Oregon Focus: Native American Legends: Willamette Falls

About the Willamette Falls Legend

Willamette Falls with evergreen trees on either side of the water
Willamette Falls at Oregon City. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
In times long ago before there were many people in the world, Native Americans believed that the trees and animals moved and talked like human beings. They tell this story about how the Willamette Falls were made:
"Let's make a waterfall across the river," said Meadowlark to Coyote. So they made a rope by twisting together young hazel shoots. Holding one end Meadowlark went to one side of the river. Coyote stayed on the other side. Carrying the rope between them they went down the river to a place near where Salem is today. They stopped and Meadowlark said, "Let's make it here."
But Meadowlark spoke in the Clackamus language and Coyote only knew the Kalapuya language. He did not understand what she said. Instead of making waterfalls, he turned some animals into rock.
Meadowlark and Coyote walked on down the river to where Oregon City its today. "Let's make the waterfall here," said Meadowlark. This time she used sign language and Coyote understood.
So they stretched the rope tight. Coyote pulled hard. Meadowlark pulled with all her might and pressed her feet hard against the rock she was standing on. Then Coyote called on his great powers and turned the rope into rock. The river poured over the rock.
So that is how the Willamette Falls were made at Oregon City and not at Salem.

Suggestions for Teachers

Coyote drawing
A student drawing of a coyote. The animal plays a central role in many Native American legends.
Ask students to:
Create drawings illustrating the events depicted in the legend.
Write a group story to which each student contributes.
Dramatize the legend with students or with puppets.
Take a field trip to see the Willamette Falls.
Research the scientific explanation of how the Willamette Falls were formed.
Make up their own legend to explain natural phenomena such as why it rains or how some nearby natural formation was made. Explain that Native American legends often use animals that act and talk like humans, so they can incorporate that idea into their stories.
Explore why the coyote is important in Native American legends. What are other animals that inhabit the legends?