Mexico's Navy (SEMAR)/Reuters/Handout
Popocatepetl volcano spews a cloud of ash and steam into the air, in this aerial view taken on the outskirts of Puebla on July 10.

10 Fiery Volcanoes That Shaped Native History

July 16, 2013

The world is watching as Popocatepetl, Mexico City’s iconic volcano, gears up to blow a hella gasket. Thousands of Indigenous Peoples live on or near its slopes, watching warily as it hurls ash, rocks and the occasional lava. The alert level is at Yellow Phase 3, three levels below evacuation mode. The highest point on the scale is seven.

Related: Legendary Mexican Volcano Blanketing Indigenous Regions in Ash

Indigenous Peoples are no strangers to volcanoes, having contended with the fiery eruptions for millennia. Yes, there was Mount Vesuvius, which wiped out Pompeii in Italy; Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, which famously closed down European airports and cost the industry $1 billion in April 2010; and the eruption of Greece's Thera 3,500 years ago which “rocked the Mediterranean,” as put it, virtually ending the world as the ancient Minoans knew it.

But Krakatoa, Tambora, and many others wrought tremendous damage on indigenous groups. And for thousands of years, volcanoes have played a role in oral history.

When it comes to Turtle Island volcanic eruptions, Hawaii and Alaska of course jump to mind immediately. But Washington State, home to Mount St. Helens, factored solidly in the American Indian mind-set long before its 1980 eruption, as did Mount Rainier. California and Oregon, of all places, boast volcanoes that have been active both thousands of years ago and in more modern times. And we must not overlook Alaska, another hotspot and also located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, whose Pavlof volcano spewed ash five miles high at the end of June, coating the largely Native village of King Cove, NBC News reported.

Here are some of the volcanic regions and eruptions most notable for their effects on Indigenous Peoples.

1. Mount Tambora, Indonesia, 1815 – The Year Without a Summer

In 1815 the remote Indonesian island of Sumbawa recorded the largest volcanic eruption in human history, Mount Tambora. It killed up to 117,000 people and sparked changes that altered human history. But its most immediate victims were the residents of the tiny kingdom of Tambora, who were buried under 10 feet of ash in what has been called Asia’s Pompeii. It wasn’t until 2004 that their story began to be told by a scientist from the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, Professor Haraldur Sigurdsson, along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and the Indonesian Directorate of Volcanology. Sigurdsson had been researching the volcano and its effects for 20 years and began piecing together the clues about its culture. The volcano extinguished the Tamboran people, culture and language in one instant.

As much as 100 cubic kilometers of magma and pulverized rock were ejected during the eruption, the University of Rhode Island said in its statement announcing Sigurdsson’s work. More than 400 million tons of sulfurous gases were hurled nearly 30 miles into the atmosphere, and the lingering gases cooled the entire earth. The resulting ash cloud blocked so much sunlight that crops failed, famine ensued, and people roamed like beggars as far away as Europe. It was dubbed “the Year Without a Summer.”

The worldwide effects and the trends they started are fascinating, and are detailed in this peer-reviewed journal Branch. And a student captured the catastrophic results in this video presentation a few years ago.

2. Mount Krakatoa (or Krakatau)  One Indigenous Account Remains

“Long before foreign researchers wrote about the eruption of Mount Krakatau (Krakatoa, Carcata) on 26, 27, and August 28, 1883, a native witness has written a very rare and interesting, three months after the eruption of Krakatoa through Lampung Karang (Lampong sinking) poetry,” writes Dr Iwan Suwandy, a historian in Indonesia, on his site, Driwancybermuseum's Blog.

The Tale of Lampung Submerged is this account, given by a Native, Muslim resident of the Indonesian island. A full rendering of the eruption and the story is in this article at the Department of South and Southeast Asian Languages and Cultures, Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Leiden University.

3. Washington  Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, Always at Odds

The Cascade Mountains, home to American Indians for many thousands of years, have fomented much volcanic activity and thus made their way into oral history traditions. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Cowlitz, Nisqually, Squaxin Island, Puyallup, Muckleshoot and Yakama tribes “observed many volcanic events and depicted them through stories.”

The mountains bore many names, some in Salishan (spoken by those on the east side of the mountain range) and Sahaptin (those from the west side). Mount Rainier was known as Tacobed, Taqo’men, Takhoma and Tahoma, depending on the language, words that meant everything from “the mountain” to “snow peak,” the USGS said in an educational presentation.

Ancient stories abound, many of them centered around a feud between Mount Saint Helen’s and Mount Rainier, such as the one dubbed “The Husband and Wife Argument,” in which the two mountains erupted simultaneously while feuding. Another chronicles the jealousy between two wives, one of whom’s head broke off (Taqo’men, today known as Mount Rainier, which at one time lost major rocks from its summit in a landslide, though it grew back).

Oregon State University details many more legends here.

4. California – Lassen Peak and the Sierra Nevada, Stolen Petroglyphs

Long before the Lassen Peak volcanic area in California became part of the U.S. National Park System, it was a gathering spot for the Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi and Maidu.

Just south of there is the Volcanic Tableland, a sacred American Indian site in the Eastern Sierra, from which five petroglyphs were hacked out by thieves wielding power saws at the end of 2012. The rock carvings of hunters, deer, geometric designs and various animals were more than 3,500 years old, the Associated Press reported, carved into boulders of lava. They were recovered about two months later, but the wounds to the sacred site are still raw. 

5. Oregon – Crater Lake and Ancient Shoes

Oregon’s volcanoes are associated with what may be Turtle Island’s oldest pair of shoes, according to the University of Oregon. In 1938, the university recounts, an archaeologist named Luther Cressman, also from the University of Oregon, found numerous pairs of sandals buried under a layer of volcanic ash about half a mile west of the Fort Rock volcanic crater. It was later determined that the ash came from a 7,500-year-ago eruption of Mazama volcano.

“Humans have lived alongside Oregon’s volcanoes for more than 13,000 years,” the Oregon Historical Society says on its website. These mountains and the Lassen Peak region lie along what is today known as the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, ancestral home to the Klamath, the Moduc and many others.

6. Nevada – Pyramid Lake, Fish in Standing Water

Tufa is what this sacred site to the Paiute Tribe carries in abundance. Deposits of this calcium-carbonate-composed rock collect at the mouth of a spring from spring and/or lake water, according to the USGS. The pyramid-shaped island along the lake’s eastern shore is known to the Paiute as Wono, which means cone-shaped basket. The Paiute have lived alongside this volcanic formation for thousands of years, calling the lake Cui-Ui Panunadu: fish in standing water. 

7. Alaska – Volcanic Crown Jewel in the Pacific Rim

Alaskan Natives have been contending with cataclysmic eruptions for millennia, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

“The largest explosive eruption in the 20th century among volcanoes occurred at Katmai on the Alaskan Peninsula in 1912, an explosion that sent ash and other aerosols high into the atmosphere and cooled the Earth for over a year,” said USGS Geophysicist Steve Kirby in a lecture to students in 2009. “There have also been 14 other giant prehistoric eruptions in the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula that have been documented by the USGS that have happened over the last 10,000 years.”

8. Hawaii – Ruled by Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes

Given that Hawaii is composed of volcanic islands, it stands to reason that its ruler is a goddess of volcanoes. That would be Pele, who has been worshipped for millennia by Native Hawaiians.

Kilauea and Mauna Loa are the two most active and massive volcanoes on the planet. Evidence of life under Pele the fire goddess in ancient times is preserved in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island, where buildings and other remnants of the culture, life and landscape are preserved.

“The park displays the results of hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic activity, migration, and evolution in a place where complex and unique ecosystems developed and a distinct ancient Hawaiian culture evolved,” the National Park Service says on its site.

9. Colombia – The Volcanoes Spew Mud

In Colombia, according to one settler’s account in the 1900 book Volcanoes and Caverns (T. Nelson and Sons), the locals spoke of air volcanoes, which spewed mud instead of lava.

“The most remarkable are those of Turbaco, an American Indian village in Columbia<sic>,” wrote one unnamed chronicler in the book. “The village is more than eleven hundred feet above the level of the sea. On a large desolate marshy tract of land, in the midst of palm trees, are a number of cones, varying in height from nineteen to twenty-five feet; they are air volcanoes.”

The Natives dubbed them Los Volcancitos, 'the small volcanoes,” he wrote, “and they have a tradition that the ground was formerly in a state of ignition, in other words, that it was a fire-volcano, but that a monk put out the fire by throwing holy water on it, and that the fire-volcano became a water-volcano.”

10. Martinique  Mont Pelée

There was also Mont Pelée, in Martinique, which in 1902 erupted and wiped out the colonial town of St. Pierre and killed 29,000 people. But eons before that, the mountain exploded in 295 AD and obliterated the Arawak peoples, predecessors of the Taino, who had migrated there from South America in 130 AD. They did not return until 400 AD. 

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