The Real Story behind Mount Hood's Native American Name
How a work of fiction became accepted as historical fact, obscuring the real history of the Native Americans of Oregon
I took this smartphone shot during our approach into Seattle this past Sunday morning- there are three volcanoes of the High Cascades in this view looking south- in the foreground is Mount Adams, in the middle distance is Mount Hood, and in the far distance (to the left of Mount Hood) is Mount Jefferson.
For two of these volcanoes, we know their Native American names- Mount Adams is known as "Pahto" to the Yakama Nation. Pahto forms the western boundary of the Yakama Reservation.
Mount Jefferson is known as "Seekseekqua" to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs- Seekseekqua forms the western boundary of the Warm Springs Reservation.
The Native American name for Mount Hood is lost to history. But if you were go on to Google, there is no shortage of pages and sources that say Mount Hood's Native American name is "Wy'east". Even the US Geological Survey's website says that, as does the site for the Mount Hood National Forest (which is run by the US Department of Agriculture).
The problem is that there is zero historical evidence that Native Americans ever called Mount Hood "Wy'east".
We have much better documentation and preservation of oral traditions from the Warm Springs tribes and the Yakama Nation that refer to Mount Jefferson as "Seekseekqua" and Mount Adams as "Pahto". So how did "Wy'east" get rooted into the tapestry of the Pacific Northwest as the Native American name for Mount Hood?
In the 1800s, ethnologists and early anthropologists were active in the Pacific Northwest "collecting" the stories of the oral traditions of the tribes of the region. They were seen as charming little "cultural trinkets" that were interpreted by white researchers as akin to fables and myths.
The problem was that they were actually historical accounts because that is how the Native American tribes of the region recorded and handed down their history. Many of the oral traditions were re-framed or changed to dovetail with Christianity and white Euro-centric cultural norms. It was common to depict the American Indian as a "noble savage" waiting to be civilized and converted to Christianity.
In 1887, Frederic Balch was a missionary and minister in Hood River, Oregon, when he began writing a book titled "The Bridge of the Gods".
In his book the main character is a Puritan missionary named Cecil Grey who in 1690 embarks on a transcontinental journey from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Grey meets Chief Multnomah, a powerful tribal leader of the Willamette tribe, a widower whose Chinese wife died years earlier- she was shipwrecked on the Oregon Coast after fleeing an arranged marriage in China.
Only problem is that there is no such historical figure as Chief Multnomah and there's no such thing as the Willamette tribe.
Balch insisted upon the historical accuracy of his novel in the preface, even talking about a stone arch called "The Bridge of the Gods" that spanned the Columbia River that collapsed and created the rapids on the river.
“In attempting to present with romantic setting a truthful and realistic picture of the powerful and picturesque Indian tribes that inhabited the Oregon country two centuries ago, the author could not be indifferent to the many serious difficulties inseparable from such an enterprise.”
-Frederic Balch, in the first line of his preface in 1890
Much of the literature of the late 1800s romanticized the American Indian and such themes were popular with white readers.
Balch's book is the first mention of Mount Hood being called Wy'east and he constructed a whole fable around Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens as being spiritual dieties- Mount Hood and Mount Adams competing for the attention of a maiden who is Mount St. Helens.
Prior to the publication of his book, there is no mention of the name "Wy'east" anywhere. The book became a play put on by a Portland college that proved to be immensely popular and that in a sense, rooted the idea of "Wy'east" as being the Native American name of Mount Hood.
(You can read “The Bridge of the Gods” for free here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28815/28815-h/28815-h.htm)
Books by white authors such as "The Bridge of the Gods" essentially became "feel good stories" about colonization and the forced assimilation of the American Indian. The books portrayed Native Americans as welcoming of outsiders which is hardly what the historical record has shown.
“This characterization of natives as welcoming helps them get over any kind of guilt … for the wars, for the treatment of native peoples, mistreatment, maltreatment whatever you’re going to call it.”
-Anthropologist David Lewis
The name "Wy'east" makes many Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest cringe as it's really a relic of this literary movement of the late 1800s to rationalize how the Native Americans were treated.
Little known about the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest is that there was a Trail of Tears here in Oregon, it took place about twenty years after the better documented Trail of Tears that forcibly relocated the Five Tribes of the Southeastern United States to Oklahoma.
Beginning in 1857, federal troops forcibly marched Native American tribes of Southern and Central Oregon over the Cascades to the newly created Grand Ronde Reservation in Western Oregon. We may never know the true death toll and extent of suffering by the tribes that were marched to the Grand Ronde Reservation, but there are hints in diaries from troops and officials leading the marches. Some tribes were marched over the Cascades during winter.
To give some context of how many tribes were marched on Oregon’s Trail of Tears, thirty tribes make up the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Reservation.
Adding insult to injury, federal officials began a piecemeal reduction of the Grand Ronde Reservation that ultimately ended up with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde losing their federal recognition in 1954 when Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act that formally ended the US government's treaty obligations to the tribes of Western Oregon, many of whom had parents and grandparents who were moved over the Oregon Trail of Tears.
It was not until 1983 that the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde got their tribal recognition reinstated and set about rebuilding their lands and community, an effort that continues to this day.
When we lose the cultural identity of a Native American tribe and lose its oral history, we lose an important part of the cultural tapestry of our nation. Names of places are more than just geographic place holders. They are signposts of ancestry and history that give context to places in the human experience.
Imagine the insult for a completely fictitious name born of the imagination of a white author being passed off as legitimate history. Whatever Mount Hood was called by those that lived here for thousands of years, we'll never know but it sure isn't Wy'east.