Native Place Names – Loowit (Mt. St. Helens)


Quick Facts

  • Loowit last majorly erupted on May 18, 1980

  • Elevation:  9,677 feet (before eruption); 8,363 feet (after eruption)

  • 1,314 feet of elevation and 3.7 billion cubic yards of rock removed with eruption

  • Is considered an active stratovolcano located in Skamania County, Washington

  • The eruption left a deep, horse-shoe shaped crater that measures 2,084 feet deep

  • The eruption lasted for 9 hours

  • Volcanic ash fell as far as 930 miles away

  • After this major eruption, minor eruptions continued into 1986 and again int he early 2000’s.

  • Indigenous Peoples nearby variously called Mount St. Helens “Louwala-Clough” or “Loowit,” which meant “smoking mountain.”

Loowit (Mount St. Helens)

For our fourth Native Place Name poster we feature Loowit, located just 50 miles Northeast of Portland and otherwise known as Mt. St. Helens. Featured in the mythology and lore of many local peoples, this mountain has long been tied to her many eruptions over time.  Historically, Mount St. Helens is one of the most active volcanoes in the Cascade range, though still considered dormant by most standards.

Many of these names come from the living memory of those who experienced earlier eruptions first hand , thus coining a name which meant “smoking” or “fire” mountain.  The origin of the word “Loowit” likely comes from longer names given to the mountain by people living nearby.  The Puyallup tribes called the mountain “Loowitlatkla,” meaning literally “Lady of Fire,” the Klickitats called the mountain “Louwala-Clough,” and the Cowlitz tribes called it “Lavelatla,” which means “smoking mountain.” 

The westernized name “Helens” was given by British explorer George Vancouver in 1792 when he first spied the mountain after then British Diplomat to Spain, Alleyne Fitzherbert, First Baron of Saint Helens in England. It is another example (like many mountains and areas throughout the Cascadia bioregion) of place names being given by early colonial explorers after Europeans who never set foot within Cascadia, North America, or even sometimes actively fought against those living here.

Loowit is currently remembered for its last major eruption which occurred May 18, 1980, after an earthquake struck below the north face of Loowit triggered the largest landslide in recorded history and a major volcanic eruption that scattered ash across a dozen states. The sudden lateral blast—heard hundreds of miles away—removed 1,300 feet off the top of the volcano, sending shockwaves and pyroclastic flows across the surrounding landscape, flattening forests, melting snow and ice, and generating massive mudflows. It lowered the total elevation from 9,677 feet to 8,365 feet. A total of 57 people lost their lives in the disaster. 

The Creation of Loowit

The First Nations of Cascadia watched eruptions of Mount St. Helens long before the explorers and settlers were here, and passed many of these memories down through their oral histories. Early accounts of eruptions were handed down and explained by their legends, contributing to a strong history of the early geologic history of the region.

From the Puyallup

According to the lore of this people, long ago a huge landslide of rocks roared into the Columbia River near Cascade Locks and eventually formed a natural stone bridge that spanned the river. The bridge came to be called Tamanawas Bridge, or Bridge of the Gods. In the center of the arch burned the only fire in the world, so of course the site was sacred to early ancestors. They came from north, south, west, and east to get embers for their own fires from the sacred fire.

A wrinkled old woman, Loowitlatkla (“Lady of Fire,”) lived in the center of the arch, tending the fire. Loowit, as she was called, was so faithful in her task, and so kind to the ancestors who came for fire, that she was noticed by the great chief Tyee Sahale. He had a gift he had given to very few others — among them his sons Klickitat and Wyeast — and he decided to offer this gift to Loowit as well. The gift he bestowed on Loowit was eternal life. But Loowit wept, because she did not want to live forever as an old woman.

Sahale could not take back the gift, but he told Loowit he could grant her one wish. Her wish, to be young and beautiful, was granted, and the fame of her wondrous beauty spread far and wide.

One day Wyeast came from the land of the Multnomahs in the south to see Loowit. Just as he arrived at Tamanawas Bridge, his brother Klickitat came thundering down from the north. Both brothers fell in love with Loowit, but she could not choose between them. Klickitat and Wyeast had a tremendous fight. They burned villages. Whole forests disappeared in flames.

Sahale watched all of this fury and became very angry. He frowned. He smote Tamanawas Bridge, and it fell in the river where it still boils in angry protest. He smote the three lovers, too; but, even as he punished them, he loved them. So, where each lover fell, he raised up a mighty mountain. Because Loowit was beautiful her mountain (St. Helens) was a symmetrical cone, dazzling white. Wyeast’s mountain (Mount Hood) still lifts his head in pride. Klickitat , for all his rough ways, had a tender heart. As Mount Adams, he bends his head in sorrow, weeping to see the beautiful maiden Loowit wrapped in snow.

From the Yakima

Si Yett, meaning woman, is the Yakima name for Mount St. Helens. According to legend, Si Yett was a beautiful white maiden placed on earth by the Great Spirit to protect the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River from the battling brothers.

From the Klickitat

Klickitat tell of two braves, Pahto, (Mount Adams) and Wyeast (Mount Hood), who fought to win the affections of an ugly old hag, who had been turned into a beautiful maiden by the Great Spirit.

From the Cowlitz

Cowlitz legends tell of a time when Tahoma had an argument with his two wives, “Lavelatla,” (Mt. St. Helens) which means “smoking mountain.” and Klickitat. Loowit became jealous, blew her top, and knocked the head off Tahoma.

May 18th – Cascadia Day

For Cascadians – we also celebrate May 18th, the anniversary of the 1980 Loowit Eruption as Cascadia Day – and a day to celebrate the ever changing dynamism of our region, and the shifting forces constantly at work making that happen.

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