country you will not wonder that the Indians loved it dearly.
By right of possession extending back for unknown ages the Nez Perces claimed vast reaches of territory in Oregon, Idaho and Washington.
But being a peaceable tribe, when the white man began to encroach upon them they quietly withdrew, reducing the borders of their rightful domain by so much.
This continued until there was nothing left to them but the Wallowa.
Then Joseph or Thunder-rolling-in-the-mountains, which was his Indian name, who was chief of the tribe at that time, rose up and said, “No, this is our home. It has been the home of our fathers for more moons than we can count, and it shall be the home of our children for all the moons to come. You must stay out.”
But the white man came on, and paid not the slightest heed to the red man’s rights.
And it is said that ninety percent of the trouble there has been with the Indians since the white man landed in America has been the fault of the white man.
When Joseph saw that the Pale Face would not listen to reason and was not inclined to show justice he rose up in arms to defend his rights.
Up to this time it had been the boast of this peace-loving tribe that they had never killed a white man.
Well, of course, the Indian lost. There could be no other outcome.
But if the government had been just to those people a reservation would have been created there and we would not be living in the Wallowa valley at this time.
For many years after the Indians had been driven out of the country the government allowed small bands of them to come back and hunt and fish here.
However the Nez Perce did not have this privilege alone. The Umatillas came, and the Kiyouses, the Bannacks and others.
But they no longer allow them that privilege, and why? Because the white man found they were killing off some game that he wanted himself, and since they always brought quite a large band of horses with them they cropped the range too short.
It will be 37 years next fall since I first came in here and at that time, it was no unusual thing to see the shore at the foot of the lake crowded with teepees.
But although they camped there on the lake shore and cast their lines from the rocks, yet an Indian was never known to venture out into the lake either to fish or for pleasure.
The legend which I now give you is told by the Indians to the present day as they sit around their camp fires in the cool of the evening.
One of their number speaks: Long, long ago, so long that we cannot count the moons, the tribe of the Nez Perce was very strong and had many noble and brave warriors.
Every summer our people went far over the mountains out into the buffalo country to hunt.
We feared no one and no o0ne dared to cross out trail. But one summer a great band of Blackfeet warriors suddenly appeared and a big battle was fought.
Only Red Wolf, who was our chief, with a handful of his braves escaped and returned to the Wallowa. There was much sorrow in our village when he told us what had happened, and our hearts were very heavy.
Our camp however was a very busy place, for all winter long we worked, making great heaps of bows and arrows.
When the grass came again Red Wolf gathered all his warriors together and went to avenge our great loss.
The country of the Blackfeet was too far away for us to go there, but we knew they would be coming to the buffalo country again so there we hid and waited for them. Before many days a large band of them came, and although they fought fiercely we overcame them and killed all of them.
Red Wolf returned, but this time with shouting and joy. He brought with him so many scalps that they made a great heap. And he had nearly two thousand horses which he had captured. The Great Spirit protected the braves in that fight and none of them were killed.
There was great rejoicing now, and our people danced for many days. We were a great people then. For many years Red Wolf always led his braves to the buffalo country when the hunting season arrived.
Many times when they came back they would have their belts filled with scalps taken from our old enemy. But Red Wolf grew old and finally died, and then his son, Young Red Wolf led the warriors. We continued to go to the buffalo country as before and we were still a great and mighty people. But one summer when Red Wolf with a band of his braves were hunting buffalo the Blackfeet stole upon them in the dark and killed a large number of them. What few escaped massacre fled, hoping to reach home, but the Blackfeet followed and every day they fought fiercely. Finally one day just as it was growing dark they reached the lake. Our braves knew the place so well that they slipped through the brush in the darkness and reached home.
The Blackfeet did not attempt to follow that night, but stopped on the other shore, where they built great fires and did much dancing. But our village was not lighted with fires that night because our women were mourning for their braves.
Now Red Wolf had an only child, a beautiful daughter, who had grown to young womanhood. Wahluna was her name, and everybody loved her, and she greatly loved her father and all his people. She realized that her people could fight no more because the braves were all gone, and all her people realized it too.
She knew that when the Blackfeet came around the lake in the morning and attacked them they would all be killed. So she quietly slipped away among the trees, and going to the lake secured a canoe and paddled across to the camp of the enemy. Silently she rowed, not the least sound coming from her paddle as it sipped in an out of the water. So silently did she land and approach the camp that no one saw her until she stood by the fire in the midst of them. Then addressing them she said. “I am Wahluna, the child of Red Wolf. It is to speak to the great thief of your people that I come.”
The Blackfeet chief replied, “What is it that the daughter of Red Wolf would say? My ears are open for your words.”
Wahluna, standing there bewitchingly beautiful in the firelight then said, “Our warriors have been fighting with your warriors for many days. They have now returned to us but there are few of them.”
“Our village is filled with women and children wailing for their dead.”
“It is dark there for we have no fires, for we are afraid of the great chief of the Blackfeet. Red Wolf says that when the sun again comes over the mountain tops your braves will visit our village and we will all die because we cannot fight.”
“Come to our camp great chief, if you will, but know this, you will find nothing but old men and women and children there.”
“The older ones you can kill and the younger ones you can carry back with you as slaves, but I must tell you that women and girls will not be able to when you return to your village you’ll hear the shouting of your warriors because we will wail loud for our braves and your women will wail with us.”
“Do you think there will be joy in your village then? Many, many scalps you have which were taken from our young warriors. Do you want the scalps of old men and women too?”
“No, you do not want them. But, O great chief, we want our fires to burn, leave us and go back to your own country.”
“You are great and mighty chief, and we can never fight again for our braves are all dead.”
Then Wahluna fell to the ground and buried her face in the sand. For a long time she stayed there.
Then a young chief, Tlasca by name, a son of the great chief, arose and went to her and spread his robe over her shoulders, and speaking to her said:
“Your heart is very sore. You had much love for your braves. My heart much sore with yours. I never kill one of your people again.”
These words from Tlasca made his father, the great chief very angry, and he said:
“Her people are dogs. You, Tlasca, are a brave and fearless chief. Pick up your robe for she must die.”
Turning to his father Tlasca replied, “Red Wolf bravely fought our best warriors. For a thousand miles over terrible mountain trails we followed him.
“For one whole moon he has fought, hoping to save his people. He had nothing to eat. He became weak, and when he ran we could see him stagger; but when he turned to fight for his people he was a brave of strength.”
“His heart was very great. Of all our brave, warriors I am the only one who would fight him alone. It is because of his war club that I have this broken shoulder.”
“The daughter of Red Wolf is not a dog. You see my robe upon the maiden’s shoulders where I placed it. I will not remove it. I have spoken.”
The love of the great chief for Tlasca was very great, and speaking he said, “The great warrior Tlasca has spoken and his words are good. I will arise and put my robe upon his.”
Wahluna then arose and her heart was lighter, for she knew that her people would live.
Leaving the camp she started for her boat, and when she reached it she found Tlasca standing there. He had circled far around but reached the boat first.
Tlasca then addressed her and said, “Twelve moons will pass, then Wahluna must listen, and in the middle of the night she will hear a great owl down by the lake. When you hear it come, and Tlasca will speak.
Wahluna counted the moons, and when the twelfth one was past she lay awake in her teepee and listened, She heard the great owl in the middle of the night and quietly slipping out she went noiselessly through the village to the shore of the lake.
Here she found Tlasca, who spoke to her there words:
“The maidens of the Blackfeet are very fair and many of them would love Tlasca for, he is a great warrior. But Tlasca’s heart is not with them, but with Wahluna because he wants her to come to his teepee and he his squaw.
Wahluna answered, “It cannot be so. The hearts of my people are sore, for the wolves have gnawed the bones of their young men. They would kill you and give your bones to the wolves also.”
Tlasca quietly replied, “Six more moons will pass and then if Wahluna will listen in the middle of the night she will hear the howl of a grey wolf on the other shore of the lake. Let her come and Tlasca will speak and he slid away in the darkness.
So, again Wahluna counted the moons as they came and went, and on the night that the sixth one passed she heard the gray wolf on the other side of the lake, and taking her canoe she paddled swiftly across.
Tlasca met her as she stepped to the shore and he said to her:
“I have returned. My father, chief of the Blackfeet is here, and so are many of our great warriors. As soon as the sun again comes over the top of the great mountain we will come to your village and we will smoke the peace pipe with Red Wolf and his people.”
“We will be brothers and Red Wolf can come again and hunt the buffalo as he used to do, and we will come and get fish from your lake.”
Wahluna returned to her village and told her father what Tlasca had said. Their few braves were called and in the darkness they sat and considered the matter.
And just as the morning sun came over the snow-capped hills to the east the chief of the Blackfeet, accompanied by many of his braves approached the village.
They seated themselves around the camp fire with Red Wolf and his warriors and they smoked the pipe of peace and they became as brothers.
Then the great Blackfeet chief spoke to Red Wolf and said, “Tlasca is a great warrior and for many moons his heart has been going out for Wahluna, the daughter of the great chief of the Nez Perce. I am asking Red Wolf that his daughter may be given to Tlasca for his wife.”
To these words Red Wolf replied, “My heart is joyful because a great brave like Tlasca would take my daughter for his wife.”
Wahluna was called and when informed of the desire which the chief of the Blackfeet had expressed, told her father that if Tlasca wished her to go and sit in his lodge she would be pleased to go.
So preparations were make for a great wedding. Red Wolf sent runners to all the neighboring tribes, the Umatillas, the Yakimas, the Kiyouses, and others. Hunting parties went out and brought in bear and deer and elk from the great woods on the mountain sides.
Many fish were caught in the river and lake and they had a wonderful feast and everybody was happy.
The feast was to last several days, but on the evening of the first day, as the sun sank behind the western mountains, Tlasca and Wahluna got into a canoe and rowed far out on the lake.
It was a beautiful evening, and not a wave or a ripple was to be seen on the crystal-clear water. Majestic snow-capped peaks were perfectly mirrored there. The people standing on the shore watched the swiftly gliding canoe as it shot here and there over the glassy surface. They all rejoiced because the young couple was so happy.
Then far up the lake they began to notice a rumbling of the waters. The disturbance drew nearer and nearer. Tlasca and Wahluna too noticed it and they began to pull for shore. The water rolled and foamed. Then everybody was horrified to see the head of a monstrous serpent rise high out of the water. Mighty waves reached the boat and tossed it around like a chip. Tlasca worked desperately while the people on the shore stood horror struck and were powerless to help.
Then the great serpent circled the boat, and lifted it’s tail high in the air brought it down with a terrible smack square across the boat which was smashed to splinters and its occupants were hurled far out in the seething waters.
When the lake again became quiet not a trace of them could be seen, and though for days close watch was kept for their bodies, they were never found.
Mournful and sore at heart the Blackfeet returned to their country. They believed they had displeased the Great Spirit, and so in great anger he had visited them and snatched from them their greatest brave.
This also was the view held by the Nez Perce. And all Indians still have a fear that the anger of the Great Spirit may not yet be appeased, and so they will not venture out on the lake.
This happened ages and ages ago and the story has been handed down from father to son, not only among the Nez Perce, but also among the Blackfeet. To them it is authentic history; to us it is only an interesting legend.