The Hunt for ‘She Who Watches’

Before this blog became primarily focused on my photography, it was a collection point for various travels and explorations. Many recent travels have been focused on photography, but I have a few projects other projects too. One such project has been tracking down local indigenous history.

Last year I took the family to Lummi Island for the annual artist open house tour. Lummi Island is a short 10-minute ferry ride, just outside of Bellingham, Washington. The island hosts beautiful natural vistas and like many of the San Juan islands, a diverse, colorful, and slightly reclusive group of inhabitants. The island attracts artists seeking solitude and being close to nature, a retreat from hectic hyper-connected modern life that seems to be rapidly dwindling on the mainland. Local artists of all kinds open their workshops and homes for the public. These events often devolve into social gatherings as the host pours expensive coffee or wine and seems more interested in visitors recognizing their immense and expensive homes or workshops, or swinging completely opposite where the host ignores guests in favor of working on their latest project in a thinly veiled “active art demonstration”. By the way, please buy some painted driftwood on your way out. Hey, I get it. I lived on Orcas Island for a while– I know what “island time” means.

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Stormy weather looms as we wait for the ferry.

I planned on bringing my camera and finding some good spots for photos of island life along the way. Reading through local blogs for attractions, I noticed repeat mentions of a petroglyph carved by the indigenous peoples somewhere on the island. A little more searching led to archeological surveys and local word of mouth stories about the petroglyph, yet none of the sources listed an exact location. The clues piled up– some claimed the rock was near Frank’s Beach, others said the Nettle’s Farm. For what they were worth, the archeological papers were vague, a common practice to discourage would-be thieves and vandals. My interest piqued by both the history and the challenge, I would have to find this rock!

Lummi Island lies in the midst of the Coast Salish peoples’ territory. A coastal people, the Salish tribes relied on the sea for food and transportation, paddling their cedar canoes through steel grey waters. The coastal Salish tribes generally existed as disparate families inhabiting protected coves, coming together at certain places for seasonal fishing villages, longhouses, religious celebrations, or other communal activities. Proficient seafarers, the Salish treated the waters surrounding their islands as roads rather than barriers, a mindset that persists amongst island inhabitants today (with the interisland ferry system offering free walk-ons between towns).

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The Lummi ferry is too small to get out of the car.

I’ve learned something about tracing history through rumors and hearsay– everyone has a different take on the story, and everyone believes their take is the definitive version, leading to a lot of unreliable information. I’ve briefly described modern island culture, a mix of old New Age mysticism, spirituality, and local legends, reclusive artists, hippies, and indigenous peoples intermingling while doing their own thing. It is a place outside of time as we know it, where facts and emotions blend fluidly. According to many of the stories I read, the petroglyph represents the indigenous goddess Tsagaglalal (a name that sounds decidedly more Sumerian than Salish to my untrained ears). Tsagaglalal is known as “she who watches,” a reference to a rock petroglyph on the Columbia River featuring a face with large, staring eyes. The story goes something like, Tsagaglalal was a female chieftain tasked with protecting her people. Coyote, the trickster, came to her, whispering that changes were coming and inquiring how she would protect her people. Tsagaglalal could not answer as she did not know what the changes would bring, and sat down to contemplate. Coyote punished (or blessed depending on the story) Tsagaglalal by turning her into stone so she could watch over her people forever.

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Indigenous fishermen’s boats moored ahead of the storm.

It’s a neat story, however, there are some problems. First, the “she who watches” petroglyph refers to a named chieftain from a tribe along the Columbia River, a people completely unrelated to the Salish. Many tribes shared similar spirits, however, I doubt the specifics being shared between these disparate peoples and the concept of unblinking eyes watching out for evil is common among many ancient traditions. It should be noted that this petroglyph is not named “she who watches” or Tsagaglalal in the archeological papers.

Further complicating the matter, neo-New Age practitioners and goddess-worshipers have adapted parts of the legend for their own purposes, melding fantasy and legend with little regard for source material. In fact, at least one such group holds ceremonies of goddess worship on the island near Frank’s Beach, although not at the actual petroglyph as far as I can tell. These goddess-worshipers seem to be the source spreading the connection between Tsagaglalal and this particular carving as they seem to see her as a thematic feminine representation rather than a specific entity.

A group of us Bellinghamsters went to Frank’s Beach on Lummi Island, Sunday April 20th to gather in celebration and remembrance of our friend Megan Guppy, who lived and worked for many years on Lummi Island. We built an altar on the beach out of driftwood, flowers, rocks, shells and marshmallow peeps – a personal favorite of Megan’s – styled in the iconic Salish motif of Tsagaglalal, otherwise known as “She Who Watches.” Tsagaglalal, depicted with her big, leering grin, and two large eyes that can see equally above and below the surface of the ocean – above and below the surface. I think of my friend Megan as embodying those traits – somebody who saw above and below the surface. She was very interested and educated herself in the native motifs, healing arts, stories, symbology, goddess and mermaid ceremony, aspects that carried over into her music, beliefs, life and wisdom.

About 300 years ago at Fern Point, adjacent to Frank’s Beach, Lummi Island WA, natives carved She Who Watches into a garage-sized boulder on the cliff. Possibly, one of only three of this era (400 – 1800 A.D.) and scale in the state of Washington. Eventually. the supporting ground weathered away, and the stone petroglyph tumbled down the bluff, and miraculously fell facing up, so it could still be seen. The coming and going of the tides has since pulled Tsagaglalal into the surf and her features have become increasingly smoothed over and weathered. I think you can only see her now at very low tide. Megan was fond of this sculpture, and co-wrote a piece of music based on ceremonial chants with Julianne Marx titled She Who Watches.

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Photo from a Facebook group showing the goddess alter and memorial for a passed friend on Frank’s Beach.

Perhaps the truth cannot be known at this time. What is known is that the petroglyph once sat on a large rock overlooking the western straits, near a seasonal village. It was likely intended as a ward against poor weather. When one places known locations of petroglyphs on a map, it is easy to see that these edifices may have been used to bless specific locations. The most trustworthy information I found came from a local archeologist, Daniel Leen:

While faces are the most common petroglyph designs found on the Northwest Coast, this face is unusually large. It may be the largest face petroglyph found on the west coast of North America. Another interesting aspect of this site is the very deep cupules which form the “pupils” of the eye; without the rest of the face design, they would appear to be mere cupules, similar to those at other Straits Salish sites. This site was documented by Richard McClure and myself in 1979, following up a vague reference in Lundy’s MA thesis. According to a nearby resident, local lore connects this petroglyph with the control of the weather (Leen 1981). Similar ethnographic references to weather control have been documented for sites in northern California and southwest Oregon cupule sites, and as far north as Saint Lawrence Island (Murie 1977).

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A quick map: yellow arrows represent seasonal villages, the red arrow is a sacred burial site, and orange pentagons are known petroglyphs. Note that petroglyphs appear to watch over specific bodies of water used for transit between locations. The white lines represent the body of water the Lummi Island petroglyph watched over. All sites are approximate.

I didn’t have much time away from the family to search the beaches. Thankfully the island is not far from home and the ferry is inexpensive so I returned the next day. Gone was the beautiful September sun, along with the stunning vistas. In its place was the cold, slate grey sky of turbulent weather threatening rain. I had a slew of locations to search: Nettle’s Farm, The Willows Inn, Frank’s Beach, W. Shore Drive. I parked on a hill near The Willows Inn where a thin strip of on-street parking overlooks the beach below. The beach was a short hike down a steep trail ending in deep, pebbly sand. The smell of salt and seaweed grew with each step down the trail.

I ran into a man tending a small rowboat, leaning against a driftwood log long since bleached white by sun and salt. His hair and short-cropped beard matched the sand, a dappling of grey and white hiding whatever remained of color from his younger days. He looked me over disapprovingly, as though I was intruding into his personal space. I greeted the man, making sure my camera hung obviously around my neck, signaling my intentions. The man grunted a response. I engaged him with small talk, telling him I was visiting the island for photography after seeing it on the tour the previous day. He visibly softened. “I get so used to having the beach all to myself that sometimes I forget that I don’t own it,” he finally replied. With the ice broken, the conversation turned cordial. My experience living on Orcas Island was fodder for common ground, discussing island life and tourists. When I brought up the petroglyph, the man nodded that he had heard about the carving but was unsure of its location. He had never personally seen it. There’s something disheartening when you learn that people who live on top of something historic and cool are oblivious to it.

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Small sailboat at West Beach.

I stomped around the beach on W. Shore Drive for a good while, searching every flat-faced rock on the waterline. I had visually surveyed Frank’s Beach from the road earlier and didn’t see anything that looked to be the size and shape of my target rock. The only photos I had of the petroglyph and the rock itself was taken from a facebook group page. Looking closer at the photo, I realized that I recognized the islands in the background. A quick search on Google Maps gave me a good idea of where the photo had been taken, triangulated back from the island peaks on the map. Thanks to the Army artillery spotter training for that little trick.

What luck! The location I suspected from the photo was right around the corner a few hundred yards away. Unfortunately, at high tide I would have to cross the rugged carved sandstone breakers rather than head around. Crawling over these jagged rocks I entered a sheltered pocket where the bluff turned in on itself. There in the water, just beyond a large sign proclaiming private property, lay a familiar outline. I had found it!

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The rock carving. Two giant eyes nearly a meter across stare unblinking into the sky.

“She who watches” has worn down over time. Barnacles threaten to overtake the carving. Sadly, the carving simply is not as exciting as the actual project of tracking it down and finding it. Still, it’s a cool bit of history right in my backyard.

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