Horsethief Lake Petroglyphs

The Horsethief petroglyphs are something special to me, wrapped in childhood memories. This is also where I proposed to Deborah, in front of the magnificent Tsagaglalal, She Who Watches. Traveling to eastern Oregon to visit family we had made a point to stop by and see this place again.

Tsagaglalal or She-Who-Watches at Horsethief Lake
Tsagaglalal or She-Who-Watches at Horsethief Lake
In my youth visiting was easy, the petroglyphs were were almost forgotten and sat quietly along the river, visited by those few who knew they were there.

The Horsethief recreational area was a lightly used picnic area and campground, one of many along the river. If you knew where the little trail was you could simply park by the rail tracks and walk out to the images. Among my earliest memories I remember swimming in the lake and visiting these petroglyphs.

Now the recreational area has been incorporated into the larger Columbia Hills Historical State Park. In the summer the campground is usually full, and the lake used by half a dozen boats.

Visiting normally requires participating in one of the twice weekly ranger led tours. The reservations are required and apparently fill up quickly weeks ahead of time.

Through the family grapevine we learn there is another way. If you have a tribal ID card, no reservations or tour is required. Just let the rangers know so they will not come out and chase you down when they see you in the cameras that now monitor the site. I have a tribal ID card, we simply went.

Spedis Owl
A Spedis Owl in the rock art collection at Horsethief Lake
The rock art found at horsethief is typical of the Columbia basin. Some pieces are pecked into the rock, others are painted. The collection includes a number of petroglyphs that were once located lower and a little further upriver. These were saved from inundation by the Dalles Dam and displayed for a while at the dam visitor center. With the improvement of the state park facilities at Horsethief these were relocated, not too far from where they were located originally. This collection includes a number of very nice Spedis owls, a couple of the best representations I know of.

One particular piece is not so typical, the magnificent Tsagaglalal is a work of art like no other in the region. Also known as She-Who-Watches this face has become an emblem of the region, found on t-shirts, logos, and earrings.

Artistically pecked into the rock this enigmatic face has watched centuries of history pass along the river. She was there to see Lewis and Clark paddle through, saw the decimation of local tribes by disease, the passing of trappers and pioneers, the building of railways, freeways, and dams that changed the river drastically.

Tsagaglalal or She-Who-Watches, image by Edward Curtis
Tsagaglalal or She-Who-Watches, image by Edward Curtis
Photos of Tsagaglalal by Edward Curtis show that she has weathered the passing time well, unchanged in over a century. Hopefully the protection offered by state park rangers is enough to prevent any of the vandalism that damaged some of the other images at the site.

The art swirls in stories and legends, many center on Tsagaglalal herself. Generally seen as a benevolent figure she watches over the people and the river as a guardian. It was nice to visit her again, to see that she still watches.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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