What Indians' understanding of tsunamis might teach Seattle

Can we learn how to cope with disaster by looking at the archaeological record and the stories told by Native American communities? Yes, we can.

Crosscut archive image.

The famous Japanese artist Hokusai made this wave print in the 19th century. Japanese records helped date a 1700 tsunami that struck the Pacific Northwest.

Can we learn how to cope with disaster by looking at the archaeological record and the stories told by Native American communities? Yes, we can.

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.

There are other tales from this and other Northwest tribes that suggest experiences of death, destruction, and incredible survival from quakes, floods, surges, and tsunamis. The coastal people were no strangers to disaster.

Another interesting point is made in an article titled "Native American Vulnerability and Resiliency to Great Cascadia Earthquakes" by Robert J. Losey, an expert in this field. He looks at evidence for how tribes adapted to or recovered from earthquakes and tsunamis. He finds evidence that while native peoples often lived along coastlines, rivers, beaches, and estuaries that could be hard-hit by tsunamis, there were very resilient. 

Long-houses, for example, were often constructed in ways that minimized the risk of collapse; shellfish beds and other food sources often quickly recovered, though the destruction of stored foods and tools likely were major setbacks. Kinship systems assisted in the relocation of survivors to undamaged villages. Seasonal nomadism minimized risks by taking the population out of high-risk zones for parts of the year.

The archaeological and historical record shows that coastal cultures bounced back. Their oral traditions, judging by what survives (which is estimated to be only about 1 percent of what once existed), suggest that survivor stories were shared over the generations, and that they were often woven into moral lessons (don't disrespect salmon or else!).

He also points out that tidal waves and quakes should not be regarded as disasters so much as hazards. Meaning, that the level of damage they do is connected to the ways people do and don't adapt to them:

Earthquakes and tsunamis are not of themselves disasters or catastrophes. They are perhaps best viewed as hazards — events that present dangers of various scales and durations. Disasters, hazard researchers have recognized, are partly the products of human action; hazards become disasters when people place themselves and their livelihoods in harm's way.

While this perspective can seem to be a case of blaming the victim, it can also be turned on its head. Through their habitual day-to-day actions and long-held cultural practices, people can render potentially disastrous situations much less devastating than might otherwise be the case.

That last part is a good question for the tunnel and bridge builders, waterfront designers, and others tinkering with or developing the shoreline in Seattle. Not only do we have a history of major quakes, but also of tsunamis and other hazards (mudflows, seiches) connected to quakes and eruptions.

What can we can learn from the archaeological record of millennia of human experience that came before us? Or will we be yet another example of how people are punished for not treating nature with due respect?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.