The Creation Story
and the Malheur Cave

Sean Bagshaw   Website

For the Paiute of the Great Basin of the American West, winter is storytelling season.

Around the fires of Paiute camps and villages, storytellers passed on tribal visions of the animal people and the human people, their origins and values, their spiritual and natural environment, and their culture and daily lives.

The book “Legends of the Northern Paiute” shares and preserves twenty-one original and previously unpublished Northern Paiute legends, as told by Wilson Wewa, a spiritual leader and oral historian of the Warm Springs Paiute.

Wewa learned these legends through countless hours spent in the company of tribal elders. As Wewa notes in his preface, “Today there are many young people among the Northern Paiute who are hungry for this type of nurturing and learning.” His intent in publishing these thoughts and stories of Pauite ancestors was to instill pride in identity. He recorded them so that “all the young people that follow long after I’m gone will look back and know that someone took the time and energy to save those stories.”

For people who aren’t Northern Paiute, knowing these legends can help them, Wewa said, “to realize that Native Americans, especially, the Northern Paiute, have been here for hundreds of thousands of years and our legends are the stamp of history that we bring to the area.”

Wewa also stressed that it’s important for ONDA “to work with the Indian people, to come for validation and input on the great things they do.”

“When I went with Brent [Fenty] on the raft trip on the Owyhee River, I pointed out things to that group that they never would have thought about and gave them insight and more food to feed on to realize why those areas are important to protect. Not just a scenic waterway, not just a virgin plateau. But hunting blinds,” Wewa explained, “They don’t see the potential for driving bighorn sheep into a box canyon. They saw a box canyon. I saw an opportunity to eat. I opened their eyes. “

Wewa and Oregon State University Press have generously allowed us to share an excerpt — The Creation Story and the Malheur Cave — with you on this blog. To read the rest of these legends, you can purchase “Legends of the Northern Paiute” at the High Desert Museum bookstore in Bend, the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, or order it via Amazon.


Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

“I connect with Oregon’s high desert through my feet, my eyes, my sense of smell, and all the things I hear. Getting out there is a whole body experience.” Supporting ONDA, Helen says, not only connects her with wild landscapes, but is also a good investment. “I felt like if I gave them $20, they might squeeze $23 out of it.”


What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  


Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

The Creation Story and the Malheur Cave

In our legends the world began at the base of Steens Mountain. That is where Coyote and Wolf created the world we have today. Wolf was called Mu naa’a, our father, because he was the father of all of creation.

At the time there was nothing in the world. It was just dark. But our people could hear one another in the darkness, and they talked about making a world.

Wolf told Coyote to go out from the darkness and find land. Coyote went out, but he could not find anyplace. So they asked, “Who would dive under the water?”

Different animals in the darkness volunteered to dive into the water. The first one was Otter. He said, “I’m a good swimmer. I will go and see what is holding up the water.” Then the Otter swam down for one day and then two days, before he came back up. He had almost drowned! He said he couldn’t find anything down under the water. He never even made it to the bottom.

Then Muskrat said, “I’ll go next.” He said, “I am a good swimmer, better than Otter.” He dove into the water and went down, and down, and down. . . . He was gone for one day, and then two days. On the third day he came back up. He was sooo tired, and he was starving! But he said that he never made it to the bottom of the water either.

The third one who said, “Let me try” was the Mud Hen, Saya. Mud Hen said, “I’ll go down and see what is holding up the water.” Mud Hens are real small little birds. Everyone asked, “You want to go?” But Wolf said, “Go ahead and try.” So Mud Hen dove into the water and went waaay down there. When it came back up it had mud on the end of its bill, and there was some grass on that mud! Wolf and the Coyote stood on that piece of mud.

Then Coyote said, “I’m getting tired of standing here all the time. This land needs to get bigger.” Wolf, his older brother, started singing his song, a doctor song. While he was singing, the land started getting bigger and bigger and bigger. When he would stop singing, Wolf and Coyote would walk around on the land. But Coyote was always complaining, “This land should be bigger than this, so there will be room for both of us.” So Wolf started singing again, and the land got bigger and bigger, and bigger and bigger.

This time Coyote walked to edge of the land to the east, to see how far the water was. When he came back he said, “Well, if we’re going to put other people here, then this land has got to be bigger.” He was talking about the animal people, not people like us human beings.

So Wolf sang his song again, and the land kept growing. For five days Wolf sang. When he finished, Coyote went off to find the edge of the land. He found the land had been made like it is today. When Coyote came back Wolf saw him coming and said, “Don’t tell me this land isn’t big enough now. That’s all I’m going to do!”

That’s how the world was created, half water and half land. After the world was made the Fish in the water started swimming into the land. And when they swam into the land they made the creeks and the rivers. It was their tails moving back and forth that made the water go up into the land. Then Wolf told the Fish, “That’s where you’re going to be now! You’ll always be in the water.”

When the Coyote left again to go to the east, the Fish there were swimming into the dirt, too. They were making rivers over there on the other side, in the eastern part of the world. That’s how the rivers were created by the Fish that came in from the oceans.

At the time the world was made there was darkness, and the other animals were still in the darkness. They said, “I think Wolf, Mu naa’a, has made a world now. We should go there.” They were wandering around in darkness, and one of the voices said, “Grab onto my tail.” And they started going. All the animals were holding onto each other’s tails, following one another in the darkness and out of the darkness.

When they were going they could see a light, as if you blocked out all the stars in the sky and left only one. They could see that light, and they started going that way. They traveled for five days, following one another. The one in front would sing, and they’d all go toward that light. And that light was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Soon they came to the edge of the darkness, where that light was. And when they came out of that place up onto the dry ground, the place our people came out of was called Malheur Cave.

Bald Eagle was the first one that led them out of there. When he stuck his head out of the ground to see what was outside of the darkness, they let go of his tail. When he turned around to tell them what he saw up there, his tail went out—and then the light made his tail turn white, too. When he came out on the ground all the animals came out, and they saw this land as it is today. That’s how the world was created and the animals came onto the land.

Then the animals went in all directions, north and south and all over. At that time the land was still wet and muddy, and nothing was growing on it.

Again, Coyote complained that there was no dry land to stand on. Wolf told the people to build fires at the edge of the water. So the animal people made fires to dry the land. Soon the land became dry. The birds flew over the earth, and dropped the seeds they found somewhere. These seeds made the grass and the trees grow.

After the earth was dry Wolf called them all together once again. He told them, “Now that you’ve all come on to this land, everybody has to pick where they’re going to live.” That’s when Bighorn Sheep, Koepa, said, “We’re going to live in the mountains. We want to be in the rocks.” So they moved into the mountains and they became Koepa. They said, “we like that name, Koepa,” so that’s what they became. Deer said, “We like the mountains, too. But we don’t want to be way up high. We want to be down where there’s trees, and we want to be Tuhudya.” So they became Deer, the Mule Deer. Then all the animals said where they were going to live, and what they were going to be. And they all started naming themselves. So that’s how they all named themselves.

Wolf was the leader, moohedu. That’s why he was the one that was asking them, “Who do you want to be?” The next one said, “I’m going to be a Squirrel, and I’m going to make my home in the ground. So they became ground squirrels. It was the same with the groundhog. He wanted to live in the ground, too, but under the rocks. He chose the name Kedu.

At this time the animal people could all talk the same language. Then they started to argue with one another, and the animals that got along together moved to the same place and lived together. One day Wolf said, “I’m going to have a big meeting. I want everybody to come. You all put on your good clothes and come. I’m going to have a big meeting.”

After Wolf’s announcement, all the animals went to the mountains and found different colored rocks. They ground the rocks into paint. They got yellow paint and red paint, and blue and green and black and white paint. And they painted themselves! They wanted to be impressive to one another, and each one wanted to look better than the others. When they got to the meeting, Wolf looked at them and said, “What have you done to yourselves?” They were all painted up!

Then Wolf commanded, “From this day forward you’re not going to talk to one another anymore, because you argue too much.” So he changed them all into different kinds of animals. He made it so the Mountain Sheep couldn’t talk to the Deer any more, and the Deer couldn’t talk to the Birds, and the Birds couldn’t talk to the Fish. And they could no longer make children together. Only Fish could be with Fish, only Eagles could be with other Eagles, and only Deer could be with other Deer. That’s how they were all separated from each other. They could not talk a common language after that.

Today, the animals are still painted with the colors that they put on that day when they came to Wolf’s meeting.

So that’s how the animal people all came onto this land. In all the legends we never refer to them as animals. We always refer to them as people, because they were here first. They were the Nuwuddu. They were the first people. That is why we have this name, to respect them. And today we Paiutes call ourselves Nuwu, because we’re the second people. It’s the same word, but Nuwuddu is for the animal people, and Nuwu is for us, because we were created after the animal people. That’s how we were created. That’s why Paiutes and animals are brothers and sisters. We’re all the same.

About the Author

Wilson Wewa is a spiritual leader and oral historian for the Warm Springs Paiute. He is a great-grandson of both Chief Paulina and Chief Weahwewa, two of the most important and influential Paiute chiefs in the tribe's history. He is a frequent speaker on Great Basin history and culture who has presented at a number of universities and other venues across the country.

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