I first found out about Tsagaglalal, or She Who Watches, while at a summer camp focused on indigenous survival skills. Until I went to that camp in Eastern Oregon I never even knew of petroglyphs or pictographs, and I was lucky to be able to see hundreds of them in person. The face of She Who Watches was in a book about traditional fishing on the Columbia River and it captivated me. I made a xerox copy of that page and carried it in my wallet for years. I wished for over twenty years to see it in person. I always read about it and checked up on it and since Fern is interested I decided we’d go as part of our homeschool work.
It’s not easy to get there, and you have to be led in on a guided tour due to some extreme vandalism at all of the rock art sites around that area. It takes a few weeks of calling and scheduling to get a reservation on a tour and I was thrilled when we finally got to go.
At the beginning of the tour we were all standing there at the gate waiting to start when the guide stopped and said, “You know, many native people won’t go over here.” Until that point I hadn’t really considered that it might not be the best thing to do.
At several times through the tour an enormous cargo train loudly passed not that far away. On the other side of the river is Interstate 84, which takes people and trailers along the Oregon stretch of the Columbia. The guide pointed out across the river on the Oregon side, you can see a two-lined path— the actual Oregon Trail.
I have ancestors who were on the Oregon Trail and I’ve always felt a connection to that, like I’m somehow really from Oregon. Surely they were people who endured an impossible physical and psychological challenge to get to Oregon, which also happens to be this insanely mystical, beautiful, fertile, wild state. It’s hard not to be thrilled by that idea. But at the site of Tsagaglalal I couldn’t stop thinking about the brutality she represented, and Oregon’s own racist history.
The book that we read about She Who Watches was this one, by Willa Holmes. There is a lot to it, and the story the guide gave was slightly different than the book. But the short version is that Tsagaglalal was a well-revered Chief of the Wishram Tribe, before white settlers came down the river. Coyote came and told her about sickness and death that was coming to her people. If she believed him, she could take her place in the universe with her ancestors to avoid it. She said she would never leave her people and she agreed to stay above the river on these rocks to watch over them forever.
When you look at what the face is “watching” now, it’s overwhelming. The Columbia River was essentially flooded to build The Dalles dam at a site that was so important to people in the area, Celilo Falls, that it is considered to be the longest continually inhabited settlement in North America. People used it for 15,000 years as a fishing and cultural hub, and of course, it got traded away for a pittance in a government deal. I understand what a hydroelectric dam means for our region in regard to coal consumption and overall energy needs, I really do. I just never grasped the reality of The Dalles dam until I went there. Many of the rock slabs covered in rock art were just placed at this site during the construction of the dam in the 1950’s, as a frantic effort to save what they could.
It wasn’t just the train, the gated fence because of vandalism, the Oregon Trail, or the once-wild river that was turned into just a series of flooded lakes with the building of the dams. We were in a group of (I would guess) mostly white people. A group of white people paid the government to send a white guide to take us inside a place that’s sacred to thousands of native people, just so we could look at a symbol that’s meant to induce reverence for the harm white people have done. After going there, I feel like visiting these places is no different than other forms of cultural appropriation, of which I have admittedly been very guilty of. Of course it’s beautiful, unbelievably so, but it wasn’t made to be trivial. It’s not our stuff.
There’s an island in the middle of the river, Memaloose Island, and it’s been known for centuries as a place where native people are buried. Then a white settler named Victor Trevitt came through and when he died, he wanted a monument built to himself and for his body to be buried on that island. He insisted the people living there were his friends and he called them “honorable men” of the river. And he may well have been their friend on his own terms, but this disgusting monument on this island is so indicative of what it means to be a white person around here. Columbia River history shouldn’t ever involve Victor Trevitt, the real story is from the thousands of people in countless nations who have lived here for centuries.
The book ends with this quote:
“Now those who climb onto the very rocks her feet once stepped upon, back in the mists of time, stand and look at that knowing face and those penetrating eyes. So do good and live well. She watches.”
Seeing She Who Watches is something I’ve wanted to do for most of my life. But now, I wish it was totally closed off. I wish you could go to a place far enough away and look through binoculars and maybe see it on a clear day. I think it should be given back to the nations of people whom it represents. It doesn’t belong to me, even when I feel so deeply drawn to it. If anything, going there made me feel even stronger that I need to be blunt, clear, and direct in making sure the kids see our privilege and know how to identify and fight racism against all people of color. Because it’s grotesque what vast harm has been done to indigenous people, here in Oregon and everywhere.
I’m thankful that Tsagaglalal is there, and I feel lucky that I got to see it with Fern. It’s given her such a valuable lesson in our fellow humans and what they’re capable of, both good and bad. She totally gets it when I bring up bias and racism, and sometimes has a visceral, physical reaction to it. When I told her about what Tsagaglalal represents, she let out a guttural growl, flaring her nostrils like she was ready to storm anyone who would try to harm these people. I hope she never loses that growl.