Obviously, Mount St. Helens was well known around these parts before it became an international star on May 18, 1980. To the Cowlitz Tribe, the mountain long has been known as Lawetlat’la, which means “smoker” in English and which seems appropriate for a monument that has a habit of announcing its presence to the humans in the surrounding area. The mountain is part of the tribe’s lore, and it is depicted on the tribe’s seal and emblem.
So it is only fitting that Mount St. Helens has been designated as a Traditional Cultural Property on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing its importance to both the Cowlitz and to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The mountain falls within the land claim the Cowlitz Tribe made during treaty negotiations with the federal government in the 1850s, but numerous traditional tribes in the region have fables to describe the creation of Mount St. Helens as well as other mountains in the Cascade Range.
“For millennia, the mountain has been a place where tribal members went to seek spiritual guidance,” Cowlitz chairman William Iyall said. “She has erupted many times in our memory, but each time has rebuilt herself anew. She demonstrates that a slow and patient path of restoration is the successful one.”
Mount St. Helens has been particularly slow and restorative over the past 33 years. Since a 1980 eruption killed 57 people, blew 1,300 feet off the mountain’s top, and devastated the landscape for miles around, the area surrounding the mountain has served as a real-life laboratory demonstrating nature’s powers of rejuvenation.
It has become a tourist destination for visitors from throughout the country and around the world, and it has continued as a source of pride and fascination for those who live in its shadow.
The designation of Mount St. Helens as a Traditional Cultural Property covers 12,501 acres of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. And the status is a little more important than a simple honorific; it will give the tribes license to weigh in on any development that might have an impact on the cultural resources.
The National Register of Historic Places is intended to protect America’s historic, archaeological and traditional cultural resources, and more than 80,000 properties are listed on the register. But only 23 of those have been designated as a Traditional Cultural Property, and the only other site in Washington afforded that honor is Snoqualmie Falls in Snohomish County, east of Seattle. Other examples around the country include the battlefield at Gettysburg; the German Village Historic District in Columbus, Ohio; and Honolulu’s Chinatown.
Mount St. Helens was nominated for cultural property status last spring by the Governor’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the result of several years of work and a joint effort by the Cowlitz and the Gifford Pinchot. At the time of the nomination, Rick McClure of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest said, “The Governor’s Council sees this as a good example of a successful partnership between tribes and government agencies working together to recognize and manage important places of cultural significance.”
It’s just one more indication that Mount St. Helens is unique and is inexorably tied to the culture and heritage of Southwest Washington. But those of us who live around here already knew that.