Earthquakes and tsunamis continue to be a major part of our policy debates (the Viaduct, the Elliott Bay seawall, the 520 bridge). As one considers both the slow-motion crisis of global warming, and the rare but destructive events that have left their mark on the Pacific Coast, Puget Sound, and what is now isthmus of Seattle, such things have to be considered when when thinking about waterfront re-development and transportation infrastructure. And much as they are future risks, some are also an indelible part of our past. One wonders, does history teach us anything?
Northwest Coast Archaeology is a great blog that I check on a regular basis (they recently had some kind words about Mossback, by the way), and they have a fascinating item about earthquakes and tsunamis in Northwest indigenous history and myth, with links to a series of stories from Oregon Historical Quarterly.
One of the articles is an overview of how Northwest Coast Indian culture has interfaced with tsunamis, floods and earthquakes. How were tribes and villages impacted over time? How did their lifestyles adapted to the risks, if at all? How did they recover from calamities? Of particular interest is the massive earthquake and resultant tsunami off the coast of Washington in 1700 that did damage as far away as Japan and changed the coastline of the region.
It turns out that Northwest Indian stories and myths might reflect native experience of this or other tsunamis. A major event in the subduction zone off the coast seems to occur every 300 to 600 years, and it has been over 300 since the last one. Many tribes have flood myths, but also ones that appear to reflect experiences specifically with earthquakes and tidal waves.
I did a story earlier this year about a Spanish shipwreck at Nehalem Bay on the Oregon Coast. Scientists have been trying to identify the wreck, which left a cargo of beeswax that is still washing up, 300-plus years later on local beaches. Scott Williams, an archaeologist with the Washington Department of Transportation, used evidence left by the tsunami, and how the waters likely redistributed wreckage and cargo from the Spanish galleon, to determine that the wreck occurred before 1700. That has helped to narrow the possibilities in identifying which ship it was.
That such an event was felt powerfully and locally is preserved in coastal stories. One from the Nehalem-area Indians claims that the signs of a tidal wave were recognized and the survivors were the ones who skedaddled to higher ground, much as you are advised to do today with tsunami warnings posted in local hotel rooms and on road signs. A series of stories from Coos Bay Indians suggests that tsunami survivor experiences were recorded in local lore. One tells of some boys who were punished for fishing for salmon in a disrespectful way:
"Another year, and then the salmon came up river (again). Now they heard something (jingling), everybody went outside and watched it. "Ho! quantities of salmon are coming." But out in front a baby was being held aloft (on the salmon), and its decorations were what was jingling. "You should not watch a thing like that!" So some of them indeed did not go outside (to look). Now water (a tidal wave) rushed in, and thus all of those people (who had gone outside to look at the salmon baby) drifted away (with the flood). Pretty nearly all the people were gone."
What strikes me about this story is how much it is like eyewitness accounts of the tsunami that struck Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India in 2004. People remarked how they heard strange sounds, how people who went down to the shore to investigate what was happening wondering why the "tide" had drawn so far back or who tried to wade through the deceptively slow-looking surges, were swept away and killed. The image of an unexpected "migration" of salmon coming up-river, of strange sounds and a baby being carried along, of people who went to look being swept away, rings weirdly true to events that were recorded on video centuries later. It is also interesting to note that in some cases, aboriginal coastal peoples (in the Andaman Islands, for example) were able to survive the Indian Ocean tsunami by relying on local tribal knowledge, not modern warning systems.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!