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date: 05 March 2021

Place and Spirituality in the Pacific Northwestfree

  • Madeline DuntleyMadeline DuntleyBowling Green State University


The challenges and benefits of the Pacific Northwest’s rugged but scenic terrain have received ample treatment in studies of religiosity in this region. The interplay of place and spirituality was first chronicled in detailed case studies of Christian missions and missionaries, rural and urban immigrants, and histories of the various Native American tribal groups of the Northwest Coast and Inland Empire. Currently, the focus is on trends unique to this region, such as interdenominational and interfaith ecumenicity in environmental and social justice campaigns, earth-based spiritual activism and conservation, emergent “nature spirituality,” the rise of religious non-affiliation (the so-called religious “nones”), and indigenous revitalization movements. Recent interest in cultural geography has produced several general works seeking to define the Pacific Northwest aesthetic and regional ethos, especially as depicted in the so-called “Northwest Schools” in art, architecture, and literature. Because the Cascade Mountain range bisects the Pacific Northwest into two radically different climate zones, literature on spirituality in the region often follows this natural topography and limits its locative lens to either the coastal zone (including the area stretching from Seattle to Southern Oregon) or the Inland Empire (the more arid zone east of the mountains from Spokane to Eastern Oregon). When the Pacific Northwest region is referred to more broadly as “Cascadia,” it includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, northernmost California and Canada’s British Columbia.

The Northwest as Spiritual Frontier

The Pacific Northwest region remains in many ways an unfixed, unsettled spiritual frontier. While indigenous ancestral spirituality has been practiced in the Northwest for 2,000 years, the religious history of other groups in the region is remarkably brief, even by American standards.1 As the last frontier of the lower forty-eight states, the Pacific Northwest was the final destination of America’s last westward migration. The region’s U.S.-Canadian boundary was drawn in 1846, and statehood came late to the Northwest: Oregon in 1859, Washington in 1889, and Idaho in 1890.2 It has only two centuries of denominational missions, community building, interfaith activism, and place-based spirituality to recount, and much of that history has yet to be written. No single religion has dominated its cultural landscape, and more people here reject formal ties to institutional religion than in any other place in America. Even cultural geographers are at a loss to know how to label its religious style, resorting to ambiguous terms like “mixed” or “transitional.”3 Although the region is noted for its low rates of religious affiliation, place-based nature-oriented spirituality continues to inform the region’s emerging ecological consciousness. The Pacific Northwest’s lack of interest in traditional, institutional religiosity is traceable to its distinctive historic patterns of underfunded mission outreach to the area, and is also the result of a longstanding Northwestern “exceptionalism” that invests spiritual value in the region’s iconic mountain peaks.4 Spiritual pride-in-place is also regionally located in the area’s distinctive Northwest Coast aboriginal cultures. Traditional Native American ancestral place-based spirituality is co-opted by residents to project regional identity and to serve as an idealized template for an ecological conservationist worldview.5 Since the 1970s, nature-based spirituality frames key regional campaigns intended to redress the region’s records of unscrupulous resource extraction and broken treaties with Native Americans.

Place, Religion, Irreligion, and Spirituality in the None Zone

“Place” is a word often used to denote physical or topographical dimensions of a location. Yet “place” also has wide range of abstract usages in the English language.6 “Place” may refer to things and concepts as variant as scenery, bioregion, access, rank, power, right, privilege, dwelling, positioning, following, employment, role, merit, sequence, or home.7 Place anchors the conceptual abstractions of culture, space, and time into one geophysical coterminous point. And place also affects how an area’s residents “structure themselves religiously.”8

In 2004, the Pacific Northwest gained a reputation for being the place in the nation with the largest population of “nonreligious” people. On social-scientific surveys, when people are asked to name their religious identification, the options provided include the word “none.” Respondents choosing “none” are not affiliated to any kind of religious institution or tradition. An unusually high number of people in the Northwest choose the “none” option, so the region is nicknamed the “None Zone.”9 There are twice as many nones in the Northwest as elsewhere in the nation.10 Although these non-religious nones often self-identify as secular or humanist, “more than two-thirds of Northwest nones agree that God exists, and about half agree that God helps them personally.”11 This implies that nones are open to the possibility of pursuing some form of spirituality, but because this population does not gather in organized groups or congregations, researching their practices or labeling them is difficult. Being referred to as the “None Zone” is not a source of shame, confusion, or embarrassment to Northwesterners. It is a nickname well suited to the regional imaginary:

We think of ourselves as transcending labels, as an independent breed of mavericks … Northwest people are as diverse as their landscape. Perhaps due to the melding of fur traders, fishermen, gamblers, gold seekers, timber barons, and pioneers, the spirit of adventure runs rampant. Innovative, creative, and iconoclastic, we are a study in irreverence.12

To inquire how the Pacific Northwest might be a region that is both “irreligious” and “spiritual” at the same time requires some definitional clarity. For purposes of this essay, “religious” refers to those who either have a formal connection to a specific brick-and-mortar church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, or at least some tie to a specific religious tradition such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, or Mormonism. “Irreligious or non-religious” means one is “unchurched” or unaffiliated, and may be either indifferent or hostile to organized religion. “Spiritual” is a person who seeks an encounter with or experience of the transcendent. When spirituality occurs outside of religious institutions it may in fact be mediated by any objects, rituals, symbols, language, stories, art, or places that the individual deems to be “sacred.” The difference between “spiritual” and “religious” in this regard is that individuals are free to determine what to consecrate without relying upon formal religious institutions to circumscribe boundaries of sacrality. This is also called “detraditionalization” which is a “shift of authority” away from external validation (i.e., institutions) toward more internal grounds of authentication (i.e., self-validation).13 To self-identify as “secular” does not preclude an interest in spirituality. Sociologist Barry A. Kosmin claims that secular Americans typically agree that religion has its own “proper sphere” in society. Secularists firmly uphold the separation of church and state, and want to guarantee an individual’s free access to religion.14 Spirituality can be seen by self-proclaimed secularists as a viable “private lifestyle option.” Some become disillusioned with secularism and express a renewed interest in re-enchanting the mundane world through spirituality.15

Even though it is possible for Northwest nones to balance secular worldviews with spiritual ones, some of them do choose atheism. If two-thirds of the nones declare faith in God, then presumably one-third of the nones either question or reject such theistic beliefs and forsake any kind of spiritual re-enchantment of the mundane. Anthropologist Frank L. Pasquale studies the Northwest “nots” among the “nones.” Nots are survey respondents who self-identify as agnostic or atheistical, who do not pray at all, do not believe in God, and do not claim any religious tradition, but who sometimes gather together in secular humanist clubs and groups. Pasquale utilizes survey data and observes over a dozen regional humanist organizations, such as the Rogue Valley (Oregon) Humanists and the Secular Jewish Society of Puget Sound (Washington). He has discovered that “nots” insist that human problems require rational, not spiritual solutions. They are skeptical of any type of “theistic, transcendental, or supernatural ideas or worldviews” and avoid public or private participation in any type of openly spiritual practice, such as prayer, ritual, worship, or engaging with spiritual entities. Pasquale estimates there may be as many as 700,000 “nots” in Oregon and Washington who reject formal religion and secularist spirituality altogether.16

At the other extreme are the more conventionally religious practitioners of the Pacific Northwest. At least one-third are religiously affiliated. But unlike the Baptist Bible Belt South, no single denomination has put its stamp on the Northwest. Religion scholar James K. Wellman Jr. describes the region as a malleable and entrepreneurial religious marketplace marked by periodic culture clashes between the region’s competing and disparate “spiritual power centers.”17 Historian Dale E. Soden traces a century of religious activism in the region. He finds that the region’s religious population is somewhat polarized, and generally divides along the lines of liberal religionists who work for progressive social justice and diversity initiatives, and religious conservatives who want to revive moralistic, family-centered agendas.18

Mission Roots and Normative Non-Religion

High rates of irreligion and indifference to church affiliation in the region may be partly due to institutional religious scarcity and lack of choice resulting from resource-based settlement patterns and the geographical challenges faced by underfunded Christian missions. Resource extraction was the region’s earliest economic venture, and these industries imposed a residence pattern that was “place-based” at all socioeconomic levels. The entire economies of some towns were dependent upon one employer and one resource, such as salmon, timber, or mining. Such places were called “company towns,” and they existed from the 1880s until the 1960s. Extractive industries are risky and speculative. Gemstones, coal, gold, silver, and copper are not renewable or sustainable, and are excavated until depleted, fostering a “boom and bust” cycle that shaped settlement patterns. These industries were located in hamlets throughout the region, even in the sparsely settled “Inland Empire,” which was the name given to the Columbia River basin and those parts of Washington and Idaho nestled between the Cascades on the west and the Rockies to the east.19

Meeting the spiritual needs of people at remote places of resource extraction was never a high priority of employers. Company towns were built in wilderness areas near the sites of resource extraction: canneries in isolated coastal harbors, mines in remote mountains, logging camps in secluded forests. These company towns were often referred to as “camps,” even though the true outpost labor camps were much smaller and included only transient, itinerant men. Company towns invited and included families and had permanent houses, stores, schools, Boy Scout groups, baseball teams, volunteer fire departments, and Bible study groups. Company towns rarely had a traditional church building to meet in, and “rarer yet was a company-paid minister.” Company towns continued to shape the region well into the late 20th century as several were established as late as the 1950s, and many such towns existed until the 1990s.20

Residents of these towns often had little choice in spiritual matters. There would be one church, and usually it was Protestant. One copper-mining town in Holden, Washington, struck a compromise, and built a church that had an interior dividing wall: one side was used by Catholics, the other by Protestants. The congregation could never choose a pastor, for such missionary clergy were “placed” there by employers or denominational or diocesan boards. Often agencies like the Washington State Council of Churches would set up a “United Protestant” mission congregation that joined several different denominations (such as Presbyterian, Methodist, and Disciples of Christ) all in one interdenominational congregation, a system the company bosses hailed as a “more efficient and more effective Christianity.” One unique feature of company town congregations was that they were among the most socially and racially integrated churches of their day. All ranks of society attended, the bosses, managers and their wives, office workers, along with laborers of many different ethnic groups, and the men, women and children all worshiped together in one place.21 The scarcity of meeting space meant that religious groups could not so easily subdivide into different ethnic and class enclaves, and it undercut loyalties to a particular denomination or church edifice. It fostered a more open, ecumenical worship style that was portable and flexible enough to accommodate the diversity of congregants.

Protestant mission pastors endured great deprivation, sometimes traveling for days at a time, lodging with residents, commuting by foot, train, horseback, boat, car, and at times even by small crop-duster airplanes or hitchhiking on logging trucks to reach their remote congregations. When they had charge of several congregations, missionaries could only visit once every four to six weeks, or when needed to perform a funeral or wedding. Pulpits were often left vacant: one town recorded that their pulpit stood empty for a decade. Catholic mission priests employed innovative strategies to provide temporary worship space. In 1909 the Catholic Extension Society bought three railroad cars and equipped them as mobile chapels to serve small railroad towns in Oregon. At each whistle stop the priest would preach, administer sacraments, and teach catechism classes. Later when automobiles became common, the Seattle Catholic diocese commissioned “Mother Mission”—a shiny, custom-retrofitted camping trailer that was towed by car or truck to remote mission sites. Other diocesan missions also bought trailers to install in small towns for use as chapels or as temporary lodgings for mission workers.22

Small agricultural villages also faced challenges of access to religion. From 1880 to 1930, rates of church planting in rural districts of the Inland Empire “lagged behind [town] settlement by ten years or more for practical reasons.”23 In the absence of churches, the village grange (farmer’s association) became the center of community life. To establish a church required a special cluster of believers who would sacrifice any denominational loyalties in order to sponsor a “confederated” church. Settlers had little money to finance the building of a church structure, so having multiple churches of different denominations in one town was not viable in rural areas. Pulpit vacancy rates in small towns were consistently high: in the years before 1930 only about one in five rural pulpits in the Inland Empire rural districts had permanent pastors. To supplement irregular staffing, some denominations set up “Church by Mail” correspondence courses, with lessons, devotions, and even a mail-order lending library to serve isolated families in small towns. 24

Congregations provided a conduit for virtually all of the cultural and social services provided in the towns. Churches organized music cantatas, welfare and naturalization programs, ladies’ aid societies, fashion shows, talent nights, and altar guilds.25 While mission churches successfully mitigated some of the deleterious effects of geographic and social isolation, denominational boards and diocesan authorities struggled well into the 20th century to build and staff churches and schools, especially in the sparsely populated, poor rural areas. The region’s erratic and underfunded mission history makes it less surprising that the Northwest leads the nation in having the most numbers of “unchurched” residents and religiously unaffiliated nones.

Northwest Nones: Regional Identity and Place-Based Spirituality

The irregular pattern of church placement created access issues and proximity problems that remained a fact of life even after 1945. Historian Tina Block claims that the perennial lack of institutional religious options and choices in the Pacific Northwest makes religious non-affiliation a social choice that carries no social stigma or marginalization. Using regional quantitative data, as well as archival documents by Northwest church leaders, and in-depth interviews with self-professed religious nones, Block discovered that all racial, ethnic and gendered groups in the Northwest are “proportionately less religions than such groups in other regions.”26 She finds evidence in postwar documents and interviews that the Northwest regional imaginary strongly identifies with its frontier past: “Rugged mountains and gargantuan trees called forth strong-willed, self-reliant individuals to match them.” Life in such a landscape produces a degree of radical self-reliance that nullifies any need for church or creed. Religious leaders and ordinary people alike “defined the Northwest’s geography as fundamentally antithetical to institutional religion.”27

Block shows that engagement with nature also provides a viable spiritual alternative to denominational-based religion. Institutional forms of religion were “not as readily accessible, as … a mountain landscape” and nature had its own ready-built “cathedrals anywhere we want to turn.” Even when churches were available in urban areas, outdoor recreation competed with Sunday church services and traditional forms of practice. As one Methodist pastor in 1965 astutely noted, nature offers much but requires little: going on a hike was less demanding than campaigning for social justice in the turbulent counterculture of the 1960s. Communing with nature became a way to avoid and ignore social problems, and became a type of “refuge or escape to all those who want to get away from hearing what the God of the ‘great outdoors’ has to say to man.”28

The idea that nature may provide an alternative “spiritual resource” to institutional religion was empirically tested and supported by sociologists Todd W. Ferguson and Jeffrey A. Tamburello. They measured the attractiveness of lakes, hills, water features, and climate in various regions using the United States Department of Agriculture’s 1999 Natural Amenities Scale, then compared these findings to cross-sectional differences in surveys charting religious adherence rates for over three thousand U.S. counties. They carefully considered other competition control variables to determine whether highly rated natural amenities actually functioned as a “time” or as a “spiritual” competitor. Their results show that the Pacific Northwest has lower levels of religiosity and religious adherence than regions such as the Midwest, which contain few desirable natural amenities.29 Their results support the hypothesis that “a region’s level of natural amenities will be negatively associated with its level of religious adherence.” This study suggests that a region’s natural environment could be a spiritual resource that supplies spiritual goods to portions of the population, especially the “nones.” Areas with lower levels of natural amenities cannot offer nature as a viable spiritual resource, and this drives people in these regions “into traditional religious organizations to meet their spiritual needs.”30

The idea of nature as an alternative to institutional religion may also explain the exclusivist, notorious form of nature-based escapism expressed by various militia, patriot, and white supremacist groups in the region. For the past few decades, loosely organized white supremacist groups have gravitated toward sparsely populated remote locations in Washington and Idaho to find in these reclusive forested enclaves the perfect settings to cultivate apocalyptic and separatist spiritual teachings. In the 1980s, the Northwest was seen as a prime location for “creating an Aryan republic.” Such a terrain served as a survival zone and cultural laboratory to consolidate and organize disparate white supremacist and survivalist groups. White supremacist militants saw the Pacific Northwest as their “refuge,” a territory where “they could reinvent themselves.”

[The Northwest] has all we want. Space that is not jammed already with hostiles, indifferents, or aliens. It has a sea coast. It has mountains. It has water. It has land areas yet to be developed. It has a border which is definable. It has the warmth of the temperate zones but the cold which our Folk require in order to thrive.31

The idea of the Northwest as the white supremacist Holy Land was widely publicized during the loss of life and subsequent protests in the aftermath of the infamous 1992 FBI siege and firefight at Ruby Ridge in Northern Idaho at Randy Weaver’s property. Weaver and his family had relocated to the Northwest after a protracted period of prayer and Bible study. Northern Idaho’s seclusion supported their survivalist lifestyle as they prepared for the “final battle of Armageddon and the ultimate triumph of white Christian believers.” In the eleven day FBI standoff, a U.S. marshal and two members of the Weaver family were killed. The FBI agents were confronted by a socially diverse mob of 200 protestors gathering near the site “who formed bonds across [anti-government] ideological lines” and held signs proclaiming “F.B.I Burn in Hell.”32 To invest the regional landscape with sacred meaning can have dire consequences. Sacralizing a place invites an appeal to protect the land by using some higher law than the U.S. federally enforced “law of the land,” and so increases the possibility that residents will seek alternative moral justification for using violence in order to protect what they deem to be sacred. This tendency toward self-righteous violence is also profiled by religious studies professor Bron Taylor in his work on the environmental ecoterrorism of Earth First! ultra-radicals and their conservationist strategies to protect old-growth timber in the 1980s and 1990s.33

Mountain Reverence and Spiritual Crisis

Once valued primarily for the natural resources they provided, alpine areas are now treasured by many Northwesterners as sacred places. Several mountains in the region carry their own unique spiritual mystique. For example, Mount Ashland, a ski resort summit in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains, is the site of a longstanding biannual “Blessings of the Snows” prayer pilgrimage (in the fall and spring) led by an interfaith-indigenous coalition. The ritual gatherings at the summit present supplication and thanksgiving to ensure life-giving annual snowfall.34 Mount Shasta, a massive Cascade peak just across the border in northern California, is an esoteric “cosmic holy mountain” in the style of sacred peaks of the Himalayas. This mountain has inspired the creation of a dozen different 20th century alternative religious groups, and Mount Shasta is considered the dwelling place of a wide range of spiritual beings, including Lemurians, Ascended Masters, and intergalactic protectors. Mount Shasta is a haven for spiritual artists, a pilgrimage destination, and a major source of the town’s tourist economy.35

But in the Pacific Northwest, the epicenter of mountain devotion is Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot volcano in Washington State. Even the famed conservationist John Muir called Mount Rainier the noblest and most beautiful of all the Cascade range peaks.36 In the early 20th century, many commentators described Mount Rainier in terms of “panentheistic” theology, meaning that the immutable, incomprehensible presence of God was somehow made tangible and accessible through the mountain.37 Spiritual seekers mark Mount Rainier as special, and to this day many people refer to it as the mountain.38 Those who encounter Mount Rainier often describe it as a rapturous Sinai-like experience of being privileged to stand at the pinnacle of God’s creation, at the locative presence of the divine. “Like a great white shrine, Mount Rainier has been an object of worship and a place of worship … . [for] those who believed they could only meet God on the summit … . Like a pilgrimage to Mecca, the faithful flock to the great white shrine.39

Much of the early devotional material dedicated to Mount Rainier came from professors and pastors. Edmond S. Meany (1862–1935) taught botany, history, and, “Northwest studies” at the University of Washington. Meany published a history of Mount Rainier’s climbing expeditions, as well as “odes to the mountain” in both poetry and prose, attesting to the uniqueness of this mountain as a place to encounter God. The Rev. Edgar C. Wheeler likewise described the mountain as a place of surreal beauty that could project a purifying, transformative power. In a 1910 sermon series featuring the mountain, Wheeler compares ascending the Mount Rainier summit to reaching the gates of heaven. He describes Mount Rainier’s lush wildflower meadows, aptly named “Paradise,” as God-given gardens of regeneration where the “knee deep and waist high” petals make the “baser temptations of the flesh disappear.”40

Mount Rainier veneration is shaped by exposure to decades of nature tourism and mountaineering narratives.41 Such site-specific, community-oriented nature spirituality is self-consciously and intentionally cultivated by the “power of religious messages” featured in National Park Service rhetoric appearing on nature trail signs, brochures, and in National Park Lodge displays.42 English professor O. Alan Weltzien notes that Mount Rainer’s sacredness historically reflects an intense, communal, regional boosterism. Residents celebrate the spiritual benefits of the mountain as essential to the superior quality of life in the region. 43 Yet recent spiritual connections to Mount Rainier are less concerned about collective encounters with God and more oriented toward individual epiphanies. On Mount Rainier, Weltzien notes, visitors now expect to have a unique, personal experience of “transformation.”44 Such an experience creates a proprietary and individual spiritual relationship to Mount Rainier. The mountain sheds its symbolism as a communal emblem of the divine. This stokes a regional impulse to privatize and limit access to such spiritual privilege. As mountain veneration becomes equated with private spiritual progress, it becomes more elitist and “solipsistic.” One becomes blind to “the fundamental difference between self and the object of worship.”45

Connecting mountain reverence to personal epiphany also allows residents to disconnect alpine supernalism from its primary focus on Mount Rainier as a unique place of God’s presence. As mountain veneration becomes more individualized, it becomes transferable to other lesser-known mountain peaks in the region. Rather than making a spiritual pilgrimage specifically to Mount Rainier, residents invest personal spiritual meaning in their own local alpine landscapes. For many residents of northern Oregon and southern Washington, Mount St. Helens became just such a “sacred place.” Pristine and remote, its landscape took on the contours and trappings of place-based alpine spirituality.

Yet the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, shattered the symbolic foundations of this localized mountain reverence. The “blast” (as locals refer to the volcanic eruption) altered not just the shape of Mount St. Helens, but the entire spiritual meaning of this landscape. Mount St. Helens’s beloved conical peak, once called the Mt. Fuji of the West, lost thirteen hundred feet of elevation, and its center cone was reduced to a ragged interior crater. The sacred power once bequeathed to old-growth forests was stunted when acres of timber were reduced to “matchsticks.”46 The volcanic eruption killed over fifty people and countless animals, filled in lakes, changed the course of rivers, and created whole new bodies of water. Humans, flora, and fauna were entombed by the ash of the blast or vaporized in one moment. Mount St. Helens, once a site for a spiritual retreat to commune with sacred beauty, now became nature’s war zone: a site of spiritual loss and devastation. The immediate aftermath “was the world transposed like a photographic negative. What was lush and green became gray, what had been up was down; convex became concave, presence became absence, and every hint of color was lost in a blanket of deep gray ash.”47

Within two years of the blast, the U.S. Congress passed the National Volcanic Monument Act and conserved and protected 110,000 acres as a monument where “ecological succession” could occur unhampered by extractive salvage logging of toppled forests. Teams of experts came to the volcano immediately, and continued to visit in a steady stream throughout the years to study the blast zone. The interdisciplinary spiritual writings and reflections provided by these visitors offer insight into how Pacific Northwesterners use Mount St. Helens to mediate spiritual exploration. To visit the blast zone is to experience epiphanies not of grandeur but of annihilation, not of verdant wildflower meadows but of “moonscape” gray volcanic ash. The reflections of visitors to the blast zone show the region’s heart-wrenching confrontation with the spiritual shallowness of the symbols that are typically inlaid upon Cascade peaks. The violent volcanic eruption laid bare the spiritual misdirection of seeking a source for divine impermanence solely in earthly things, such as living, magma-filled volcanoes. Yet the research teams also discovered that the blast forced them to explore more universal and communal spiritual metaphors of resurrection and renewal in order to deal with their grief and loss. For them, “the first greening of the ash did not come from outside, but from within … . the ashy crust began to rise and bend and crack open. The eruption that had changed almost everything hadn’t changed the fact that it was spring.”48

As these groups of writers, scientists, and poets found evidence of nature’s resilience in ferns and seedlings pushing up to the sky from three-foot depths of gray ash, they witnessed astounding miracles of rejuvenation that came without aid of human intervention. Spiritual reflection in the blast zone now revolved around communally experienced epiphanies embedded in the ordinary and miniature—not in a snowy summit but in an inconsequential weed called “pearly everlasting.” Blooming undisturbed in the “rain-patted ash,” this wildflower can “sprout from mere root fragments.” The teams found comfort in a plant that thrives “even in disaster.”49 They realized the presumption of using “sacred” as a synonym for grandeur, and decried past practices of consecrating only certain picture-perfect, beautiful nature-scapes as holy ground. The grief and distress caused by the radically altered landscape of Mount St. Helens revealed to Pacific Northwesterners how heavily invested they were in the sublime ideal of place, rather than in the raw reality of locale. The gritty paradox of devastation and renewal in the blast zone was the mountain’s true spiritual lesson. Cascade volcanoes were not just pretty sites for retreat, or venues for personal transformation. Mountain veneration at Mount St. Helens is forcibly recast and reconstituted as an emblem of eternal and timeless resurrection and renewal. This lesson is learned not by beholding alpine perfection, but by witnessing the spiritual reality of its imperfection: by the symbolic act of learning how to re-inscribe beauty onto blight.

Ancestral-Based Nature Spirituality and Post-1970s Ecological Conservation

While mountain peaks provide the source for much of the region’s local place-based boosterism and exceptionalism, the area’s Native American religious traditions are also upheld as exemplars of regional pride-in-place. In the Northwest, indigenous culture is often looked upon as a kind of cultural reservoir. Its artistic motifs and symbol systems are tapped by non-Indians who seek to create a “unique” or “authentic” visual icon or cultural representation of the region.50 Two millennia of tribal rootedness in place serve to counterbalance a mere two centuries of Euro-American and Pacific-Rim settlement of itinerants and migrants. The striking artistic design element of the material culture of Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous peoples also offers a graphic template for rendering a uniqueness of place for this area within the wider orbit of the American West. The historic image of seafaring, canoe-paddling aboriginals of the Northwest Coast, living in sturdy cedar houses, proclaiming rank and wealth with totem poles, designing bold, dramatic, longhouse murals, provides a much more distinctive, place-specific image than that of other Indians historically connected to the region. The Palouse or Nez Perce tribes who lived east of the Cascade Mountains in the Inland Empire were originally horseback-riding, buckskin-clad, tent-dwelling migratory tribes, resembling other Plains Indians of the American West.51 While both groups hold equal claim as indigenous to the region, it is the Northwest Coast tribal cultures that became the preferred symbols of a unique Northwest identity.

One example of this point—and one of the most widely recognizable icons of the region—is the blue and green Seattle Seahawks National Football League team mascot emblem. Although the seahawk creature is a fictional mythical bird, it is modeled upon an actual indigenous Northwest Coast religious artifact: an eagle transformation mask housed in Seattle’s Burke Museum.52 For centuries, Indians up and down the Northwest Coast danced wearing masks and costumes of their clan’s supernal spirit world ancestors. Ritual regalia constituted their essential identities in the otherworld, but on earth served as garments of disguise. Supernatural creatures like the sea wolf, who in mythology could traverse two realms of land and sea, were held in highest regard for their preternatural abilities. Although depicted as an authentic realm-traversing spiritual being, the seahawk is a latter-day 20th-century creation that lives only in the pantheon of football. Yet the full symbolic import of this team mascot as a powerful, potent spirit being is meaningless without its anchor in the region’s aboriginal spiritual tradition.53

Current admiration for the region’s aboriginal cultures cannot nullify the area’s imperialist past. As part of the American frontier, cultural “placement” always occurs through “displacement” of its native peoples. The dominant culture asserts its claim on the territory through the destruction or manipulation of “other representations of place, including indigenous ones.”54 Native American scholar, activist, and lawyer Vine Deloria tempers the region’s beloved frontier myth with a stark reminder of colonizing conquest. The vast, “unsettled” frontier of the outpost Northwest was far from being empty and unsettled when non-Indian populations first encountered it. In western Washington alone, tribes such as the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, Skagit, Snohomish, Nisqually, Duwamish, Puyallup, Suquamish, Makah, Quinault, Hoh, Quileute, and Chinook collectively constituted “one of the most heavily populated areas north of Mexico City before the coming of the White man.”55

Northwest Coast aboriginal spiritual notions of “place” differed markedly from that of the region’s white settlers. Captain George Vancouver’s 1792 naval expedition to the region aboard the HMS Discovery laid claim to the landscape by mapping it and assigning European place names to its bays and landmarks. Vancouver’s journals recall how Indian natives of the Northwest paddled their canoes in complex patterns, using indirect routes, a tactic that seemed most illogical to the British onlookers.56 But it was the logic of ancestral place-based spirituality that guided the indigenous peoples to navigate in this seemingly irrational way: waters were animated by spirits, hazards, and gifts, marked out for them on their own spiritual maps of indigenous myth and custom. As a fellow navigator, Captain Vancouver would have understood and respected the idea of “storied waters”—that the mystery, danger, and, tales and lore of waterways were important to one’s survival—but he would not have understood their taxonomy of place. Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls this a Native American “grammar of animacy”—that a body of water is not just a noun, a mere container to hold living creatures of the sea, but that water is itself a living creature, best seen as a verb. “A bay is a noun, only if it is dead … . trapped between its shores … to be a bay, the verb releases the water from bondage and lets it live.”57 Aboriginal religious traditions in the Northwest conceptualize the animate and inanimate as a web of sacrality that is immanent in place and revealed in ritual and myth. This traditional indigenous worldview rejects many of the spiritual dualities present in Western thought, including the notion that humanity is separate from nature.58

Folklorist Ella E. Clark’s 1953 Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest documents this aboriginal way of seeing spirit in nature:

Rocks, trees, ferns as well as birds and animals, even the hail which fell from the sky, had a spirit and a language and song of its own … . Echoes, waterfalls and rapids, the roar of thunder, the growth of plants, the changed positions of stars—all were caused by the spirits living in them.59

Clark collected over one hundred stories, recorded directly from elderly Indians, or assembled from archival or rare published sources. Her volume contains stories from a variety of Pacific Northwest tribal groups and perspectives. Clark organized the tales in terms of their references to specific places, landscape features, and regional climates, including chapters on “Myths of the Mountains”; “Legends of the Lakes”; and “Tales of the Rivers, Rocks and Waterfalls.”

The widespread regional appeal of such indigenous-inspired spiritual connection to the land is evidenced by the popularity of the 1854 speech of Chief Seattle (1786–1866), leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes of the Puget Sound area. There are four main versions of Chief Seattle’s speech currently in circulation, and at least eighty-six other extant variants in existence. The original 1854 speech was purportedly given in the chief’s native tongue in the presence of territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, who was negotiating land cessions from the tribes. There is no surviving verbatim transcript of this speech; the text was not published until 1887. The 1887 text is a surrender to the inevitable, offered up with an undertone of apocalyptic resistance. It presents a clash of two cultures, an “encounter between indigenous peoples who ‘loved this land’ represented by Chief Seattle, and imperialist, acquisitive America, represented by Governor Stevens.”60 Chief Seattle warns that although great cities will be built over tribal lands, even “when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe … . for the dead are not altogether powerless.”61

In the 1970s, Chief Seattle’s speech received a dramatic makeover when repurposed as a “nature spirituality” manifesto for the emergent environmental movement. Ted Perry’s 1970–1971 pro-ecology version of Chief Seattle’s speech was showcased in Expo ’74, the World’s Fair held in Spokane, Washington, in 1974. Expo ’74 was the first international exposition to feature ecology and environmentalism as its theme.62 Perry’s spiritualized version of Chief Seattle’s speech is a radical departure from the tone and content of the 1887 version. The text of Ted Perry’s version of the speech was installed as a major exhibit at Expo ’74:

But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us … . Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods … . All are holy in the memory and experience of my people … . We are part of the earth and it is part of us … . One thing we know: your God is also our God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.” 63

This version of Seattle’s speech goes on to declare: “The Earth does not belong to Man; Man belongs to the Earth.” This phrase became a popular slogan: it was inscribed on the doorway of the theatre pavilion and served as the title of the inaugural immersive IMAX film, a twenty-three-minute ecology documentary screened for the first time at Expo ‘74. Chief Seattle is used strategically by the environmental movement. To accept this new earth-based ecological worldview is to also embrace an ancient aboriginal spiritual devotion to nature. Chief Seattle was recast as the quintessential “ecological Indian.”64 Ecological versions of the speech are today so widely circulated, anthologized, printed, and quoted that Chief Seattle’s speech may arguably be “the work of Pacific Northwest literature best known around the world.”65

Ironically, the Expo ’74 organizers reclaimed Chief Seattle’s speech to serve their own purposes as a paean of the land at precisely the same time Northwest indigenous populations were locked in bitter court battles over tribal recognition, the reinstatement of fishing rights, and access to sacred places guaranteed by 19th-century U.S.-Indian treaties. One of the challenges facing southwestern Oregon peoples like the Karuk, Klamath, Coos, Umpqua, and Tolowa revolved around formalizing cultural persistence and tribal recognition. Some groups lacked an ancestral tribal land base, having been relocated to more centrally located Oregon Indian reservations. In 1978 the Bureau of Indian Affairs offered Oregon Indian peoples who were not federally recognized tribal groups the opportunity to petition the government for tribal status. If the people could prove “enduring ties to a specific territory or community” and demonstrate the ritual importance of accustomed gathering places, they could be eligible to apply for formal tribal recognition.66 Documents provided to the government by tribal groups clearly demonstrate their enduring connections to ancestral lands through hunting, fishing, and herbal medicine gathering. This is evidence of the durability of traditions and of southwest Oregon’s indigenous peoples’ close connections to particular locations. Specific sacred rivers, gathering sites, and mountain peaks “served as the center of tribal identity.”67

Because Native American spirituality is so often co-opted to serve the environmental movement, ecological conservationists often presume that Northwest aboriginal groups will share their goals and aims in environmental causes such as preserving old growth forests and protecting ocean mammals. The two-decade controversy over the endangered spotted owl of the 1980s and 1990s shows significant ideological differences over the issue of natural resource utilization. The spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest pitted loggers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the lumber industry against local environmentalists who sought to protect the endangered bird by preserving the remaining old growth forests on federal land. Ironically, these timber stands were deemed equally essential to the owl’s habitat and the loggers’ survival. Loggers and environmentalists both utilized spiritual rationales for their cases: Loggers claimed humans as God-ordained stewards of the land, argued that forest management is not environmental degradation, and ensured that radical conservation would turn “mill towns into ghost towns.” Environmentalists spoke for the sacred rights of the defenseless owl and of the last vestiges of old-growth “sacred forests,” the centuries-old trees that ecologists Thomas A. Spies and Sally L. Duncan call the quintessential “Pacific Northwest icon.” In 1991, the bitter, litigious debate ended when U.S. Federal District Judge William L. Dwyer ruled in favor of preserving the old-growth owl habitat.68

While indigenous spirituality endorses a custodial relationship to the land, sustainable resource utilization is a preferred goal, not ultra-radical conservation. Anthropologist Kenneth Liberman interviewed members of Oregon’s Chetco, Coos, Coquille, Cow Creek, Karuk, and Klamath tribes to assess their views on land use during the spotted owl controversy in the 1980s.

Nearly all the Native Americans interviewed supported the cutting of ‘old growth’ in the forests. This was a major political issue, as during the summer of these interviews members of the environmental activist group Earth First! had been protesting the cutting of some of the last stands of old growth timber in the Siskiyou National Forest by climbing trees slated for logging.69

Liberman’s surveys also revealed that Indians living near Coos Bay, Oregon, were “opposed to the prohibition against killing seals and sea lions” and believed the Marine Mammal Protection Act created an ecological imbalance allowing protected seals to decimate the steelhead salmon runs that were essential to tribal income and ritual observances. Liberman’s research demonstrates that the “rationale and values” underlying Native American environmental perspectives are “uniquely Indian … and their opinions derive from their long association with the natural environment of their various districts,” and are also shaped by the history of treaty negotiations with state and federal authorities.70

For decades, conservation arguments were used as a rationale by Washington State to obstruct Native American assertion of treaty-guaranteed fishing and whaling rights. The Makah tribe had ceded three hundred thousand acres of land in the Treaty of Neah Bay of 1855 in exchange for preserving ancestral fishing and whaling rights. After Washington became a state in 1889, it often used the argument of marine “conservation” to obstruct local tribal fishing access. Although the Supreme Court upheld Indian tribal treaty rights in Tulee v. Washington (1942) the state continued to block access to fishing sites using a “conservation” mandate. By the 1960s, Native Americans defied these state restrictions by staging “fish-ins” as a form of grassroots protest. These efforts culminated in one of the most significant court cases in Washington State history, U.S. v. Washington, popularly named the “Boldt decision” after Ninth Circuit Court Judge George H. Boldt, who handed down the decision in 1974. Boldt ruled that marine resources were “integral” to tribal cultures and were “significant to their diets and religious practices,” and that the treaties brokered by Isaac Stevens in the 1850s “expressly reserved the right to fish … at usual and accustomed fishing places.” Judge Boldt’s decision legally ratified the “economic, spiritual, and cultural connections to their marine space.” 71

The clash between ancestral-based spirituality and conservation-based spirituality is particularly evident in the controversial Makah tribal whale hunt of 1999. When the gray whale population was endangered in 1920, the Makah had voluntarily ceased the whale hunts guaranteed to them by the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay. In 1970, a coastal storm exposed an ancient Makah whaling village near the modern-day town of Ozette, Washington. An archaeological site was set up to excavate this village. The thousands of whaling artifacts unearthed in this dig provided clear evidence of the centrality and antiquity of whaling in Makah culture. This archaeological discovery spurred a Makah cultural renaissance. The Makah tribe petitioned to resume the whale hunt as spiritual quest and treaty right, and it became the centerpiece of a cultural renewal initiative for the tribe. After years of negotiations over quota numbers with the International Whaling Commission and altercations with whale protectionist groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation society, a successful Makah whale hunt was conducted on May 17, 1999.72

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society led the opposition to the Makah whale hunt. In their publications, they denied the validity of the Makah’s claim that the hunt was spiritually motivated. They also discredited the Makah’s commitment to ecology: “it is a myth that the objectives of Native Americans are always in harmony with the objectives of conservation and environment.” The Sea Shepherd group heralded those few Makah tribal members who opposed the hunt by confirming the Sea Shepherd group’s view that whales are sentient beings worthy of protection at all costs. The Sea Shepherd stance regarded the Makah whale hunt as an aboriginal reversion to “savage brutality.”73

Events on the day of the whale hunt were orchestrated to highlight the irreconcilable differences between these two competing nature-based spiritualities. Reporters, spectators, and protestors crowded the shores; the Sea Shepherd society maneuvered to block and intercept the Makah canoes; the police and Coast Guard boats struggled to peacefully contain the situation; and the Makah celebrated their ritual triumph on the beach, standing upon the bloodied carcass of the whale to pray. In the immediate aftermath of the hunt, the Makah were subjected to a steady stream of abusive commentaries, editorials, letters to newspapers, and media coverage that contained violent anti-Indian invective in attacks “not heard or seen since the Boldt Decision.”74 Yet unlike the Boldt decision outcry that reflected concerns over giving Indians “special privilege” in the regional economy, much of the anti-Makah backlash came from those in the community who shared nature-based commitments to ecological conservation. The Makah were treated like traitors to the conservationist cause.

The time-honored hunt was now styled a “whale sacrifice,” and the call went out to “persuade the Makah they are killing creatures perhaps more intelligent than themselves.” Another conservationist suggested: “Save a whale, harpoon a Makah.” One Northwesterner wanted to “keep faith” with the frontier code of his ancestors who believed that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian.”75 Another admitted: “Yes my comments are racist. But when the entire race of Indians support the killing of a whale, I guess anybody who opposes the hunt … suddenly finds themselves being a racist.” Upon examining the entire corpus of conservationist reaction to the whale hunt, anthropologist Ter Ellingson’s stark assessment is that the rhetoric of these “emotional diatribes … . ultimately crossed the line into open advocacy of genocide.” 76 Clearly, many non-native conservationists dismissed the validity of the Makah tribal ancestral stance on sacred nature and resource management. When the justice and morality of the region’s conservationist causes are challenged by Makah spirituality, the call to protect sacred nature is ultimately vocalized by residents of this region as shocking, dehumanizing vitriol.77

Although place-based spirituality is often performed outside of institutional religious contexts, it too is marked by the region’s unsettled and combative frontier past. Nature-oriented spiritual concerns are not monolithic. They express a wide spectrum of deeply embedded regional communal values related to the spiritual meanings imposed upon place. When faced with unexpected challenges, nature spirituality in the Northwest reveals myopic motivations of regional exceptionalism and self-righteous resistance to compromise on issues of ecological conservation. Even in a region known as progressive and “forward-thinking,” contestations over nature spirituality can revert to exclusivist claims of moral superiority reminiscent of its frontier imperialist imaginings. In the Pacific Northwest, one’s spirituality may be historically connected to places as divergent as mining towns, coastal volcanoes, or whaling villages, but in the end, power and privilege still define and direct a person’s ability to establish and maintain any type of distinctive, authentic, or enduring spiritual connection to this place.

Review of the Literature

Inspired by the “spatial turn” in scholarship, several recent studies connect spiritual sensibilities to discrete dimensions of the regional topography. O. Alan Weltzien’s Exceptional Mountains links the spirituality of place to the region’s iconic Cascade volcanoes. In Old Growth in a New World, ecologists Thomas A. Spies and Sally L. Duncan suggest that debates over the region’s forests are the quintessential Northwest spiritual obsession. Raymond D. Gastil and Barnett Singer’s The Pacific Northwest: Growth of a Regional Identity, William G. Robbins’s The Great Northwest, and Dale D. Goble and Paul W. Hirt’s Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples trace the historic symbolic meaning attached to the region’s unique bioregions and salmon watersheds.78

Other sources seek to define the spiritual pulse of the Northwest by showcasing the aesthetics of the so-called “Northwest Schools” within art, architecture, and literature. Art historian Patricia Junker’s Modernism in the Pacific Northwest explores the spiritual themes of apocalypse and mysticism in the 20th-century modernist paintings of the “Northwest School” featuring Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. Author and naturalist Nicholas O’Connell’s On Sacred Ground traces the evolution of the diverse portrayals of ethos and place in Northwest poetry, novels, and essays from earliest depictions of landscape in explorers’ journals to the gritty realism of Jack London’s novels. Ann Wall Frank’s Northwest Style, David E. Miller’s Toward a New Regionalism, and Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason’s The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest use architectural styles to trace the historic role of home construction, East-West cultural exchange, and graphic arts in creating a regional Pacific Rim Zen-inspired nature-aesthetic.79

A number of works highlight the role of Christian missions and Native Americans in shaping the distinctiveness of the region. Clifford Drury’s classic works on pioneering Presbyterian missionaries Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding is complemented by Julie Roy Jeffrey’s biography of Narcissa Whitman. Catholic missions receive ample attention in Robert Ignatius Burns’s The Jesuits and the Indians Wars of the Northwest, Wilfred P. Schoenberg’s A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, and Roberta Stringham Brown and Patricia O’Connell Killen’s Selected Letters of pioneer priest A.M.A. Blanchet. Accounts of spiritual encounter are also told from the Native American perspective in studies such as Larry Cebula’s Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, Christopher L. Miller’s Prophetic Worlds, Bonnie Sue Lewis’s Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church, and Albert Furtwangler’s Bringing Indians to the Book. Other scholars detail the interdependence of spirituality and land in indigenous life. Classics on this topic include Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown’s Indians of the Pacific Northwest and artist Gary Wyatt’s richly illustrated Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast. Suzanne Crawford O’Brien’s Coming Full Circle: Spirituality and Wellness among Native Communities profiles traditional indigenous ecology and healing practices and their utilization in current tribal contexts.80

Regional social reform agendas are capably chronicled by historian Dale E. Soden in Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History and James K. Wellman Jr. in Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. Mission work within the Japanese American community is the focus of Anne M. Blankenship’s Christianity, Social Justice and the Japanese American Incarceration. Topics related to the shift from traditional forms of religiosity to more earth-based spiritual activism, emergent “nature spirituality,” and causes of the subsequent rise of religious non-affiliation (the so-called religious nones) are addressed in essays by Patricia O’Connell Killen, Mark A. Shibley, and Mark Silk in Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest, and also in Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion and Douglas Todd’s anthology Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia.81

Further Reading

  • Allerfeldt, Kristofer. Race, Radicalism, Religion, and Restriction: Immigration in the Pacific Northwest, 1890–1924. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003
  • Block, Tina. “Religion, Irreligion, and the Difference Place Makes: The Case of the Postwar Pacific Northwest.” Social History 43, no. 85 (May 2010): 1–30.
  • Carlson, Linda. Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
  • Clark, Ella E. Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.
  • Cote, Charlotte. Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr. Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Press, 2012.
  • Furtwangler, Albert. Answering Chief Seattle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
  • Goodrich, Charles, Kathleen Dean Moor, and Frederick J. Swanson, eds. In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2008.
  • Hannon, Nan, and Richard K. Olmo, eds. Living with the Land: The Indians of Southwest Oregon. Medford: Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1990.
  • Killen, Patricia O’Connell, and Mark Silk, eds. Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest. New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004.
  • Lange, Jonathan I. “The Logic of Competing Information Campaigns: Conflict over Old Growth and the Spotted Owl.” Communication Monographs 60 (September 1993): 239–256.
  • O’Brien, Suzanne Crawford. Coming Full Circle: Spirituality and Wellness among Native Communities in the Pacific Northwest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
  • O’Connell, Nicholas. On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
  • Pasquale, Frank L. “The Non-Religious in the American Northwest.” In Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. Edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CT: ISSSC, 2007.
  • Ruby, Robert H., and John A. Brown. Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
  • Shibley, Mark A. “Sacred Nature: Earth-Based Spirituality as Popular Religion in the Pacific Northwest.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 5, no. 2 (2011): 164–185.
  • Soden, Dale E. Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015.
  • Sullivan, Robert. A Whale Hunt: How a Native American Village Did What No One Thought It Could. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Todd, Douglas, ed. Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008.
  • Wellman, James K., Jr. Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Weltzien, O. Alan. Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
  • Wyatt, Gary. Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.


  • 1. The Makah tribe of Washington State publicly claims that their ancestral religion is 2,000 years old, based on the findings from the 55,000 artifacts unearthed beginning in 1970 at the Ozette archaeological dig on the tribal reservation. See Charlotte Cote, Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 127–129.

  • 2. For a discussion of the history of Northwest borders, consult Jean Barman, “Cascadia Once Upon a Time,” in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 98–104. When “Pacific Northwest” is used interchangeably with “Cascadia,” then the region will often include Washington, Oregon, Idaho, southern British Columbia and northernmost California. Other prominent Northwest regional studies also include either Montana or Alaska.

  • 3. Patricia O’Connell Killen, “The Geography of a Minority Religion: Catholicism in the Pacific Northwest,” U.S. Catholic Historian 18, no. 3 (2000): 51–71, 59; and Philip Resnick, “Secular Utopias Versus Religious Credos—One Cascadia or More?,” in Todd, Cascadia, 123.

  • 4. O. Alan Weltzien, Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016); see the discussion in his chapter “The Legacy of Exceptionalism,” 9–38.

  • 5. Gail Wells, “Nature-Based Spirituality in Cascadia: Prospects and Pitfalls, in Todd, Cascadia, 245.

  • 6. Place can refer to a particular area within a much larger surface, as in the “place on your body where it hurts.” Place may be a building used for a specific purpose or activity, such as “place of worship.” Place can mean home: “come over to my place.” Place is the point where you stopped reading in a book, where you place your bookmark so you won’t lose your place. Place is space available to use, like an open place to fly the kite, or empty place at a table in a restaurant. Place is a job vacancy, or job position: “they have a place open at that law firm.” It also means a proper position, as in “to tuck that piece of hair back into place.” Place is rank or status. Place is a right or privilege based on a person’s role: “it is not my place to speak.” Place is the role played or the importance attached to someone in a particular context, as in “the place of religion in the modern world.” Place is a position in a series or sequence of merit—“she earned first place” —but it means second place if it is a horse race. In mathematics, place is the position of the figure in a series, especially after the decimal point. And finally place can part of an actual street name, as in “Park Place” in the Monopoly board game.

  • 7. There are many excellent place-based studies of Northwest identity. Raymond D. Gastil and Barnett Singer, The Pacific Northwest: Growth of a Regional Identity (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010); David H. Stratton, Terra Northwest (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2007); William G. Robbins, ed., The Great Northwest: The Search for Regional Identity (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001); Dale D. Goble and Paul W. Hirt, Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples: Readings in Environmental History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999); Dean Apostol and Marcia Sinclair, eds., Restoring the Pacific Northwest: The Art and Science of Ecological Restoration in Cascadia (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006); and David E. Miller, Toward a New Regionalism: Environmental Architecture in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).

  • 8. Todd W. Ferguson and Jeffrey A. Tamburello, “The Natural Environment as Spiritual Resource: A Theory of Regional Variation in Religious Adherence,” Sociology of Religion 76, no. 3 (2015): 295–314, 310.

  • 9. Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest (New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004). Their book also includes Alaska as part of the “Northwest.”

  • 10. Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated,” Social Forces 87, no. 3 (March 2009): 1251–1263, 1251.

  • 11. Mark A. Shibley, “Sacred Nature: Earth-Based Spirituality as Popular Religion in the Pacific Northwest,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 5, no. 2 (2011): 167.

  • 12. Ann Wall Frank, Northwest Style: Interior Design and Architecture in the Pacific Northwest (San Francisco: Chronicle, 1999), 9–10.

  • 13. Paul Heelas, et al., Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 7.

  • 14. Barry A. Kosmin, “Contemporary Secularity and Secularism” in Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, eds. Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (Hartford, CT: ISSSC, 2007), 5–6.

  • 15. Kennet Granholm, “Locating the West: Problematizing the Western in Western Esotericism and Occultism,” in Occultism in a Global Perspective, eds. Henrik Bogdan and Gordan Djurdjevic (New York: Routledge, 2013), 28.

  • 16. Frank L. Pasquale, “The Nonreligious in the American Northwest,” in Secularism & Secularity, eds. Kosmin and Keysar, 51, 42.

  • 17. James K. Wellman Jr., Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 41–43. See also Kristofer Allerfeldt, Race, Radicalism, Religion, and Restriction; Immigration in the Pacific Northwest, 1890–1924 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

  • 18. Dale E. Soden, Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015), 244–245.

  • 19. See John Fahey, The Inland Empire: Unfolding Years, 1879–1929 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986); and George W. Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest: With a Special Emphasis on the Inland Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).

  • 20. Linda Carlson, Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 3, 7, 8, 70.

  • 21. Carlson, Company Towns, 3, 8, 71.

  • 22. Patricia O’Connell Killen, “The Geography of a Minority Religion: Catholicism in the Pacific Northwest,” U.S. Catholic Historian, 18, no. 3 (2000): 51–71, 53, 54.

  • 23. Fahey, The Inland Empire, 11.

  • 24. Fahey, The Inland Empire, 74–75.

  • 25. Carlson, Company Towns, 73, 74, 77, 70.

  • 26. Tina Block, “Religion, Irreligion, and the Difference Place Makes: The Case of the Postwar Pacific Northwest,” Social History 43, no. 85 (May 2010): 1–30, 6, 7, 12.

  • 27. Block, Social History, 22.

  • 28. Block, Social History, 22–24, 22, 24.

  • 29. Ferguson and Tamburello, “The Natural Environment as Spiritual Resource,” 303.

  • 30. Ferguson and Tamburello, “The Natural Environment as Spiritual Resource,” 300.

  • 31. Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 103–104.

  • 32. Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 304; see also the discussion of the Northwest patriot and militia groups in Mark A. Shibley, “Secular but Spiritual in the Pacific Northwest,” in Killen and Silk, Religion and Public Life, 150–155.

  • 33. For a discussion on environmental radicalism and its connection to religion, see Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

  • 34. See “Blessing Mountains in the Snow.”

  • 35. For a detailed account of how Mount Shasta came to be known as a cosmic holy mountain, see Madeline Duntley, “Spiritual Tourism and Frontier Esotericism at Mount Shasta, California,” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 5, no. 2 (2014): 123–150.

  • 36. Betty E. Filley, The Big Fact Book about Mount Rainier (Issaquah, WA: Dunamis House, 1996), 183.

  • 37. See Sallie McFague’s discussion of panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism) in “Toward a New Cascadian Civil Religion of Nature,” in Todd, Cascadia, 157–172.

  • 38. Edwin Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 147.

  • 39. Filley, The Big Fact Book about Mount Rainier, 179, 181 (emphasis mine).

  • 40. Filley, The Big Fact Book about Mount Rainier, 183–184.

  • 41. To the local Coast Salish tribes, Mount Rainier’s summit was taboo: it was the abode of spirit beings. Though they never climbed the summit, early source materials suggest that pre-contact Native Americans in the region considered alpine areas to be a special portal where the borders between this world and the spirit world were permeable. Origin stories about the mountain figured in the central fabric of their histories. The mountain itself was not an object to worship, but it was symbolically meaningful “in storied relation to [the Coast Salish].” See Filley, The Big Fact Book about Mount Rainier, 187–188. Also see Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains of the World, 148.

  • 42. On National Park Service religious rhetoric and framing of park sites as “sacred,” see Kerry Mitchell, Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 138. See also Lynn Ross-Bryant, “Nature and Nation in the U.S. National Parks,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 15, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 31–62; and for exceptionalism and rustic opulence design in the great Northwest park lodges, see Christine Barnes, Great Lodges of the National Parks (Bend, OR: W.W. West, 2002).

  • 43. Weltzien, Exceptional Mountains, 20.

  • 44. Weltzien, Exceptional Mountains, 18.

  • 45. Weltzien, Exceptional Mountains, 17.

  • 46. For the spiritual meaning of old-growth forests, see Thomas A. Spies and Sally L. Duncan, eds., Old Growth in a New World: A Pacific Northwest Icon Reexamined (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009).

  • 47. Robin Kimmerer, “On the Ridge,” in In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens, ed. Charles Goodrich et al. (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2008), 42.

  • 48. Kimmerer, “On the Ridge,” 43.

  • 49. Christine Colasurdo, “Everlasting Wilderness,” in Goodrich, In the Blast Zone, 78, 80, 81, 82.

  • 50. For a good introduction to Northwest indigenous design, see Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965).

  • 51. Clifford E. Trafzer, “The Palouse Indians: Interpreting the Past of a Plateau Tribe,” in Spokane and the Inland Empire, ed. David H. Stratton (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005), 65–98.

  • 52. Robin K. Wright, “The Kwakwaka’wakw Transformation Mask that Inspired the Seahawks Logo,” Tribal Art 75 (Spring 2015): 124–127.

  • 53. For a discussion of the role of indigenous mythic beings and realm-crossing, consult Gary Wyatt, Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 8.

  • 54. William G. Robbins, “Introduction: Complexity and Regional Narratives,” in Robbins, The Great Northwest, 8.

  • 55. Vine Deloria Jr., Indians of the Pacific Northwest (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Press, 2012), 5.

  • 56. Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 9.

  • 57. Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction, 9. For the indigenous linguistic construction of water as a verb, not a noun, see the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” in Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 48–62.

  • 58. For more on the spiritual dimensions of Pacific Northwest aboriginal cultures, see Suzanne Crawford O’Brien, Coming Full Circle: Spirituality and Wellness among Native Communities in the Pacific Northwest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013); and Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981). See also the discussion of Northwest spiritual views in Alvin M. Josephy Jr., “The American Indian and Freedom of Religion: An Historic Appraisal,” in The Changing Pacific Northwest: Interpreting the Past, eds. David H. Stratton and George A. Frykman (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1988), 29; Tom McFeat, Indians of the North Pacific Coast (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992); and Albert Furtwangler, Bringing Indians to the Book (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).

  • 59. Ella E. Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), 7.

  • 60. Albert Furtwangler, Answering Chief Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 3.

  • 61. Furtwangler, Answering Chief Seattle, 12–17, 14, 17.

  • 62. J. William T. Youngs, “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Spokane’s Expo ’74, the Environmental World’s Fair,” in Stratton, Spokane and the Inland Empire, 207–225.

  • 63. The full text of Ted Perry’s version of the speech, and the 1969 version by poet William Arrowsmith, are on the website of the Washington State Library, Olympia, WA, “Critical History: Chief Seattle Speech,” 1, 3.

  • 64. For more on this topic, see Shepard Krech III, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: Norton, 2000).

  • 65. Two Versions of Chief Seattle’s Speech,” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington.

  • 66. Robert Winthrop, “Persistent Peoples: Mechanisms of Cultural Survival in Southern Oregon and Northwestern California, in Living with the Land: The Indians of Southwest Oregon, eds. Nan Hannon and Richard K. Olmo (Medford: Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1990), 125–134, 128.

  • 67. Kenneth Liberman, “The Native Environment: Contemporary Perspectives of Southwestern Oregon’s Native Americans,” in Hannon and Olmo, Living with the Land: The Indians of Southwest Oregon (Medford: Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1990), 85–93, 87.

  • 68. For a helpful discussion of the pattern of rhetoric of the debate, see Jonathan I. Lange, “The Logic of Competing Information Campaigns: Conflict over Old Growth and the Spotted Owl,” Communication Monographs 60 (September 1993): 239–257; and Spies and Duncan, Old Growth in a New World. For the wider cultural perspective of this controversy in American religion, see also Mark Silk’s essays “Religion and Region in American Public Life,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (2005): 265–270, and “Defining Religious Pluralism in America: A Regional Analysis,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 612 (2007): 64–81; and Bret E. Carroll, “Worlds in Space,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (June 2012): 1–61.

  • 69. Liberman, “The Native Environment,” 86, 87, 89.

  • 70. Liberman, “The Native Environment,” 89.

  • 71. Charlotte Cote, Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 119–121, 120. Suzanne Crawford O’Brien has shown the significance of the Boldt decision in the recovery of the First Salmon Ceremonies; see O’Brien’s “Salmon as Sacrament: First Salmon Ceremonies in the Pacific Northwest” in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, ed. Benjamin E. Zeller, et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

  • 72. For a book-length study, see Robert Sullivan, A Whale Hunt: How a Native American Village Did What No One Thought It Could (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

  • 73. Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 363, 364.

  • 74. Alex Tizon, “Emails, Phone Calls Full of Threats, Invective,” Seattle Times, May 23, 1999, A1, 16–17.

  • 75. Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage, 369, 370.

  • 76. Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage, 371, 372.

  • 77. See the tendency toward moral absolutism in nature spirituality in Gail Wells, “Nature–Based Spirituality in Cascadia: Prospects and Pitfalls,” in Todd, Cascadia, 257.

  • 78. Weltzien, Exceptional Mountains; Spies and Duncan, Old Growth in a New World; Gastil and Singer, The Pacific Northwest; Robbins, The Great Northwest; and Dale D. Goble and Paul W. Hirt, eds. Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples: Readings in Environmental History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999).

  • 79. Patricia A. Junker, Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014); Nicholas O’Connell, On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); Ann Wall Frank, Northwest Style; Miller, Toward a New Regionalism; and Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason, eds. The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2007).

  • 80. Clifford M. Drury’s two classic biographies: Marcus Whitman, M.D.: Pioneer and Martyr (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1937) and Henry Harmon Spalding (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1936); Julie Roy Jeffrey, Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); Robert Ignatius Burns, SJ, The Jesuits and the Indians Wars of the Northwest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966); Wilfred P. Schoenberg, A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743–1983 (Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1987); Roberta Stringham Brown and Patricia O’Connell Killen, eds., Selected Letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, Bishop of Walla Walla and Nesqualy, 1846–1879 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013); Larry Cebula, Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, 1700–1850 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003); Christopher L. Miller, Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985); Bonnie Sue Lewis, Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Furtwangler, Bringing Indians to the Book; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, eds., Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981); Gary Wyatt, Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999); and O’Brien, Coming Full Circle.

  • 81. Soden, Outsiders in a Promised Land; Wellman, Evangelical vs. Liberal; Anne M. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice and the Japanese American Incarceration (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Mark A. Shibley, “Secular but Spiritual in the Pacific Northwest,” 139–168; Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark A. Shibley, “Surveying the Religious Landscape: Historical Trends and Current Patterns in Oregon, Washington and Alaska,” in Killen and Silk, Religion and Public Life, 25–50; Taylor, Dark Green Religion; and Todd, Cascadia.