Quileute Petroglyph Major
Quileute Nation
Maurice Major, cultural resource specialist for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, studies the pre-contact Quileute petroglyph.

Quileute Petroglyph Confirms Connection to Oral Histories

Richard Walker

A pre-contact Quileute petroglyph that depicts K’wati, or the Transformer’s, killing of a monster that terrorized the Quileute people is considered by Quileute officials to be the most significant archaeological find to date.

“Unfortunately, a homesteader destroyed the Quileute village by setting it on fire in 1889, and most of the tribe’s objects were lost,” Quileute Nation council secretary Cathy Salazar told ICTMN through the Nation’s media office. “That’s why this find is so significant for our tribe. It is a direct connection to our past and our history.”

The pre-contact petroglyph, which is set in stone, also confirms the antiquity of an important story that has been passed down as a spoken teaching from generation to generation.

“Culturally and spiritually, it confirms our connection to our legends and the ancient history of our people,” Quileute Chairman Charles Woodruff said. “We are very proud of our ancestor that carved this rock. It was great to see the reaction by the state experts in describing the detailed workmanship involved in this work of art. It fills you with a strong sense of pride and honor when you look at the artistry involved in carving that rock.”

Maurice Major, cultural resource specialist for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, studies the pre-contact Quileute petroglyph. (Quileute Nation)

The 1,000-pound boulder of metamorphic rock was found in December 2013 by former Forks, Washington resident Erik Wasankari, who was fishing on the Calawah River when he came across a rock with unusual markings. Pulling back moss, he exposed more carving and realized he may have found a Quileute petroglyph. He photographed the markings, left the rock alone at the site, and contacted the Quileute Nation and state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

Quileute Nation treasurer Crystal Lyons says the petroglyph was studied by state Department of Natural Resources archaeologist Lee Stilson, who recently retired; Stilson’s colleague, Maurice Major; and anthropologist and linguist Jay Powell.

In order to keep the petroglyph safe, Quileute officials decided to relocate the rock to the Quileute Reservation.

On December 10, TJ Jackson prayed at the site, and drumming and songs were offered. The petroglyph was then loaded onto a boat for a two-hour float to a boat launch, where it was then trailered to Quileute’s Akalat Center in La Push. A drum circle welcomed the petroglyph’s arrival into the community.

“There is a feeling of honor and respect for the spirit of this rock and the artist,” Quileute Vice Chairwoman Naomi Jacobson said. “Our children were so excited to see the rock and their curiosity about the origin is a path to education about our legends and our tribal beginnings.”

The nation is in the process of determining the petroglyph’s permanent location. Viewing protocol, if any, will be determined by the elders, Quileute Nation media officer Jackie Jacobs said.

The designs are pecked rather than scribed into the rock, so the petroglyph is likely prehistoric. Carvings cover all exposed surfaces of the boulder.

The petroglyph depicts K’wati with a red crown or comb. Extending from K’wati’s mouth, which has three defined teeth, is a red tongue. Tongues are often a symbol of power or domination in Northwest Coast Native art. The tongue extends to the head of Xq’lax, described historically as a monster-sized red lizard. The depiction of Xq’lax shows him with three molar teeth and three cone-shaped canine teeth.

This page, from a state archaeological report, identifies details in the pre-contact petroglyph’s depiction of K’wati, who killed a lizard-like monster that terrorized the Quileute people. (Quileute Nation)

“At the narrowest place between the Sol Duc and the Calawah [rivers], there was a path connecting the two rivers in the very distant past,” Quileute Nation Council member Rio Jaime said. “But, a cranky monster-sized red lizard—called Xq’lax—built his lair along the path and people stopped using it. K’wati killed the lizard along with other monsters at the Time of Beginnings.”

Jaime said the rock was discovered 200 meters downstream from the location where the story states the red lizard’s lair was built.

Ann Penn-Charles, Quileute, said she remembers her grandmother, Lillian Pullen (1911-1999), telling the story about Xq’lax. Powell interviewed Pullen about Xq’lax.

According to Powell, “[When] Lillian Pullen spoke about old Xq’lax, she always called him ‘Red Lizard.’ That means that the old people just visualized him as red from having been told the story over and over again.

“Xq’laxti—‘red lizard’s house,’ since -ti on the end of words means ‘house’—was close to the Calawah River. Lillian spent a lot of time as a girl at Dixon Payne’s place just 100 yards above the Highway 101 Calawah Bridge, and old man Po’okshk’—Dixon—who was born in 1856, the year after the treaty was signed, told her the story often.”

A red dot shows the approximate location of the discovery of the petroglyph. The petroglyph was found near the narrowest place between the Sol Duc and the Calawah rivers, where Xq’lax built his lair and kept people from using a path between the two rivers. (Quileute Nation)

According to Powell, Po’okshk’ said the Red Lizard “wasn’t the only lizard in Quileute country, but he was a bad one. Poison. So if [Quileutes] even stepped on the urine of that Red Lizard, he would die.”

Powell said he wondered why anthropologists that visited the Quileute in the early 1900s didn’t record the story. “I think the reason could be because the old people were careful not to talk about things that were both spiritually powerful and really mean.”

The discovery of the petroglyph—depicting an event from a time of change—comes during a new time of change for the Quileute people. Much of the lower village is located in a tsunami zone, and the nation is planning to relocate several buildings, including the administration offices, a school, elders’ center, and several homes, to higher ground.

“I personally believe that this rock unveiled itself now for a very important reason,” Woodruff said. “We definitely are aware of the parallel of the rock moving to higher ground with our current needs of the Quileute Tribe. One of the most pressing issues we are facing is the need to move our lower village, particularly our tribal school and elders’ center, to higher ground. The symbolism of that is not lost on us. We understand the message.”

From left, Quileute Nation Fish and Wildlife Program Manager Frank Geyer and Fisheries Biologist Garrett Rasmussen at the site where the pre-contact petroglyph was found. (Quileute Nation)

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Sis's picture
Submitted by Sis on
This is fascinating...A question...Has the Cherokee Cullasajah Rock ever been deciphered?

Ira Morrisseau's picture
Ira Morrisseau
Submitted by Ira Morrisseau on
It's a foot. The artist shows you how s/he made it, with a hammer. Pirate ships came to North America for a long, undocumented time; and that is where the hammer came from. The legend of the red lizard house, well, the house means just where that person whom told the legend was, s/he was in a house when s/he retold the story of the red lizard. Legends are stories told to make sense of the experiences and trials the story teller went through. I'm putting together as much history as I can in a book to be released next year.