Native American myth details a brave warrior, a grisly beast, and a legendary lake.

Lake Tahoe from Cave Rock, circa 1906, ©Pillsbury Picture Co. Ong illustration ©Kippy S. Spilker

BY ERIC CACHINERO

“No one ever heard or saw anything of such poor mortals as were drowned in these waters, for their bodies were carried to the Ong’s nest and no morsel ever escaped him. Sometimes he would fly about the shores in quest of some child or woman or hunter, yet he was a great coward and was never known to attack anyone in camp, or when two or more were together. No arrow could pierce its feathers, nor could the strongest spear do more than glance from the scales on its face and legs, yet its cowards heart made him afraid for its toes had no claws, and its mouth no beak.”

These words were written by author Nonette V. McGlashan in an article titled “The Legend of Lake Tahoe,” that was published in “Sunset Magazine” on Nov. 3, 1905. They tell of a Native American legend about a terrible creature that used to haunt the waters of what would become Lake Tahoe. The Washoe Tribe (sometimes spelled Washo) lived in constant fear of the creature, who was notorious for picking off those unlucky enough to be traveling alone, and dragging them to its watery nest at the bottom of the lake.

The Ong, as it became known, was said to have wings as long as the tallest pine tree, colossal webbed feet, and was covered in both feathers and scales. Legend maintains that the creature also had a human-like face.

Though cowardly as the beast may have been at times, the Ong didn’t just drag people away for fun.

It consumed them.

LAKE LEGEND

Washoe Indians, circa 1866, ©Lawrence & Houseworth

Washoe mythology immortalizes what is perhaps the most important day the tribe ever had regarding The Ong, as well as details how the famous Lake Tahoe was named.

The Washoe Tribe was embarking on its final hunt of the season late one fall, before the lake would become entombed in snow for the winter. The chief’s daughter Nona had turned 16 years old, and was said to be the most beautiful girl anyone in the tribe had ever laid eyes upon—and it was time for the chief to select a young warrior for her to marry. The toughest braves in the tribe were all determined to win her hand in marriage, and they sought to prove themselves on this final hunt.

One young man, who was never known for being particularly daring, strong, or brave, traveled to a solitary spot on the lake’s shore on the morning of the hunt to pray to the Great Spirit—the name the Washoe people gave to their creator. He prayed for guidance and asked how he could win Nona’s hand, though his calls went unanswered. That is until in the distance, in the middle of the lake, he saw The Ong’s gruesome body begin to bubble up from the lake.

The beast shot up into the sky, seeking out its prey for the day. The young man began to flail his arms, as to attract the attention of The Ong, and it worked. The creature swooped down and grabbed the young man by his ankles, and leapt high into the sky above the lake. Onlookers gasped as their fellow tribesman was clutched in the beast’s webbed feet, being dragged higher and higher, horrified as they witnessed his inevitable death. The Ong often dragged its prey into the sky, and released it to fall into the lake, allowing water currents to carry the victim into the beast’s nest.

But the young man had something else in mind.

As he was clutched in The Ong’s massive webbed feet, he took out a buckskin rope, and firmly attached himself to the creature’s feet. Once above the lake, the beast, try though he might, couldn’t release the young man into the lake, and instead tried biting him with its razor teeth. Each time the beast opened its horrible jaws, the young man threw toxic arrows down its throat.

The Ong flailed about, unable to release the young man, as it suffered increasingly from the onslaught of arrows that pierced its insides. The beast plunged into the center of the lake as the entire tribe, which gathered on the lake’s shore, watched the chaos. The young man almost drowned as the beast flailed about, trying its hardest to snap the rope that was attached to its feet. As the sun set, the spectacular battle raged on, until right before it became too dark to see, The Ong flew into the sky, and off into the distance.

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FATEFUL FLIGHT

Night fell, and the rest of the tribe gathered around fires and told stories of their bravery, accepting that The Ong had claimed another victim—though they wondered why The Ong had acted so strangely. Because the battle had taken place so far off shore, none of the tribe could see the rope tied around the beast’s feet, or the arrows the young man had tossed down its throat.

The chief pondered his decision, wondering who was the bravest bachelor in the tribe. However, his daughter Nona was heartbroken that the young man she had secretly admired had been killed. She snuck away from the camp and paddled a canoe into the lake. Her plan was to rescue the young man, or if she was unable to locate him, join him in death.

Once in the middle of the lake, she cried the young man’s name.

“Tahoe! My darling Tahoe!”

Washoe Indians, circa 1866, ©Lawrence & Houseworth

Back at camp, the chief announced he had made a decision, though when he called for his daughter, it was discovered she was missing. Mass panic ensued as the tribe searched for his daughter, though no one could find her.

At daybreak, the tribe gazed across the lake, only to see the horrible Ong, lifeless and floating on the lake next to an empty canoe. In addition, they beheld a miraculous sight. Tahoe and Nona stood embracing one another on one of the lifeless monster’s wings, using the other as a sail to bring them back to shore. As they reached the shore, the tribe unanimously agreed that Tahoe was the bravest of them all, and the chief granted Nona permission to become Tahoe’s wife.

Furthermore, the tribe agreed that the lake should forever carry the name of this hero of heroes, thus Lake Tahoe was born.

THE LEGEND LIVES

Though the legend of The Ong does have a happy ending, the legend still lives on in modern times. While the beast is gone, its nest still rests at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Contemporary legend maintains that this is the reason why those who drowned in the lake tend to never rise to the surface, awaiting the day when The Ong may return yet again.

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