Human interactions with the Lava Beds landscape

The Modoc group of Native Americans have lived in the region that is now the Lava Beds National Monument for thousands of years. They left little imprint on the land, but they did leave some rock art that is interesting to examine. Two caves—Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge Cave—contain pictographs that are painted onto the rocks with a charcoal-based substance. The photo below, taken by Jay, is in Symbol Bridge Cave. Archeologists don’t know what the geometric symbols mean, but they do know the symbols are not writing. It’s fun to imagine what these early people were expressing when they did their art. The age of the paintings is also uncertain, but they were probably done sometime over the past few thousand years. It’s intriguing to think about how these people would have responded to the frequent eruptions of lava, and if any of the symbols relate to those natural events. The area is still active and new volcanic flows can be expected in the not-too-distant future.

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Another style of art is the petroglyphs visible at Petroglyph Point, an outlier of the National Monument on the eastern edge of Tule Lake near the town of Tulelake. This type of art is carved or pecked into the rock, which at this location is an ash-flow tuff (pyroclastic flow that erupted explosively from more silica-rich magma) that is older than the basalt in the rest of Lava Beds National Monument. The photo below, taken by Jay, shows some of the great variety of images that are displayed along what was the edge of Tule lake when it was much larger, before it was drained for agriculture. There are more than 5,000 individual carvings, making this one of the most extensive representations of Native American rock art in California. These carvings could only have been done during dry times when the lake was lower—although it is even lower now because of human activities. One estimate is that the carvings are between 1500 and 400 years old.


Unfortunately, as in other parts of the Americas, the native people were treated poorly after white settlers arrived and demanded that the Modoc people be removed to a reservation. The Modoc War occurred from 1872 to 1873, when the Modocs made a last-ditch effort to return to their native lands after being expelled to the reservations of other native groups with whom they had conflicts. Within Lava Beds National Monument is Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a natural lava fortress where a young Modoc leader named Kientpoos (called “Captain Jack” by the settlers) and several hundred of his people held off U.S. military soldiers for months. The Modoc people ultimately lost this war, of course, and it is only in recent years that some of them have returned to try to reestablish their spiritual bonds to the land of their ancestors. This “totem” in the stronghold contains various momentos of recent visitors to the area.

Note the broad, low-relief shape of the shield-type Medicine Lake volcano in the distance (view looking south). The remaining bit of snow is on top of Glass Mountain, on the eastern flank of the volcano.


Another group of people were more recently mistreated in this area, when after the attack of Pearl Harbor during WWII the U.S. government demanded that Japanese-Americans be relocated to internment camps, one of which was located on the eastern edge of Tule Lake. This area is now a National Historic Landmark and visitors can learn more about it on a tour with a park service guide. The government sold off the barrack-style buildings long ago, but the map in the guide’s hands shows the hundreds of housing units that were built close together and inadequately constructed for the weather extremes in the region. This is yet another very sad tale of U.S. discrimination—Japanese people were forced to leave their businesses and most of their possessions behind and were incarcerated with poor living conditions until the war was over. In our group was a woman from the San Francisco Peninsula whose father and mother were both interned in these camps when they were young people and U.S. citizens.


The Lava Beds National Monument and the Tule Lake Segregation Center National Historic Landmark are two national sites that deserve more visits from the public.


2 comments on “Human interactions with the Lava Beds landscape

  1. kass says:

    Thanks for sharing this information, Karen. As I learn more about Native American history (more than was ever hinted at, or even presented in the highly distorted way through the European lens during my school years), I see more and more commonality among the art and other symbols left behind by tribes in very disparate places in the Southwest and the West. In Albuquerque, some petroglyphs show parrot birds, which could only be from South America, and seem to indicate the art may have been made along a trade route, for example. Also here, we find ancient paintings and samples of corn, which also had to have been brought here from south america.The point is that native peoples from many places shared similar techniques and styles and survival methods, and of course, all of them suffered similar fates from white Americans, no matter where on this continent these 1st Nations people originally lived.

  2. Thanks for the comment Kass. It’s really good to hear from you!

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