Does lake's name stem from legend?

January 15, 2007 12:00 am

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

As Crescent City celebrates its 150th birthday, Del Norters also are acknowledging that their

stretches back much further.

One aspect of that history is a legend concerning the small body of water now called Dead Lake.

Located at the north end of Riverside Drive, east of Del Norte County Airport property, modern settlers who named the lake may have drawn from the Tolowa.

"How and why did people come up with Dead Lake as the name" puzzles Loren Bommelyn, a Tolowa linguist, tribal council member and local school teacher.

Bommelyn has a theory.

He referenced the legend of ‘‘'Ii~-le'-sti~, the story of the sea serpent who lives in bodies of water.

The serpent's name and stories about him can be spoken only in winter, the time when his relatives, the snakes, are asleep. The name means "to the east he lies."

"‘Ii~-le'-sti~ he governs all bodies of water and you must respect him," Bommelyn said.

The legend is part of the Tolowa cosmology, the stories that tell how the tribe came into existence.

‘Ii~-le'-sti~ wears upon his head the longest dentalia, a shell, that exists. The Tolowa historically used dentalia, as currency. Thus it has value.

One of the 14-15-inches thick and 25-feet long serpent's homes lies inside a huge hollow log laying partially in Lake Earl.

"On good days you could see him sunning himself on it," said Bommelyn.

Tolowa men historically would go out on the lake to earn dentalia. They would go in a respectful state, hoping ‘Ii~-le'-sti~ would have pity for them and help them. The men paddle a boat into the lake.

If ‘Ii~-le'-sti~ acknowledged theirintentions and respect, he would raise his head, and the man would remove the serpent's dentalia. If they had trained correctly, they would have the money.

"Men have drowned, but their bodies have unexplainedly ended up in Big Lagoon," Bommelyn said.

The bodies of others who have died in Smith River would show up in Lake Earl.

Versions of the legend are published in "Indian Lore of the Northern California Coast" by Warburton and Endert. Other references are in "The Tolowa and their Southwest Oregon Kin" and "Yurok Myths," by Al Krober.

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ABOUT THIS SERIES

Del Norte County turns 150 this year. To celebrate our county's storied history, The Daily Triplicate will carry an article, about the past 150 years, in each edition for the rest of the year. The series began last week with the Northcoast Life cover story about how Del Norte became a county. We continue today with a look at the Native Americans that inhabited the region when the first East Coast and European settlers came.