When Kayla Godowa-Tufti, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, recently testified before the Oregon State Marine Board, she brought with her a bottle of water from Waldo Lake and took a sip.
“I told them I still drink it, straight out of the lake,” said Godowa-Tufti, 24. “I gather it and gift the water to people. It’s part of our tradition to pray for water and honor it. Reconnecting to the lake has been a big part of personal healing for me.”
The hearing was focused on a proposed ban on the use of motorboats and floatplanes at the lake, which is located in the western slopes of Oregon’s Cascades and is considered one of the most pristine freshwater bodies in the world. The lake is so pure the U.S. Forest Service compares its water chemistry to distilled water, and almost 120-foot deep vertiginous views to the lake’s bottom can be seen from a canoe.
“With fracking and tar sands, there are so few lakes that are drinkable any more, and the water is so clear that when you’re on the dock you feel like you’re flying,” Godowa-Tufti said. “People who go there have an emotional connection to it. To me, all these are reasons why the lake is sacred.”
This May, the Oregon state legislature passed the ban against the use of motorboats and floatplanes at Waldo Lake, a significant victory in protecting the waters from oil leaks and other pollutants. Godowa-Tufti’s advocacy for the ban also represented the first steps in her journey to reconnect to an ancestral site and repair a cultural fabric that had been ripped apart by removal and assimilation polices.
Waldo Lake is the homeland of the Chagneenkni-Tufti Band of the Mollalish Indians, migratory people who gathered and held ceremonies honoring the huckleberries that grow on the lake’s shores. Godowa-Tufti’s great-great grandfather Charlie Tufti is credited by western historians with “discovering” Waldo Lake, and historical records of his life have given Godowa-Tufti a window into her family’s connection to the lake.
Many of the Molallish people were rounded up during the 19th century and sent far from their homeland to the Umpqua reservation and later to the Grand Ronde reservation, Godowa-Tufti said.
Though the Chagneenkni-Tufti people, due to their location high in the Cascades, avoided this fate longer than most, records indicate Charlie Tufti was eventually sold by his aunts to white settlers as they were being relocated, Godowa-Tufti said. Because of this he was able to make a donation land claim—probably because the government thought he was white when looking at his paperwork, she said. He later met a Wasco leader, Lucy Smith, and moved to Warm Springs to marry her.
The dislocation continued into the 20th century when 61 tribes were terminated by the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act of 1954, leading to the breakup of many Indian families. Godowa-Tufti’s mother was adopted by a white family near Eugene, and this also led to Godowa-Tufti being raised off the reservation.
“Part of de-colonizing my own life is to spend more time at the lake and being a descendent, I have an obligation to protect those places,” she said. “I like to go up there and prayer, and collect water to gift to people. That’s a tradition that’s dormant, the bringing of water from the highlands to the lowlands and pouring it into the waterways that need healing.”
Godowa-Tufti believes the cultural knowledge about Waldo Lake isn’t “lost” but simply waiting to be rediscovered. Since she began asking him questions about Waldo Lake, her 81-year-old grandfather has shared some of the history and other stories with her. She also believes that studying the language of her ancestors—her family started speaking Wasco when they were moved to Warm Springs—may unearth more of the mysteries of the lake.
"We have something called 'Tmanwit', our unwritten law, that says the creator placed us in this land and gave us the voice of the land," she said. “We are the caretakers of this land, and regardless of the [U.S.] laws in this place, we are obliged to uphold the unwritten laws of our people.”
Now, during National Sacred Places Prayer Days, is a good time to think about ways you can protect Waldo Lake and the many other sacred places across Turtle Island.