The United States is ripe with history. While the West Coast doesn’t have the same European-influenced history as the East Coast, the West Coast is a hot bed of Native American history; and it can be found all over the Pacific Northwest. With 29 federally-recognized tribes in Washington and 10 in Oregon, there is an entire history here that predates European settlers. This history, the story of the native peoples of North America, can still be viewed throughout both states.
Petroglyphs and pictographs are not only indicators of past civilizations, they are fascinating art forms that stand the test of time. Petroglyphs, or rock carvings, and pictographs/petrographs, rock paintings or drawings, have been found throughout the world, with some in Australia dating back 27,000 years. These carvings and paintings are not only a gateway into the understanding of the people who were here way before Europeans and other nations made their way to the Americas, they hold an almost mystical meaning when you consider how they play into the mythology and everyday happenings of each region they are found in.
Petroglyphs and pictograms can be found in both Oregon and Washington, you just have to know where to look for them. Oregon has been divided into four distinct regions when it comes to Rock Art: the Pacific Coast Area, the Klamath River Area, the Columbia River Drainage Area, and the Great Basin Area. The Columbia River Drainage Area holds many petroglyphs and pictographs; also, it is a person’s best bet at seeing rock art in Oregon.
An excellent place for viewing rock art in Washington is the Horsethief Lake area, a Native American village once visited by Lewis and Clark, which now operates as part of Columbia Hills State Park. The park sits along the Columbia River and contains a robust mixture of petroglyphs and pictographs, some of which are known to be the oldest in Washington. One of Horsethief Lake’s most well-known petroglyphs is Tsagaglalal, or “She Who Watches.” Dominating the area around her, Tsagaglalal can be seen from the Columbia River.
One area that plays a large part in the history of the native tribes in Oregon and Washington is the Columbia River Gorge. Many tributaries flow into the Columbia River, and many sites that have both petroglyphs and pictographs can be found on both sides (Oregon and Washington) of the Columbia River. The Gorge once held many more sites of rock art, but with the introduction of dams on the Columbia, many of the sites are now underwater and no longer visible. Some of the rock art was recorded, and other pieces removed to other areas before the dams were put into place, but those that were not are lost.
There’s something to be said about an area’s history. The history of the Pacific Northwest originates with the native people who called this beautiful section of the United States home long before others did. While some view their methods uncivilized, others view them as an ingenious way of preserving their history with ancient techniques that have stood the test of time. If you’re interested in learning the history of the Pacific Northwest, don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path and learn the histories and myths of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest through their rock art. It’s always nice to know that we weren’t the first people here, and we certainly won’t be the last.