Aboriginal art comes with a view

Horsethief Lake unit in Columbia River Gorge a great place to see striking pieces

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



Native American rock art

What: Native American pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (carvings).

Where: Columbia Hills State Park, Horsethief Lake unit.

Address: Milepost 85, Highway 14, Dallesport.

Distance from Vancouver: About 100 miles east along state Highway 14.

Guided tours 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday from April through October. Reservations required. The trail is not accessible to wheelchairs or strollers. Sturdy shoes recommended.

Parking: Washington State Parks Discovery Pass is required. $10 for a day pass or $30 for a 12-month pass.

Other features: Fishing, swimming and wind surfing in Horsethief Lake, camping, hiking.

Information and tour reservations: 509-767-1159. Details including camping reservations at www.parks.wa.gov/489/Columbia-Hills

On the Web

View a Washington State Parks video of Columbia Hills State Park:


Did you know?

• Tsagaglalal is pronounced "sa-ga-gla-la."

DALLESPORT — From her perch high atop a basalt cliff, Tsagaglalal watches over the Columbia River with large, round eyes. Her mouth forms a circle, as if she's surprised.

Indeed, the Indian chief was surprised when Coyote told her change was coming. Women would no longer be allowed to be chief. Then, turning Tsagaglalal into a rock, Coyote placed her on the face of a basalt cliff for eternity, according to the legends of the Wishxam people, a band of the Yakama Nation.

Tsagaglalal, or She Who Watches, is among the most celebrated examples of aboriginal art in the Northwest, and even the nation. Measuring 3½ feet by 3 feet, her image has been recreated in many art forms, from jewelry to basketry to carved wood.

She Who Watches and about 150 other pieces of Native American art either painted on or carved into basalt can be viewed at the Horsethief Lake unit of Columbia Hills State Park about 100 miles east of Vancouver. She Who Watches is a combination of both pictograph (painted) and petroglyph (carved).

After vandals defaced some of the rock art in 1993, a locked gate protects the images. Now She Who Watches and the other rock art on the cliffs is visible only via guided tours. The tours are free, but are by reservation only and often fill up weeks in advance. The trail is not accessible to wheelchairs or strollers. Sturdy shoes are recommended, as is a hat and a bottle of water. Even by 10 a.m., the sun beat down on the hikers along the trail.

Throughout the park, signs warn of rattlesnakes, but volunteer tour guide Paula Christy says she rarely sees them.

Changed landscape

When The Dalles Dam was built in 1957, it changed the landscape by calming the Columbia River rapids and widening the river. A reservoir formed behind the dam, submerging native villages and Celilo Falls, a favorite Native American fishing spot. Also lost were thousands of rock art images.

A sampling of those images was preserved and moved to Columbia Falls State Park. These relocated rock art images, consisting mainly of carved petroglyphs, are on public view at no charge during the park's operating hours daily. They are reached via an accessible, paved walkway near the lower parking lot and the trailhead.

Native people

The native Wisham people's village, Nix lui dix, or The Trading Place, was on the bank of the Columbia River at present-day Columbia Hills State Park. Native legend says salmon was so abundant that people could walk across the river on the backs of salmon. Many tribes gathered at the village to fish and to trade.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery stayed in the village both on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and 1806. They estimated they saw 10,000 pounds of salmon drying along the riverbank.

The Native Americans lived in plankhouses similar to the reconstructed Cathlapotle Plankhouse at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

On Oct. 24, 1805, Clark wrote in his journal: "The natives of this village received me very kindly, one of whom invited me into his house, which I found to be large and commodious, and the first wooden houses in which Indians have lived since we left those in the vicinity of the Illinois; they are 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, with one door raised 18 inches above ground … the roof of them was supported by a ridge pole resting on three strong pieces of split timber, through one of which the door was cut."

Lewis and Clark would have passed the rock art, but neither explorer mentioned it in their journals. They noted other petroglyphs along their journey, including those carved in a limestone cliff at the mouth of the Nemaha River near Troy, Kan.

Their omission of She Who Watches and the park's other rock art might be because they didn't see it, said Christy, a volunteer who leads tours of the pictographs and petroglyphs.

Before the dams were built, the Columbia River was much narrower, and it hugged the Oregon shore, Christy said. When Lewis and Clark passed the basalt cliffs, the rock art likely was too far in the distance on the present-day Washington side of the river to be seen by the explorers, Christy surmised to a group on her Aug. 1 tour.

Beyond rock art

Massive floods during the Ice Age carved the dramatic basalt cliffs towering over the river. The rich loam was swept away, leaving thin soil able to support hardy vegetation that can withstand scorching summer temperatures and little rain. Visitors are rewarded with sweeping vistas of rugged basalt cliffs, the Columbia River and fields of sage, purple lupine and bright yellow balsamroot.

Columbia Hills State Park, an easy drive from Vancouver, offers plenty to do beyond viewing the rock art images. Recreational activities abound in the 3,338-acre park with 7,500 feet of Columbia River shoreline. The 90-acre Horsethief Lake, created by the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, offers swimming, fishing and nonmotorized boating. It's a safe place for kayakers, stand up paddleboarders and beginning windsurfers without threat of river currents or power boats. Other amenities include campsites, rest rooms, showers and picnic tables. On a Friday morning in early August, many campsites were vacant.

Horsethief Butte is popular with rock climbers and rock scramblers. In the park's upper area, Columbia Hills, a hike up to 3,200-foot Stacker Butte offers a profusion of wildflowers and views of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.

Food, gas and other amenities are available in The Dalles, Ore., a short drive across the bridge at the Columbia River.

The legend

Several versions of the She Who Watches legend exist. This one, told by the Wisham people, is repeated by the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson:

"A woman was chief of all who lived in this region. That was a long time before Coyote came up the river and changed things, and the people were not yet real people. After a time Coyote, in his travels, came to this place and asked the inhabitants if they were living well or ill. They sent him to their chief, who lived up in the rocks, where she could look down on the village and know what was going on.

"Coyote climbed up to the house on the rocks and asked, 'What kind of living do you give these people? Do you treat them well, or are you one of those evil women?'

" 'I am teaching them to live well and build good houses,' she said.

"When she expressed her desire to be able to do this forever, he said, 'Soon the world will change and women will no longer be chiefs.'

"Being the trickster that he was, Coyote changed her into a rock with the command: 'You shall stay here and watch over the people and the river forever.'

"People know that Tsagaglalal sees all things for whenever they are looking at her, those large eyes are watching them."