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Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan

Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from

Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan


Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Box 351310,


Department of History and Program in Religious Studies, 108 Weaver Building,

With Contributions from D. CARVER3




Seattle, WA 98195-1310, USA (e-mail: rludwin@u.washington.edu)

The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA



Carver Geologic, P.O. Box 52, Kodiak, AK 99615, USA


13797 Silven Ave NE Bainbridge Island, WA 98110, USA




FEMA, Federal Regional Center, 130 228th St, SW Bothell, WA 98021-9796, USA


Dept of Anthropology, Douglas College, New Westminster, BC, V3L 5B2, Canada


Department of Anthropology, Room 13–15, Tory Building University

of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2H4, Canada


Chief Councilor Huu-ay-aht First Nation, P.O. Box 418,

Duwamish Tribe cultural resources expert, Duwanish Tribal Services, 4717 West Marginal

10Snoqualmie Tribe, cultural resources expert, and great-grandson of James Zackuse,

Duwamish Indian Doctor, The Snoqualmie Tribe, P.O. Box 280, Carnation, WA 98014, USA

12Rm 1297, 1873 East Mall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC V6T 1Z1, Canada

14Makah Cultural and Research Centre, Makah Tribe, P.O. Box 160 Neah Bay, WA 98357, USA

Port Alberni, B.C., V91 1M7, Canada

Way SW, Seattle, WA 98106, USA

11310 NE 85th St, Seattle, WA 98115, USA

13Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., Canada

15Olympic National Park, Port Angeles, WA, USA

Abstract: This article examines local myth and folklore related to earthquakes, landslides, and

tsunamis in oral traditions from Cascadia (part of the northern Pacific coast of North America)

and in written traditions from Japan, particularly in the Edo (present-day Tokyo) region. Local folk-
lore corresponds closely to geological evidence and geological events in at least some cases, and the

symbolic language of myth and folklore can be a useful supplement to conventional geological evi-
dence for constructing an accurate historical record of geological activity. At a deep, archetypical

level, Japan, Cascadia, and many of the world’s cultures appear to share similar themes in their con-
ception of earthquakes. Although folklore from Cascadia is fragmentary, and the written record

short, the evolution of Japanese earthquake folklore has been well documented over a long

period of history and illustrates the interaction of folklore with dynamic social conditions.

Local cultures in regions of significant seismic

activity around the world are rich in myths,

legends, and other symbolic representations of

From: PICCARDI, L. & MASSE, W. B. (eds) Myth and Geology.

Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273, 67–94.

0305-8719/07/$15.00 # The Geological Society of London 2007.


psychology vis-a`-vis the violent forces of nature,

and other aspects of society and culture. This lore

can also shed useful light on the geological

record, sometimes even to the extent of suggesting

major geological events that remain undiscovered

by conventional scientific approaches. Common

themes appear in stories from different cultures,

and may help identify stories with geological


In this paper, we examine two types of earth-
quake lore from Cascadia and Japan. First, we

discuss figurative stories from the Pacific Northwest

coast of North America that appear to refer to earth-
quakes, tsunamis, permanent land level changes, or

landslides. Geographically these stories describe

events along two major fault zones; the Cascadia

subduction zone (CSZ), which produced a magni-
tude 9þ earthquake in 1700 (Satake et al. 2003),

and the Seattle fault in Puget Sound which produced

an earthquake of estimated magnitude 7.4 in

approximately 900 AD (Bucknam et al. 1992). Sec-
ondly, we discuss non-geological evidence from

Cascadia and Japan that researchers have used to

date the CSZ earthquake of 1700. Next, we

examine figurative conceptions of earthquake caus-
ality in Japanese folk culture, both circa 1700 and,

in greater detail, during the period following the

Edo ( present-day Tokyo) earthquake of 1855.

This earthquake produced an outpouring of figura-
tive namazu-e (catfish picture prints), which

expressed a wide range of popular views on earth-
quake-related phenomena, both geological and

social. Data from both Cascadia and Japan

support our general argument that symbolic

language can usefully describe geological events.

In addition to demonstrating a linkage between

local earthquake lore and geological events in these

two parts of the world, we propose some observations

about similarities in this lore, with reference to other

regions of the world. At a deep level, which we call

the ‘archetypical level’, many apparently uncon-
nected societies throughout the premodern world

conceived of earthquakes in similar ways.

Stories of earthquakes and related events

from native societies in the Cascadia

subduction zone

Geological knowledge of the Cascadia

subduction zone

The plate-boundary fault at the Cascadia subduction

zone (CSZ) separates the oceanic Juan de Fuca plate

from the continental North America plate (Fig. 1). It

lies about 80 km offshore and extends roughly

parallel to the coast from the middle of Vancouver

Island to northern California. Although recognized

Fig. 1. Estimated 1700 rupture of the Cascadia

Subduction zone, from Wang et al. (2003). Numbers

indicate locales of Native stories with descriptions of

shaking and/or flooding. Story elements are tabulated in

Figure 9. Story references: 1. Boas 1935, 1a 33; 1b 92;

1c 122; 1d 27–31; 2. Teit 1912, 273–274; 3. Jenness

1955, 11,12,72,91,92; 4. Duff 1955, 9, 123–126; 5.

Roberts & Swadesh 1955, 315; 6. Sproat 1987, 124–

125; 7. Arima et al. 1991, 230–231; 8. Hill-Tout 1978,

157–158; 9. McCurdy 1961, 109–112. 10. Swan 1870,

57; 11. Gunther 1925, 119; 12. Clark 1953, 44–45; 13.

Eels 1878; 14. Reagan and Walters 1933, 14a 320–321,

14b 322; 15. Reagan 1934, 15a 33–34, 36–37; 16.

Jefferson 2001, 69–70; 17. Elmendorf 1961, 133–139;

18. Van Winkle Palmer 1925, 99–102; 19. Clark 1955,

321; 20. Boas 1894, 144–148; 21. Kuykendall 1889, 67;

22. 22a Boas 1898; 23–27 (similar story identified as

historical in the following reference), 22b 30–34, 22c

140; 23. Jacobs 1959, 176; 24. Jacobs 2003, 187; 25.

Frachtenberg 1920, 67–91; 26. Frachtenberg 1913, 14–

19; 27. Jacobs 1939, 58; 28. Ward 1986. 27; 29. Dubois

1932, 261; 30. Spott & Kroeber 1942, 224–227; 31.

Kroeber 1976, 31a 174–177; 31b 460–465; 32.

Warburton and Endert 1966, 58–60.


as early as the mid-1960s, seismologists initially

assumed that the CSZ was incapable of producing

great (megathrust) earthquakes. It is seismically

quiet, and no sizable earthquake has occurred on

it since European settlement began. As the theory

of plate tectonics matured, studies of subduction

zones worldwide identified characteristics associ-
ated with megathrust earthquakes. These earth-
quakes are most common in areas where hot,

young, buoyant crust is rapidly subducted (Heaton

& Kanamori 1984). Although the rate of subduction

in Cascadia is relatively slow, the subducted crust is

among the youngest and hottest anywhere.

Field investigations in the 1980s of the coastal

margins along the CSZ located geological evidence

of abrupt land-level changes characteristic of mega-
thrust earthquakes in ‘ghost forests’ of dead cedar

trees in coastal estuaries in Washington and

Oregon (e.g. Nelson et al. 1995). The cedars, orig-
inally above the limit of the tides, were killed when

their roots were suddenly plunged into salt water.

Beneath the surface of these same estuaries, soil

cores reveal layered deposits showing a repeated

cycle of slow uplift and rapid submergence. Pre-
liminary age estimates based on radiocarbon

dating (Nelson et al. 1995) and tree-ring studies

suggested that the most recent earthquake happened

about 300 years ago. A precise date, 26 January,

1700, was determined from Japanese historical

documents (Satake et al. 2003), and confirmed by

a close study of tree-ring patterns of ghost cedar

roots (Yamaguchi et al. 1997). The magnitude esti-
mate of 9.0, derived from the amplitude of the

tsunami that reached Japan, implies rupture along

the entire length of the CSZ (Satake et al. 2003).

Figure 1 shows the geographic extent of the likely

rupture area.

Native folklore from the Cascadia

subduction zone

This section examines Native stories from along the

Cascadia margin that are figurative and folkloric in

style, and not amenable to dating with any pre-
cision. Some of these stories appear to be of fairly

recent origin and possibly linked to the 1700 earth-
quake; others are apparently much older.

Native peoples have lived on the Cascadia coast

for thousands of years, transferring knowledge

from generation to generation through storytelling.

These Native groups spoke more than a dozen dis-
tinct languages (Thompson & Kinkade 1990), and

lived in a complex social landscape with both simi-
larities and differences between groups. Collection

and recording of Native stories began in the

1860s, almost 100 years after initial European

contact in Cascadia, resulting in losses of Native


Thunderbird and Whale are beings of superna-
tural size and power. A story from Vancouver

Island says that Thunderbird causes thunder by

moving even a feather, and that he carries a large

lake on his back from which water pours during

thunderstorms (Carmichael 1922). The same story

says that all creation rests on the back of a

mammoth whale and tells of an occasion when

Thunderbird drove his talons deep into the quivering

flesh of Whale’s back, and Whale dived and dragged

the struggling Thunderbird to the bottom of the

ocean; imagery suggestive of ground shaking and

ocean surges. In this story, three of the four original

thunderbirds were drowned in this manner, and one

remains alive. Other stories also have multiple

whales or thunderbirds (Fig. 1, stories 1d, 15b,

22b; Reagan 1934, p. 25; Spott & Kroeber 1942,

p. 227–232) that may refer to aftershocks.

Stories 5, 9, 14a and b, and 15a (see Fig. 1) further

tie the story of a supernatural battle to the flood, with

imagery that implies shaking—Thunderbird lifts the

massive Whale into the air and drops it on the land

surface. The flood description in story 15a is strik-
ingly similar to story 10, which hints at a historic

framwork by placing the event ‘A long time ago

… but not at a very remote period’.

The struggle between Thunderbird and Whale is

unique to the Cascadia coast, and appears in stories

from Vancouver Island to northern Oregon. From

central Oregon south, Thunder or Whale figures

appear individually in stories describing earthquake

or tsunami themes. The central figures variously

appear in the form of Thunder, Thunderbird or

bird, and Whale, fish, or sea monster. In northern

California, the Yurok tribe has an ‘Earthquake’

figure with ‘Thunder’ as his companion. Stories

from Puget Sound and eastern Washington also use

similar motifs in conjunction with descriptions of

earthquake effects. Story 16, of the battle between

the double-headed eagle and the water-monster, is

about the creation of Agate Pass, a Puget Sound

waterway far from the outer coast, but adjacent to

the Seattle Fault, where a magnitude 7.4 earthquake

caused a Puget Sound tsunami (Moore & Mohrig

1994) about 1100 years ago (Bucknam et al. 1992).

are dateable, a few have vaguely historical time-
frames. In addition to describing earthquake

effects, Thunderbird and/or Whale stories have a

general association with landscape-forming

events, such as glacial moraines (Fig. 1, story

15b), icefalls (Reagan & Walters 1933), and land-
slides (Barbeau & Melvin 1943). Thunderbird also

appears in stories about thunder, lightning, and

rain. Thunderbird and Whale stories are part of a

systematic oral tradition that used symbolism and

mnemonic keys to condense and present infor-
mation in a format that could be remembered and

retold for generations. Native populations wit-
nessed multiple cycles of CSZ earthquakes; geo-
logical evidence indicates at least seven in the last

3500 years (Atwater & Hemphill-Haley 1997).

Artifacts depicting Thunderbird and Whale that

long predate the 1700 earthquake have been recov-
ered from coastal archeological sites (McMillan

2000). Knowledge of a repeating earthquake cycle

may be implied in a story where the Thunderbird

becomes a man and sends his Thunderbird

costume back to the sky saying: ‘You will not

keep on thundering, only sometimes you will

sound when my later generations will go (die).

You will speak once at a time when those who

will change places with me will go (die)’ (Boas

1935, p. 65).

theme in carved and painted art of the outer coast

and coastal fjords of Vancouver Island (Malin

1999) (Figs 2 & 3), where broad ocean openings

Fig. 2. Two interior ceremonial screens from Port Alberni, dating from the late nineteenth century. The screens

depict the Thunderbird, accompanied by the lighting serpent and wolf, carrying the Whale in its talons. Collection of

American Museum of Natural History; 16.1/1892 AB. The screens are said to commemorate a ‘chief’s encounter

with the supernatural while checking his sockeye traps at Sproat Falls’ (Kirk 1986). Sproat Falls is just above

the modelled extent of the 1700 tsunami (Clague et al. 2000).


Fig. 3. Nootka Sound Memorial, erected 1902–1903 to

honour Chief Maquinna, who died in 1902. Thunderbird

and Whale are shown as similar in size to Conuma Peak.

Photo PN11478-A, taken by C.H. French and

reproduced with the permission of the Royal British

Columbia Museum.

funnel water into narrow waterways that run far

inland. Port Alberni, at the landward terminus of

Barkley Sound, 40 km from the ocean, experienced

tsunami run-up about six times larger than sites on

the open coast following the 1964 Alaska earth-
quake (Sokolowski Alaska Tsunami Warning

Centre). Clague et al. (2000) have documented

tsunami deposits from both the 1964 and 1700

earthquakes in Port Alberni and other fjord-like

inlets on Vancouver Island. Alert Bay, between

the northern end of Vancouver Island and the main-
land, also has prominent Thunderbird and Whale

artworks (Fig. 4) and story themes linking Thunder-
bird and flooding (Fig. 1, story 1a), and placing

flooding at the time of the winter ceremonial

(Fig. 1, story 1b).

Native stories, art, ceremonies, and naming pre-
serve memories of Cascadia subduction zone earth-
quakes. Ancient, recurring imagery describes

earthquake and tsunami effects and suggests aware-
ness of repetitive cycles of world-altering events.

Likewise, similarities in symbols and imagery

along the length of Cascadia suggest commonly

experienced events. We now take a closer look at

earthquake-related lore from the Puget Sound area.

A’yahos, the AD 900 Seattle earthquake and

earthquake lore from the Puget Sound area

along the Seattle fault

The Seattle fault is a multi-stranded east –west

striking reverse fault cutting across Puget Sound,

through downtown Seattle, and across Lake

Washington. Although geophysical evidence has


Blukis Onat 1987). Natives passed down knowl-
edge of these events in their oral tradition using

descriptive metaphors based on their cultural con-
cepts, often ascribing earth shaking to actions of

supernatural beings.

In 1985, prior to published evidence of the AD

900 earthquake on the Seattle fault, an article in

the Seattle Weekly (Buerge 1985) mentioned a

Native American ‘spirit boulder’ associated with

earthquakes and landslides located near the Fauntle-
roy ferry dock in west Seattle. The proximity of this

location to the Seattle fault invited investigation and

we discovered that the Fauntleroy Spirit boulder is

associated with a supernatural being called

a’yahos. Native stories often describe a’yahos in a

way that could refer to earthquake effects,

especially landslides. A’yahos is a shape-shifter,

often appearing as an enormous serpent, sometimes

double headed with blazing eyes and horns, or as a

composite monster having the fore-quarters and

head of a deer and the tail of a snake (Mohling

1957). A’yahos is a ‘Doctor’ spirit power; reserved

for shamans. It is one of the most powerful personal

spirit powers; malevolent and dangerous to encoun-
ter. A’yahos is associated with shaking and rushes

of turbid water and comes simultaneously from

land and sea (Smith unpublished notes). ‘At the

spot where a’yahos came to a person the very

earth was torn, landslides occurred and the trees

became twisted and warped. Such spots were recog-
nizable for years afterward.’ (Smith 1940)

specific places in the central Puget Sound, along

the Hood Canal, and on the Strait of Juan de Fuca

as far west as the Elwha River. A total of 13

a’yahos sites are mentioned in various stories

(Fig. 5a, b), and these locales coincide with

shallow faults around Puget Sound, including the

Little River fault along the strait of Juan de Fuca,

the Tacoma fault, and the Price Lake scarps

(Haugerud et al. 2003). Five of the a’yahos story

sites are located very close to the trace of the

Seattle Fault (Fig. 5b). Four of the Seattle locales

can be associated with landslides or reports of

land-level changes that might have been caused

by the AD 900 Seattle earthquake. Additional Native

stories related to shaking, landsliding, or land-level

change are associated with three of these sites.

A’yahos stories along the Seattle fault

The west Seattle a’yahos spirit boulder mentioned

by Buerge (1985) is located on the beach immedi-
ately south of Fauntleroy Ferry Dock (Fig. 5b:1),

Fig. 5. (a) Map of Puget Sound and eastern Olympic Peninsula. Boxed area indicates location of larger-scale map

shown in Figure 5b. Dashed lines show locations of some shallow faults (after Haugerud et al. 2003); LR F, Little River

fault; T F, Tacoma Fault; DDM FZ Darrington Devil’s Mtn fault zone; PL S, Price Lake Scarps; FC S Frigid Creek Scarps.

Numbers in Figure 5a indicate sites outside the Seattle fault area associated with a’yahous stories. 1, Elwha River; 2,

Dungeness River; 3, Dabob Bay; 4, Bald Point also known as Ayers Point; 5, Tahuya River; 6, Medicine Creek (Nisqually

Delta); 7, American Lake; 8, Black Diamond Lake (1–5 from Elmendorf, 1993; 6 and 8 from Waterman 2001; 7 from

Smith, 1940). (b) Larger-scale map showing the Seattle fault zone, a’yahos story localities (indicated by black circles),

other stories that have apparent connection to earth shaking or landsliding (indicated by grey circles), and archaeological

sites (white circles). 1, Fauntleroy; 2, Alki Point; 3, Lake Washington a’yahos site; 4, South Point, Mercer Island; 5,

Madison Park; 6, Three Tree Point; 7, Agate Passage; 8, Bremerton; 9, Moore Point; 10, Portage Bay; 11, West Point; 12,

Duwamish Site No. 1. LIDAR images of Fauntleroy (1) and Three Tree Point (6) are shown in Figure 6.


below what appears to be a very large landslide of

undetermined age clearly visible in LIDAR

images (Fig. 6a) but not shown on existing geologi-
cal maps. Long term local residents Mory Skaret

and Judy Pickens pointed out the boulder; Water-
man (2001) indicated a location further south,

near Brace Point. Stories of a’yahos spirit power

are told about both the Fauntleroy boulder (Water-
man 2001) and Alki Point (Smith unpublished

notes), immediately to the north and uplifted

during the AD 900 quake. Stories about Alki Point

speak of shaking, rocks exploding, and the power

coming from sea and land simultaneously (Smith

unpublished notes).

The second place in Seattle associated with

a’yahos is by the shore of Lake Washington (Fig.

5b: 3). According to elders who worked with T.T.

Waterman, ‘On the lake shore opposite the north

end of Mercer Island … an enormous supernatural

monster … lived’ (Waterman 2001, p. 102). Large

block landslides dated to AD 900 slid into Lake

Washington from the southern end of Mercer

Island and at Madison Park (Karlin & Abella

1992), about 2 km south and north, respectively,

Fig. 6. LIDAR images (from the Puget Sound LIDAR

Consortium 2000) showing apparent landslides at

localities said to be a’yahos dwelling places; (a) Fauntleroy

Cove in West Seattle (b) Three tree point in Burien.


The description of the widened channel could

reflect permanent ground level change, and the

sense of ground motion suggested by the story is

accurate; Agate Passage is on the down-thrown

northern side of the Seattle fault. However, geologi-
cal evidence suggests that the AD 900 earthquake

produced mainly uplift on the southern side, with

the north side down only slightly; the correspon-
dence between the story and reality is approximate

rather than exact. We note, however, that some

‘drift’ seems reasonable in a story that may be a

thousand years old and has been preserved through

extreme cultural destruction. This story, set in an

undated ‘long ago’, is strikingly similar to the

stories from the outer coast of Cascadia that use

the struggle of a supernatural bird and water-beast

to refer to earthquakes on the Cascadia subduction

zone (Ludwin et al. 2005a). The ‘long ago’ time

frame suggests an origin more ancient than 1700.

A fifth place, on the Kitsap Peninsula near

Bremerton (Fig. 5b: 8), is said to be another spot

where shamanistic spirit-power could be acquired

(Waterman 2001, pp. 206 – 207; Smith unpublished

notes). Sam Wilson, born in 1861, and grandson of

Chief Seattle told Marian Smith, ‘it comes from

land and sea at same time’ (Smith unpublished

notes). No obvious geological features were noted

at this site, though it is situated between several

strands of the Seattle fault. On the Puget Sound

shore of Kitsap Peninsula just east of this locality,

at Moore Point near Illahee State Park (Fig. 5b: 9),

is a spot named ‘to have a chill’ or ‘to feel a

tremor’ (Waterman 2001, pp. 206 – 207). A com-
parison of earth tremors to feverish chills was

made by Aristotle (Leet 1948) and it is possible

that the Natives of Puget Sound drew a similar con-
nection. Although the origin of the name ‘to feel a

tremor’ is uncertain, shaking was a central

element in Puget Sound Native medical practices

and ceremonials, and a’yahos was a potent source

of shamanistic ‘Doctor’ power, as discussed below.

Native ‘Doctor’ or shaman power was a particu-
larly strong form of spirit power. Throughout the

region, individuals sought personal spirit powers to

guide their lives and bring them luck and skill.

A’yahos was one of the most powerful of these per-
sonal spirit powers, though it was also malevolent,

dangerous, and possibly fatal to encounter (Smith

1940). A’yahos ‘Doctor’ spirit power was one of

only two powers (a’yahos and sta ́dukw’a) reserved

exclusively for shaman, and descriptions of both

these shamanistic powers include shaking or land-
sliding imagery (Elmendorf 1993; Smith unpub-
lished notes; Smith 1940; Waterman 2001).

Shaman were believed to hold the power to cure

certain illnesses, and also the power to cause illness

and even death (Suttles & Lane 1990). The name

of James Zackuse, a Duwamish Indian Doctor who

lived in Seattle on Lake Union’s Portage Bay

during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centu-
ries, translates to ‘trembling face’; rooted in ‘dzakw’,

the Puget Lowland Native word for earthquake

(Miller & Blukas Onat 2004, pp. 78–85).

Puget Sound Salish ceremony, when ritual objects

filled with spirit power and became self-animated

(Miller 1999, p. 133; Elmendorf 1993, p. 192 – 198;

Haeberlin & Gunther 1930, p. 79). An early white

settler noted a specific connection between cer-
emony and earthquake shaking as early as 1893:

During the past thirty-three years I have on many occasions endea-
vored to gather from the oldest and most intelligent Indians some-
thing of their earlier recollections; for instance, as to when the

heaviest earthquake occurred. They said that one was said to

have occurred a great many years before any white man had

ever been seen here, when mam-ook ta-mah-na-wis was carried

on by hundreds. This is the same performance they go through

when they are making medicine men, and consists of shouting,

singing, beating on drums and sticks and apparently trying to

make as much noise as they can. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1893)

Salish earthquake stories from outside Puget Sound

also draw a connection between ceremony and

shaking (Fig. 1, stories 8 and 22b; Ludwin et al.


Earthquake lore from Puget Sound in the

context of regional earthquake motifs

Although the a’yahos name appears to be specific to

central Puget Sound, the double-headed serpent is

widely known and depicted in NW cultures, and

may have been similarly linked to earth changes.

The Quileute, a non-Salish group living on the NW

Washington Coast, have artifacts depicting a two-
headed horned snake with the forelegs of a deer.

Although not clearly linked to a’yahos, stories

describe it as a vicious guardian spirit (Powell &

Jensen 1976). Another two-headed snake, the

Sisiutl, is a figure well known from stories and

ceremonial artifacts of northern Vancouver Island.

the subterranean world in the same way that snakes

do) appear in many Pacific Northwest coastal

stories that describe ground shaking and/or

tsunami-like floods, probably related to earthquakes

on the Cascadia subduction zone (Ludwin et al.

2005a). Whales per se are not prominent in

stories from the Seattle fault area, though the

water-serpent of Agate Pass is analogous to a

whale. However, in southern Puget Sound where

damaging earthquakes centred deep underground

are relatively common (occurring in 1949, 1965,

and 2001), several stories mention whales trapped

inland and thrashing their way out, sometimes

through underground channels (Ballard 1929).

Thunder, also common in coastal stories of


shaking and flooding, appears occasionally in

stories from Puget Sound (Ludwin et al. 2005b).

Figure 7 shows two versions of a Salish ceremo-
nial dance mask and costume linked to earthquakes

(Le ́vi-Strauss 1979), whirlwind (American

Museum of Natural History catalog), and thunder

(Jenness 1955). The Sxwayxwey (also Swai’xwe

and many alternate spellings) masks sometimes

include a two-headed snake (Jenness 1955). The

mask’s origin is relatively recent, probably some-
time after 1500 (Ludwin et al. 2005a), and is

described in a number of Salish stories that use

Fig. 7. Salish Swai’xwe masks associated with shaking,

whirlwind, thunder and the two-headed snake (Jenness

1955). The two open-mouthed protuberances above the

forehead likely represent snakes. (a) Mask from

mainland British Columbia, collection of American

Museum of Natural History; 16/9222A. (b) Mask from

Vancouver Island, photo by Edward Curtis (2001).


Fig. 8. Non-Salish Cascadia Native representations of

two-headed snakes. Neither of these figures has yet been

explicitly linked to earthquakes, but they likely represent

the same spirit power as a’yahous. Both have horns,

representing spirit power. (a) Quileute ceremonial

representation of t’abale, a vicious guardian spirit on the

northwestern Washington coast (Powell & Jensen 1976).

(b) Kwakwaka’wakw Sisiutl mask, from the northern end

of Vancouver Island, photo by Edward Curtis (2001).

Cannibal the additional names Rolling-Down,

Great-Mountain, Rock-Slide and Coming Down.

The two-headed Sisutl of the Kwakwaka’wakw is

similar in form to the two-headed supernatural

serpent a’yahos of Puget Sound, and its blood trans-
forms the child of the Thunderbird/Dzonoqwa into

the earthquake-related figure Stone-Body. The

inclusion of multiple earthquake-related mythic

figures (Thunderbird, Dzonoqwa, Stone-Body,

Sxwayxwey, Sisiutl) in a story about the foundation

of the great houses of the Kwakwaka’wakw

suggests that earthquakes deeply affected their

culture. The use of earthquake imagery from the

adjoining Salish and Haida cultures suggests earth-
quake events that were felt across tribal boundaries.

Non-geological evidence for the Cascadia

subduction zone earthquake of 1700 from

Cascadia and Japan

The precise dating of the Cascadia subduction zone

earthquake of 1700 is an example of how local lore

and other non-geological evidence can enhance

conventional geological knowledge. The 1700

earthquake was initially dated through Japanese his-
torical documents, and the date was confirmed inde-
pendently through Native American oral traditions

and dendrochronology.

(Fig. 1, stories 1c, 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, 17, 27 and 28)

have sufficient information for estimating a date

range since an event associated with shaking and/

or flooding (two stories with both, three with

shaking only, and four with flooding only). Two

stories, told between 1860 and 1964, tell of a grand-
parent who saw a survivor of the flood, and one of a

great-grandparent who survived it. Figure 9 tabu-
lates the accounts, and gives date ranges. Date

range minima and maxima are 1400 and 1825. All

estimates span the interval between 1690 and

1715, and the average value of the midpoints of

the date ranges is 1690. Discarding the earliest

and latest midpoints yields an average midpoint

date of 1701. This finding is remarkably consistent

with the 1700 date of the most recent CSZ earth-
quake determined from Japanese historical


of floods could possibly be reports of tele-tsunamis

(i.e. those arriving from distant earthquakes).

Alaskan and South American earthquakes produced

notable tsunamis on the Cascadia coast in the

twentieth century (Lander et al. 1993). Although

we do not know the history of Alaskan earthquakes

around 1700, tsunamis from South American earth-
quakes were recorded in Japan in 1730, 1751 and

1780 (Watanabe 1998). Japanese earthquakes

have not produced significant tsunamis in Cascadia

since at least 1806 (Lander et al. 1993), but locally

generated tsunamis damaged the Japanese coast in

1611, 1707, and 1771 (Watanabe 1998).

the 1700 earthquake are mostly straightforward

descriptions of flooding and/or shaking. Of these

stories, the clearest and most complete is from the

outer coast of Vancouver Island, recorded by

Chief Louis Nookmis following the 1964 Alaskan

earthquake. It describes a night-time earthquake

quickly followed by a tsunami that destroyed the

Pachena Bay people:

They had practically no way or time to try to save themselves. I

think it was at nighttime that the land shook … . I think a big

wave smashed into the beach. The Pachena Bay people were

lost … . But they who lived at Ma:lts’a:s, ‘House-Up-
Against-Hill’ the wave did not reach because they were on high

ground … Because of that they came out alive. They did not

drift out to sea with the others. (Fig. 1, story 7, Arima et al. 1991)

Huu-ay-aht First Nation and descendent of Chief


Fig. 9. (a) Tabulation of story elements for stories listed in Figure 1; effects, figurative motifs, and environmental

setting. Brackets by story numbers group stories from a common geographic locale. Symbols are as in Figure 1.

The ‘Whale’ motif is enclosed in quotes to cover a variety of sea-monsters appearing in the stories. (b) Date

range estimates and quotes used to calculate date range estimates. Date range estimates used the following

assumptions: a ‘generation’ is no fewer than 15 and no more than 40 years, events before age 5 are not remembered,

the maximum lifespan is 100 years, flood survivors were ‘old’ when seen, and an ‘old’ person is at least 40.

Louis Nookmis, has discovered previously unpub-
lished information that allows us to estimate a

date at between 1640 and 1740. This new infor-
mation comes from a comprehensive transcription

and translation of the 1964 recordings undertaken

by the Huu-ay-aht First Nation.

A second datable story that includes flooding and

shaking elements is from the northern margin of the

Olympic Peninsula in northwestern Washington. It

combines information from three independent

sources (Fig. 1, stories 11– 13) to yield a tale indi-
cating winter flooding with accompanying strong

shaking. A tradition that cannot be dated but

vividly describes strong night-time shaking, from


abandoned following the 1700 earthquake and

tsunami (Minor & Grant 1996; Hutchinson &

McMillan 1997; Losey 2002; Cole et al. 1996),

supporting the possibility that flooding stories

may reflect this event.

As we mentioned earlier, Japanese textual data

were instrumental in precisely dating the CSZ earth-
quake of 1700. The exact date and approximate time

of this earthquake (9 pm on 26 January 1700) were

determined from a variety of Japanese historical

documents such as domain (han) records, merchant

records, and the records of village headmen that

reported the arrival of a tsunami with no reports of

associated shaking (Satake et al. 2003). In addition

to recording the 1700 earthquake, Japan has a rich

folklore related to earthquakes and written and

graphic documentation that allows us to observe

how that folklore developed and interacted with

other aspects of Japanese culture. Earthquake

imagery in Japanese folklore has distinct similarities

to Cascadia imagery, and we explore this, particu-
larly through the example of 1855 Ansei earthquake,

which was followed for a few months by a brief but

abundant output of ‘namazu-e’ (catfish picture-
prints) that combined earlier earthquake folklore

with incisive observations on both earthquake

effects and current events.

Halfway to the present and halfway around

the world—The 1855 Ansei earthquake

in Japanese folk images

Japanese documents used to date the 1700 earthquake

focus on straightforward descriptions of areas flooded

by the 1700 tsunami and resultant damage and do not

touch upon the origin of the event. However, Japan

lies in an area of especially vigorous seismic activity

and it is not surprising that we can find abundant

earthquake-related data expressed both as written

records describing the effects of specific events and

in folk culture ideas about their cause. The long

written history available in Japan enables us to

track changing conceptions of earthquakes and

offers an interesting comparison to the earthquake

stories from the oral traditions of Cascadia. For

example dragons and other serpent-like creatures

associated with water were prominent in Chinese

and Japanese folk beliefs concerning earthquakes.

Figure 10 shows a broadsheet entitiled ‘The cause

of earthquakes and tsunamis’ published c. 1650. In

Japan, the serpent figure gradually gave way to that

of a giant catfish (namazu), a belief that parallels

the many shaking-related whale stories found in the

Pacific Northwest (Ludwin et al. 2005a).

The link between earthquakes and giant catfish

developed gradually over several centuries from

native Japanese folk beliefs with some influence

Fig. 10. ‘Earthquakes and Tsunamis Explained’,

c. mid-seventeeth century. On the outer edges of the

circled dragon are written the months of the year. What

appears to be a small sword is just above and touching

the dragon’s head. Below this sword is written

‘kaname-ishi’, (foundation stone). Inside the dragon are

the ‘the 60 plus islands of Japan and the various foreign

countries’. The last line of text inside the dragon

explains that all of these places should be regarded as

existing above the dragon. In other words, the dragon

resides under the earth. Normally, it is pinned down and

made immobile by the deity of the Kashima Shrine, who

presses down on a boulder (the foundation stone), which

presses down on the dragon’s head. The deity’s sword is

a substitute for the boulder. Sometimes, however, the

deity dozes or is otherwise distracted, and he lets up on

the boulder. The dragon is thus able to wiggle around

under the earth, which causes earthquakes (from Miyata

& Takada 1995, p. 54).

of Chinese ideas. The basic view was that a giant

namazu lived in the subterranean waters below the

Kashima Shrine in Hitachi Province (present-day

Ibaraki Prefecture, slightly north of Tokyo). A

large boulder called the foundation stone

(kaname-ishi) pinned the namazu down and kept

it largely immobile. The weight of the foundation

stone itself, however, was insufficient to suppress

the namazu’s movements, and the system depended

on the Kashima deity (Kashima daimyo ̄jin, often

known simply as Kashima) pressing down on the

stone. During the tenth month of each year

Kashima had to leave his post and travel south to

Ise to attend a meeting of the major Japanese

deities. In his absence, Kashima would leave the

local deity Ebisu in charge of pressing down on

the foundation stone. Whether owing to negligence

by Kashima himself or to Ebisu’s inability to

perform the namazu suppression tasks, earthquakes

took place when the lack of pressure on the

foundation stone allowed the giant namazu to

wiggle around under the earth. The severity of

shaking depended on the extent of the namazu’s



This basic understanding of the namazu-based

cause of earthquakes was subject to many variations

because it was enmeshed in the broader network of

Japanese folk religion. Cornelis Ouwehand’s

detailed, structuralist study of namazu images situ-
ates their themes within the broader matrix of folk

religion (Ouwehand 1964). One twist on the basic

motif was that Kashima often worked in close associ-
ation with the thunder deity and sometimes other

local deites of Edo. Namazu-e sometimes depicted

Kashima, Ebisu, and the thunder deity as being

jointly responsible for the devastation of a major

earthquake. Also, most early nineteenth-century

Japanese people associated earthquakes with water.

The namazu, of course, was a water-dwelling crea-
ture and the thunder deity manifests himself in

storms. Indeed, most popular newspaper accounts

of earthquakes also mention the presence of thunder-
storms associated with them (e.g. Kitahara 1999,

pp. 32–33, 36–37).

Although the namazu-based explanation of earth-
quakes had become widely known throughout

Japan by the early nineteenth century, it was not

the only way of describing the mechanism of earth-
quakes. The Ansei kenmonroku (Accounts of the

Ansei [1854 – 1859] era) contains a typical alterna-
tive, based on a widely known view of cosmic trans-
formation whereby the five primary agents of yin

and yang—fire, metal, wood, earth, water—

interacted to create the material world and to

embody the forces that govern it. With respect to

earthquakes, normally water ( purely yin) over-
comes fire (purely yang). Furthermore, water is

the agent normally holding sway in the subterra-
nean environment. Earthquakes result from the

occasions when fire overcomes water underground,

thus reversing the normal state of affairs. A broad-
sheet issued just after the Ansei earthquake of

1855 explained its cause in terms of both yin and

yang forces and the movements of namazu, but it

called the namazu-based explanation an ‘unsophis-
ticated theory’. (Wakamizu 2003, pp. 16 – 17).

Popular newspapers often started their accounts of

earthquakes with a simple, brief statement of yin

and yang forces being out of balance. For

example, the text of an account of the Ise earth-
quake (14th day, 6th month, 1854) explains that a

clash of yin and yang forces resulted in thunder in

the skies and shaking of the earth. An account of

an earthquake in Odawara (2nd day, 2nd month,

1853) employs verbatim the same explanation

(Kitahara 1999, pp. 32 – 33).

The key point here is that in nineteenth-century

Japan, multiple theories of earthquake causality

co-existed. Most of these theories postulated an

imbalance in the cosmic forces, expressed in

terms of the five agents (gogyo ̄) of yin and yang

or the subterranean movement of a giant creature.


Fig. 11. Untitled namazu-e showing (1) the

co-existence of two modes of thinking regarding the

causes of earthquakes and (2) the namazu as an agent of

world rectification ( yo-naoshi). Three members of the

construction trades, identified by their tools, are

celebrating their newfound wealth (the gold coins

apparently falling from the sky) by drinking with the

namazu. The foundation stone appears to be floating in

the air. On jacket of the man in the left foreground is the

character for earth ( ), while the jacket of the man in

the right foreground reveals the character for fire ( ).

The character for water ( ) forms the pattern of the

namazu’s robes, and the character for wood ( ) does

the same for the jacket of the man behind the namazu.

The airborne gold coins stand for metal ( ), whose

character also means gold or money. Earth, fire, water,

wood, and metal are the five agents of yin and yang,

whose imbalance was the cause of earthquakes in many

premodern theories throughout East Asia. The shaking

of the earthquake rectifies this imbalance, both in an

abstract sense and in more specific ways. In this case, the

tradesmen are receiving metal (gold, money) from the

wealthy members of society. Here the namazu can be

viewed as a literal cause of earthquakes, as a metaphor

for earthquakes, and as a symbol of social rectification

(from Wakamizu 2003, p. 69).

in the forces of yin and yang. Nevertheless, the

close link between namazu (or anything similar)

and earthquakes never developed in China.

Perhaps the most significant Chinese influence on

Japanese views of earthquakes came from the

ancient idea of heaven’s mandate (tianming). In

this view, which could accommodate both abstract

and anthropomorphic conceptions of the cosmic

forces, heaven (the cosmos) bestows on rulers a

mandate to govern based on their moral fitness.

Earthquakes, floods, famine, epidemics, and other

natural calamities were signs of heaven’s displea-
sure. This idea became the bedrock of classical

Chinese political theory. It was also influential in

Japan, especially in the notion that the cosmic

forces periodically rectify a social order gone

awry ( yonaoshi, ‘world rectification’). Earthquakes

were a major tool for bringing about such rectifica-
tion, and in this sense, they were not random occur-
rences. The print described above in which the

earthquake redistributes wealth reflects this way

of thinking. Earthquakes, therefore, necessarily

had political significance in premodern Japan, and

commentary on them could easily become com-
mentary on the state of society and government.

The namazu-e (catfish picture prints):

Japanese responses to the Ansei earthquake

For Japan, a particularly well documented example

of how folk beliefs intersected with contemporary

political and social culture is the Ansei earthquake

of 1855. On the second day of the tenth month

(November 11 in the solar calendar), a magnitude

6.9 earthquake with a shallow focus shook Edo

(present-day Tokyo) and a wide surrounding area.

Aftershocks continued for the next nine days.

Estimates of the number killed in the greater Edo

area range from 7000 to 10 000 (4000 – 5000 for

the downtown area), but the precise figure is uncer-
tain. This death toll amounted to roughly 1 in 170

Edo residents, and shaking and subsequent fires

destroyed 1 in 3 non-military houses and other

structures (Inagaki 1995, p. 64). The injured were

especially numerous, and fires burned for days

throughout the city.

geography, and politics magnified the psychologi-
cal impact of this earthquake in such a way as to

make it appear as a direct attack on the heart of

the bakufu, Japan’s military government based in

Edo. The distribution and severity of damage was

not uniform. Some areas suffered severe devas-
tation and loss of life, whereas other parts of the

city came through the ordeal with nearly all build-
ings and people shaken but intact. The damage

was less a function of proximity to the epicentre

than it was a function of topography and soil con-
ditions. The Yamanote Tablelands, an extension

of the Musashino Plateau, wound their way

through parts of the heart of Edo, constituting

modest upland areas. These upland areas were not


always obvious because of erosion and past filling

with soil or debris of low-lying areas. In 1590,

when Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542– 1616) made the

fishing village of Edo his base of operations,

human engineers and construction workers began

to reclaim the marshy flats around Edo Castle.

This process accelerated rapidly during the early

seventeenth century, after Edo became the de

facto political capital of Japan. Edo Castle itself

was on natural high ground, but much of the

prime land around the castle had been part of a

river drainage basin of Edo Bay a mere two or

three centuries earlier.

When the earthquake struck, it shook the whole

city, but structures on the firm foundation of the

uplands generally fared better. The severe damage

occurred in low-lying areas, especially areas of

land reclaimed from marshes and waterways. As

fate would have it, the most prominent neighbour-
hood of samurai residences, home to the bakufu’s

closest supporters among the domain lords,

leading bakufu officials, and several key bakufu

offices, was located at a place that during the

sixteenth century had been the Hibiya Inlet of Edo

Bay. The earthquake devastated this neighbour-
hood, as if it had targeted the government for

destruction. One residential zone further out from

the castle, the area adjacent to the elite neighbour-
hood, was home to commoners. Built on a firm

foundation, it suffered only moderate damage and

stood in stark contrast to the elite neighbourhood’s

collapse. In the eyes of commoners and elite alike,

the cosmic forces made a strong statement that

night (Noguchi 1997, pp. 73 – 108).

As if to add insult to injury, there was one more

odd twist to the earthquake damage. In the com-
moner neighbourhood of Kitachi-ku, for example,

not one main building collapsed. Nearly all the

serious injuries from this neighbourhood were the

result of falling roof tiles or eaves from collapsed

storehouses, built as separate structures from the

main buildings. Many other neighbourhoods reported

the same pattern, and all visual evidence points to

storehouses sustaining much worse damage than

any other type of structure. These rigid, heavy, mud

walled, tile-roofed storehouses tended to vibrate at

the same frequency as the high-frequency seismic

waves generated by the shallow-focus earthquake.

The irony is that the bakufu ordered this rigid,

heavy storehouse design in 1842 as a fire-prevention

measure (Noguchi 1997, pp. 118–120). In this way

too, the earthquake seemed to be paying especially

close attention to the government in its destruction.

Within two days of the initial shaking, printers

set up makeshift facilities in the relatively less

damaged areas and began to produce namazu-e

for sale through street vendors. Namazu-e sold

briskly for approximately two months before

Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories

Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories Ruth S. Ludwin1 , Robert Dennis2 , Deborah Carver3 , Alan D. McMillan4 , Robert Losey5 , John Clague6 , Chris Jonientz-Trisler7 , Janine Bowechop8 , Jacilee Wray9 , and Karen James10 INTRODUCTION Although scientific recognition of the earthquake hazard presented by the Cascadia subduction zone (CSZ) is relatively recent, native peoples have lived on the Cascadia coast for thousands of years, transferring knowledge from generation to generation through storytelling. This paper considers the ways in which information on coastal earthquakes is presented in native traditions and estimates the date of the most recent event from them. The primary plate-boundary fault of the CSZ separates the oceanic Juan de Fuca Plate from the continental North America Plate (Figure 1). It lies about 80 km offshore and extends roughly parallel to the coast from the middle of Vancouver Island to northern California. Although recognized as early as the mid-1960’s, the CSZ was initially assumed to be incapable of producing great megathrust earthquakes. It is seismically quiet, and no sizable earthquake has occurred on it since European settlement began. As the theory of plate tectonics matured, studies of subduction zones worldwide identified characteristics associated with megathrust earthquakes. These earthquakes are most common in areas where hot, young, buoyant crust is rapidly subducted (Heaton and Kanamori, 1984). Although the rate of subduction in Cascadia is relatively slow, the subducted crust is among the youngest and hottest anywhere. Field investigations soon located geological evidence of abrupt land-level changes characteristic of megathrust earthquakes in “ghost forests” of dead cedar trees in coastal estuaries in Washington and Oregon (Nelson et al., 1995). The cedars, originally above the limit of the tides, were killed when their roots were suddenly plunged into salt water. Beneath the surface of these same estuaries, soil cores revealed layered deposits showing a repeated cycle of slow uplift and rapid submergence. Preliminary age estimates based on radiocarbon dating (Nelson et al., 1995) and treering studies (Yamaguchi et al., 1989) suggested that the most recent earthquake happened about 300 years ago. The exact date and approximate time of the most recent CSZ earthquake, 9 PM on 26 January 1700, were determined from Japanese historic records of a tsunami arriving with no reports of associated shaking (Satake et al., 1996). The year was con- firmed through close study of tree-ring patterns of ghost cedar roots (Yamaguchi et al., 1997). The magnitude estimate of 9.0 implies rupture along the entire length of the CSZ (Satake et al., 2003). Figure 1 shows the geographic extent of the likely rupture area. TRADITIONS FROM CASCADIA At the time of initial European contact, Cascadia native groups spoke more than a dozen distinct languages (Thompson and Kinkade, 1990) and lived in a complex social landscape with both similarities and differences between groups. Collection and recording of native stories began in the 1860’s, more than 350 years after the first European contacts in North America, almost 100 years after initial contact in Cascadia, and nearly 50 years after European settlement began. As a result, as much as 95% of native oral traditions may have been lost (Jacobs, 1962), and available recorded examples may not be a representative sampling of the original material. Storyteller, transcriber, and language and cultural issues all affect the story that ends up in print. Nonetheless, versions of oral traditions are preserved in hundreds of sources, and numerous stories describe shaking or marine flooding. Artifacts, dances, songs, ceremonies, and personal and place names supplement the range of information available for study. We are deeply indebted to the many informants who shared their stories and allowed them to be preserved in written form. Figure 1 shows source locations for 40 native stories from 32 independent sources. These stories represent less than a third of the known stories that refer to shaking or marine 1. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington 2. Huu-ay-aht First Nation 3. Carver Geologic, Inc. 4. Department of Anthropology, Douglas College 5. Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta 6. Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University 7. FEMA Region X 8. Makah Museum and Cultural Center 9. Olympic National Park 10. Bainbridge Island, Washington Seismological Research Letters March/April 2005 Volume 76, Number 2 141 flooding and were selected on the basis of clarity, descriptions of phenomena notable in megathrust earthquakes, and geographic distribution. Some of these stories have been discussed in earlier studies (Heaton and Snavely, 1985; Clague, 1995; Carver and Carver, 1996; Minor and Grant, 1996; Hutchinson and McMillan, 1997; Losey, 2002; McMillan and Hutchinson, 2002). Figure 2 tabulates story elements and gives date estimates. Stories referenced in Figures 1 and 2A have been broadly grouped into three time categories: stories from which dates can be estimated, stories that are clearly historical but impossible to date, and apparently mythic stories without any clear timeframes. Historical stories cannot be distinguished from myth by style or content alone, however (story ref. 23, p. ix), and stories that appear to be mythological may be based on historical events. Stories designated as historical in the source texts are identified as historical in Figures 1 and 2A. Stories vary considerably in content and style along the Cascadia coast. At the southern end, many stories explicitly mention both earthquakes and tsunami. At the northern end, there are explicit earthquake stories and explicit flood stories, but only a few stories including both phenomena. In the middle portion of the CSZ, along the coast of Oregon and Washington, direct mention of earthquakes is rare and stories of marine floods are common. The differences likely result from differences in the collection and preservation of stories, and may also reflect differences in native cultures and lifestyles along the Cascadia coast or variations in earthquake effects. HISTORICAL TRADITIONS Nine

Searching for Native Stories about Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquakes

Ludwin2001_Poster_SSA orig


Great earthquakes along the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) have been taking place for thousands of years. The most recent CSZ earthquake (estimated magnitude 9) occurred on January 26, 1700. The exact date was deter- mined from historic records of a tsunami that struck Japan, and confirmed by tree-ring studies of coastal trees killed when land level changes plunged their roots into tidal water.

A search of Native American myths, stories, and traditions has revealed an abundance of accounts from Washington and Oregon that may be connected to Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquakes.

Finding Fault: Indigenous Seismology, Colonial Science, and the Rediscovery of Earthquakes and Tsunamis in Cascadia

Finding Fault: Indigenous Seismology,

Colonial Science, and the Rediscovery of

Earthquakes and Tsunamis in Cascadia


On Ash Wednesday in the new millennium’s first year, the earth deep beneath

Puget Sound slipped. Some thirty miles below Anderson Island, just off the

Nisqually River’s delta, a piece of the planet’s crust fractured and slipped

a meter or so, and sent out pulses of energy the equivalent of about thirty-
five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. The resulting earthquake was felt from

northern Oregon to British Columbia and had major effects throughout the

region; in Seattle, the temblor damaged many of the city’s cultural icons. The

world headquarters of Starbucks shed its cladding, while at the Windows XP

operating system’s unveiling in the Westin Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, Microsoft

founder Bill Gates was interrupted midspeech by falling light fixtures. Perhaps

most frighteningly, the Space Needle rang like a titanic bell as it swayed from

side to side. Despite the low number of human casualties—just one person

died, from a heart attack—the region’s infrastructure was heavily impacted.

Only in late 2004 did the Washington State Capitol Building, whose stone

columns were shoved out of plumb, reopen to the public. Meanwhile, the

future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle’s waterfront, sent listing by the

quake, remains among the city’s most hotly debated topics.1

This kind of thing had happened before. On 13 April 1949, a quake

with nearly the same epicenter registered a 7.1 on the magnitude scale (in

Coll Thrush is assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia in

Vancouver, where he teaches indigenous, environmental, cultural, and world history.

He is the author of Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place and is working

on two books: an environmental and cultural history of indigenous and newcomer

food systems on the Northwest Coast and a cultural history of indigenous travelers to

London, England. Ruth Ludwin is a research seismologist with the Pacific Northwest

Seismic Network and affiliate faculty in the Canadian Studies Center in the University

of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. She has located,

compiled, and publicized Native American and First Nations stories that describe

geologic events that transformed the Pacific Northwest’s landscape.



2 american indian culture and research journal

comparison, the 2001 event was a 6.8).2 It was felt across 150,000 square miles

of the Pacific Northwest, from northwestern Montana and the interior of

British Columbia to the southern Oregon coast, and caused a total of eight

deaths. On 29 April 1965, a 6.5 quake centered between Tacoma and Seattle

was felt over almost the same area and resulted in seven deaths.3 Combined

with smaller seismic events throughout the Pacific Northwest’s postresettle-
ment history and the enormous Alaskan earthquake of Good Friday 1964,

whose resulting tsunamis killed people as far south as California, the 1949,

1965, and 2001 earthquakes suggested that the northwest edge of North

America was an unquiet place.4

Despite this history, most residents of the Pacific Northwest, including

virtually all of the region’s geologists, believed until the late twentieth century

that they lived on a relatively stable chunk of planetary crust.5 (In this respect,

the region was quite different from California, where earthquakes are not

only a common occurrence but also where they became a central leitmotif

in what urban critic Mike Davis has called “the imagination of disaster.”)6

Beginning in the 1980s, however, this fundamental misapprehension of the

region’s geological realities was challenged as scientists and others found

evidence of massive seismic events along the coast. More than simply the

accrual of abstract environmental data, this discovery was also embedded

within a complicated set of relationships between indigenous and settler soci-
eties in the region and between the kinds of knowledge those two societies

had created in this place. Even at the twenty-first century’s beginning, the

categories of historical experience known as discovery and encounter are still

very much in play.

Recent scholarship on disasters such as earthquakes—along with hurri-
canes, floods, and forest fires—has emphasized the fact that although the

origins of such events are usually based in geological, meteorological, or

other environmental processes, the resulting destruction of property and

lives is shaped, and in many cases exacerbated, by human choices. Hurricanes

devastate because we place trailer parks and beachfront resorts in their paths;

rivers destroy because we build on their floodplains and denude their valleys’

slopes; fires rage in part because forest practices and building methods allow

them to. “Natural” disasters, then, are often human constructions as much as

they are “acts of god.”7

In the case of earthquakes on the Northwest Coast of North America—or

Cascadia, as we refer to the region in this article—there is a manmade quality

to the potential for disaster. Part of this is material: industrial areas are built

on soils given to liquefaction, and neighborhoods are perched on slide-prone

bluffs. Another, and less well understood, element of the manmade-ness of

Cascadia’s seismic peril is not so much material as cultural and, ultimately,

historical. All along the Northwest Coast of North America, Native American

and First Nations oral traditions include rich, explicit, and often detailed

accounts of seismic events, including ones far larger than the Seattle-area

quakes of 1949, 1965, and 2001. Cascadia is regularly wracked by some of

the largest seismic events known to humanity; this fact and the fact that the

indigenous traditions that speak to it were ignored or misunderstood until

Finding Fault 3

the 1990s suggests that knowledge of the environment, including scientific

inquiry, is grounded in the historical relationships between indigenous and

settler societies.

Scientific understandings of the world take place within specific social,

cultural, and political contexts as opposed to revealing timeless, universal,

neutral truths. This has been one of the most profound, and well-docu-
mented, contributions of the last generation of scholarship in the history of

science.8 The recent “rediscovery” of Cascadia’s seismicity is best understood

in this way as well: as an intellectual and cultural development within the

context of colonialism. In this article, we examine the Northwest Coast’s rich

indigenous seismological traditions; make connections between colonialism

and the production and privileging of certain kinds of environmental data

about the region’s seismic past; and illuminate ongoing issues of proprietary

cultural knowledge, environmental justice, and risk management as they

relate to its seismic future. The story of modern nonindigenous Cascadians

“waking up” to their home’s earthquake potential illustrates the legacies,

material and intellectual, of colonialism and illuminates the encounter of two

very different societies with the same place and with each other (see fig. 1).9

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ), a deep sediment-filled trench that

stretches from the north end of Vancouver Island to northern California, is

the place where the Juan de Fuca crustal plate dives beneath North America;

some of it emerges in molten form through the Cascade Range’s volcanoes

(from which Cascadia takes its name). As the location of the region’s—and

some of the world’s—largest earthquakes, the CSZ is also the site of evidence

that Cascadia is a single structural unit. Along the continental shelf’s edge,

particularly offshore from great rivers and inlets, ancient and massive

earthquake-spawned underwater landslides known as turbidites are the CSZ’s

smoking guns. Turbidite layers can be counted at many offshore locations

and suggest that when Cascadia goes, it often goes all at once. The result

is known as a megathrust quake, which can drop the coast’s large sections

several meters in a matter of seconds. Planetary processes define Cascadia as

a region.10

Not long before current theories of glaciation and human migration

into the Americas began to take shape, anthropologist Franz Boas recorded

a story told by the Heiltsuk, whose territories lie at the northernmost edge

of Cascadia, that described how “in the beginning there was nothing but

water and ice and a narrow strip of shore-line.”11 In a region where highly

acidic soils destroy most vestiges of human civilization, assemblages of stone

tools and other artifacts nonetheless suggest that the region’s first peoples

arrived soon after, and perhaps before, the great ice sheets had completely

retreated.12 During those dozen millennia, the CSZ wreaked its havoc recur-
rently if not regularly; turbidite evidence points to at least thirteen megathrust

quakes on the CSZ in the last seven thousand years, with an average interval

of about five centuries.13 Meanwhile, smaller deep quakes, like the three that

shook twentieth-century Puget Sound country in the late twentieth and early

twenty-first centuries, and locally devastating surface quakes also punctuated

indigenous life along the Northwest Coast.14

4 american indian culture and research journal

Figure 1. Locations of

Aboriginal accounts of

earthquakes and tsunamis

and estimated extent of the

January 1700 event along

the Cascadia Subduction


Finding Fault 5

Cascadia’s seismicity profoundly shaped indigenous peoples’ understand-
ings of their homelands, and oral traditions collected by European, Canadian,

and American newcomers paint vivid pictures of the effects of the region’s

earthquakes on the communities that made their homes there. An elder of

the Cowichan people of the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, for example,

told ethnographer Charles Hill-Tout that “in the days before the white man

there was a great earthquake. It began about the middle of one night . . . threw

down . . . houses and brought great masses of rock down from the mountains.

One village was completely buried beneath a landslide.”15 Accounts from

peoples of the outer coast, meanwhile, speak to the tsunamis generated by

quakes on the CSZ. Louis Nookimus, also known as Louis Clamhouse, a

Huu-ay-aht Nuu-chah-nulth elder from Vancouver Island, recalled what had

happened to the people at Pachena Bay:

They had practically no way or time to try to save themselves. I think

it was at nighttime that the land shook. . . . I think a big wave smashed

into the beach. The Pachena Bay people were lost. . . . But they who

lived at Ma:lts’a:s [House Up Against Hill] the wave did not reach

because they were on high ground. . . . Because of that they came out

alive. They did not drift out to sea with the others.16

The Tseshaht, a neighboring Nuu-chah-nulth people, told a similar story:

The tide began to flow, and crept slowly up to about halfway between

the point of its furthest ebb and the houses. At this point, its pace was

suddenly quickened, and it rushed up at fearful speed. The Sheshaht

ran to their canoes [and] were all soon caught by the rising water . . .

finally, the water covered the whole country.17

The Huu-ay-aht and Tseshaht territories are near the CSZ’s northern end, but

similar stories reverberate as far south as Oregon and California. The Coos of

the central Oregon coast spoke of communities being “swept away clean,” and

the Yurok of northern California told of sinking prairies and land that would

“quake and quake and quake again . . . and the water was flowing all over.”18

As newcomers began to resettle the region in significant numbers

beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, some of them collected stories of

earthquakes and floods. Settler James Swan, for example, learned from his

Makah neighbors that the Pacific had once risen “without any swell or waves,”

which inundated the Waatch River plain all the way through to the Strait of

Juan de Fuca and turned Cape Flattery into an island. Swan found the story

to have the ring of truth:

There is no doubt in my mind of the truth of this tradition. The

Waatch prairie shows conclusively that the waters of the ocean once

flowed through it. And as this whole country shows marked evidence

of volcanic influences there is every reason to believe that there was

6 american indian culture and research journal

a gradual depressing and subsequent upheaval of the earth’s crust

which made the waters to rise and recede as the Indian stated.19

More than a century before geologists “discovered” the CSZ and the broader

implications of the region’s geology, settlers who had intimate contact with

indigenous peoples were given the opportunity to understand this compo-
nent of the place’s nature.

But if colonials like Swan showed some interest in the fact that earth-
quakes and tsunamis happened on the Northwest Coast, they were usually

unimpressed with indigenous explanations as to why such events happened.

The indigenous peoples of Cascadia, like other peoples around the world,

understood geological events to be manifestations of numinous forces in

the landscape. According to many Northwest Coast traditions, earthquakes,

especially big ones on the CSZ, were thought of as battles between enormous

birds that embodied the spirit of Thunder and great creatures, such as whales

and serpents, that dwelt in the ocean’s depths. The Oregon coast Tillamook

passed down a story about the struggles of a Whale, fished from the deep

by a Thunderbird, which thrashed about, shook the mountains, and caused

landslides. Similarly, an elder of the Olympic Peninsula Hoh people described

the aftereffects of a battle between Thunderbird and Whale:

My father . . . also told me that following the killing of this destroyer

. . . there was a great storm and hail and flashes of lightning in the

darkened, blackened sky and a great and crashing “thunder-noise”

everywhere. He further stated that there was also a shaking, jumping

up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great


Such indigenous explanations for seismic events did not only appear in

stories: the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Kwakwaka’wakw, for example, painted

Thunderbird and Whale on their cedar houses and carved them on totem

poles and ceremonial screens, which created compelling images that adver-
tised the spirit forces that transformed the land and sea and empowered the

houses’ owners (see fig. 2).20 The lower Columbia River Chinook, meanwhile,

told Franz Boas stories about flocks of dancing birds who sang, “Our legs are

small but we make the ground shake,” while other peoples in the region had

their own diverse explanations. As the peoples of Cascadia struggled over

millennia to come to terms with the geological realities of their homelands,

they developed interpretations of seismic events that simultaneously reflected

and shaped their lived experiences of place. Earthquakes and tsunamis

were central components of relations between human beings and the other,

nonhuman beings who inhabited the coastal regions.21

Although the specific explanations indigenous peoples offered for

earthquakes and tsunamis differed widely up and down the coast of Cascadia

and reflected those peoples’ diversity, the explanations typically shared

one trait: they linked environmental transformation directly to the human

condition. Most notably, they commonly connected earthquakes to healing

Finding Fault 7

Figure 2. One of many images of Thunderbird and Whale on the Northwest Coast, in this case

from the Tseshaht Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island.

and illness. Among the Coast Salish peoples of the Strait of Georgia and the

Fraser River valley, for example, the CSZ earthquake of 1700 may be linked

to the arrival of the famed sxwayxwey masks that are employed in winter

ceremonials and doctoring practices.22 Four such masks later arrived among

the Kwakwaka’wakw to the north through marriage with the Comox-speaking

Coast Salish and were used in healing rituals by professionals known as “earth-
quake dancers.”23

Even when seismic power was not explicitly associated with healing

and illness, earthquakes and tsunamis were understood to be moral events

reflective of relationships between and among human people and the other

residents of Cascadia. The Kwakwaka’wakw believed that quakes could result

from the activities of ancestral ghosts, who required burnt offerings as propiti-
ation for being disturbed, or from the mistreatment of domesticated and wild

animals.24 And among the Tseshaht Nuu-chah-nulth, those who “made light”

of retreating seas offended the whale spirits that could prevent humans from

drifting too far out to sea, and thus were lost.25 These connections between

earthquakes and human morals, behavior, and health attest to the importance

of propriety, order, and protocol within indigenous societies—structures that

must have seemed all the more important in a place that shook itself to pieces

every few generations. They also speak to the importance of the idea of reci-
procity in indigenous relationships with nonhuman peoples and entities, and

with the environment more generally..26

Through thousands of years of lived experience, then, the first peoples

of Cascadia had integrated the seismic reality of their homelands into their

most central cultural institutions. The Oweekeno, the Tillamook, and other

local peoples understood earthquakes and tsunamis as a fundamental part

8 american indian culture and research journal

of their lives and as a product of the relationships between the people and

their places. The argument made by today’s environmental historians of

catastrophe—that natural disasters are often in part human creations—

might have made good sense to the first peoples of Cascadia. Perhaps more

significantly from a historiographical perspective, indigenous histories of

place, represented here by seismological traditions, are akin in many ways to

the Annales approach to history with its emphasis on long-term, large-scale

processes and realities rather than the eye-blink events and tumults of human

life spans. Annales scholars such as Fernand Braudel profoundly influenced

the field of environmental history; because the search for Cascadia’s seismic

past is, at its core, environmental history, it is perhaps worth seeking out

similar millennia-long observations of the region’s past, framed within stories

like those of Thunderbird and Whale.27

The eminent Canadian geographer Cole Harris has argued that it is not

enough merely to parse the semiotics of colonialism, the imperial fantasies,

and the racist representations that have garnered so much attention from

literary scholars and others. We must also, he argues, examine the material

conditions that ultimately implemented those semiotics and make sense of

the roles that physical power, the structures of the state, flows of capital,

and technologies such as law and mapping played in turning indigenous

territories into imperial properties.28 Science was another of these forces; it

combined the material and discursive elements of colonialism and reflected

the linkages between European intellectual and imperial histories. That

Europe’s global ascendance was coeval with its own intellectual transforma-
tion is no coincidence; these two developments are the same story. As Maori

postcolonial theorist Linda Tuhiwai Smith has noted,

[t]he Enlightenment provided the spirit, the impetus, the confidence,

and the political and economic structures that facilitated the search

for new knowledges. The project of the Enlightenment . . . provided

the stimulus for the industrial revolution, the philosophy of liberalism,

the development of disciplines in the sciences and the development of

public education. Imperialism underpinned and was critical to these


The twinned histories of Enlightenment and empire made real on a global

scale the Latin adage scientia est potentia: knowledge is power.

Geology crystallized as a discipline in tandem with Europe’s domina-
tion of large swaths of the world. It was shaped by those encounters; Alix

Cooper has argued persuasively that European “discoveries” around the

world led intellectuals, including mineralogists and other natural historians,

to understand their own homelands in new ways, which in turn shaped how

explorers, colonists, and others saw the “new” worlds.30 Geology was central

to this process in that it offered a methodology to fuel the planet’s industrial

and economic transformation, but it also transformed historical narratives

about the earth and its peoples. In Britain, for example, geology’s profes-
sional corps emerged out of technical schools and state apparatuses designed

Finding Fault 9

to facilitate mining, although its amateur practitioners were rooted in the

upper classes whose personal fortunes grew with the empire. But if colonial

data—in the form of mining maps, ethnographic studies, and sales figures—

flowed into imperial centers through the exertions of new disciplines such

as geology, anthropology, and capitalist economics, only some data truly

counted. Colonial scientists and administrators typically ignored or dismissed

indigenous peoples’ own forms of knowledge. Out of the Enlightenment’s

certainties, new binaries were born: Europeans and their colonial offspring

had art, science, and history, while the “natives,” whether in India, the Congo,

or British Columbia, had corresponding (and, in the imperial mind, infe-
rior) categories of craft, superstition, and myth. Geologists, paleontologists,

and anthropologists often portrayed “races . . . whose existence had been

hidden from mankind” to be “like the fossil bones of antediluvian animals,”

which reinforced the perceived primitiveness of colonized landscapes and

colonized peoples.31

Enlightenment theories of race, which often corresponded neatly with

older prejudices, played a key role in these formulations of knowledge, but

there was a broader dynamic at work in the relationship between imperial and

indigenous knowledges: the local question. The global movement of peoples

and things in the Age of Empire colluded with the Enlightenment’s devotion

to rationality to privilege abstract forms of knowledge and to denigrate local,

and thus seemingly irrational, modes of thought. From Spanish friars who

referred to indigenous neophytes as gente sin razon (“people without reason”)

to Anglo-American jurists who believed Indians unfit to give legal testimony,

the indigenous became synonymous with the local and the disorderly. Empires

incorporated only the most obviously utilitarian aspects of the indigenous

vernacular: how to grow maize, which streams carried yellow metal in their

gravelly beds, or where to set up a commercial fishery. As European centers

and global peripheries became linked through networks of exchange and

control, only certain kinds of information carried value in the literal and figu-
rative senses of the word. Though the agents of empire often denigrated local

and indigenous forms of knowledge, however, their denigration only thinly

masked the fact that to no small degree, those forms of practical knowledge

made the empire possible.32

Just as imperialism and the Enlightenment were linked more broadly,

geological investigations of the Northwest Coast of North America went

hand in hand with the dispossession of the region’s indigenous peoples and

the denigration, dismissal, and dismantling of their systems of knowledge.

From Meriwether Lewis’s descriptions of Northwest geomorphology to the

painstakingly detailed soil descriptions of General Land Office surveys that

facilitated homesteading, the systematic cataloging of Cascadia’s earthly

wealth was a parallel process to—or perhaps more accurately, an integral

component of—colonialism. Explorers and surveyors were the vanguards of

empire and of Enlightenment.33 Science also supported the consolidation

of Cascadia into the modern continental nations of Canada and the United

States. In Victorian British North America, the exploratory, organizational,

and consolidating phases of geological practice exactly paralleled the political

10 american indian culture and research journal

development of what eventually became Canada, while in the American

West, synthesis and transmission of geological data from beyond the frontier

helped build scientific, military, and political institutions.34 On the ground,

geological discoveries—gold along the Fraser and Rogue rivers, coal in Puget

Sound country and on Vancouver Island—inspired waves of immigration that

accelerated, often violently, the dislocation of indigenous communities.35

Although geology’s relationship to colonialism is less well understood than

that of other disciplines such as biology and anthropology, it is clear that

scientific understanding of Cascadia’s geological (and thus economic) nature

went hand in hand with dispossession of its indigenous peoples.36

At the same time, scientific understanding of how that wealth came

to be—and how the planet works—changed over time, often as a result of

Europeans’ encounters with non-European places. At the Age of Empire’s

beginning, European thinking about earthquakes involved theories that

ranged from steam pressure to the allegedly hollow nature of Earth; some of

these ideas had been in circulation since Aristotle. But as Rachel Laudan has

noted, in the eighteenth century’s last decades and the nineteenth century’s

first half—not coincidentally, the period that saw European imperial expan-
sion approach its zenith—many conceptual foundations of modern geology

had begun to take shape, often inspired by encounters with far-flung places.

And by the early twentieth century, when the straightforward imperialisms

of Victoria and Leopold had begun to collapse, European understanding of

seismic events had been further transformed by new technologies and new

understandings of human and planetary history.37 However, the greatest

transformation, the ascendancy of plate tectonic theory in the 1960s, which

coincided with the discovery of the CSZ, came late. During the same years

that decolonization swept many parts of the planet, geological science, which

had been so transformed by the experience of imperial expansion, found its

own revolutionary truth: the earth’s thin skin was a dynamic thing and places

like Europe and North America were, quite literally, on the move. In the

words of John McPhee, people had begun to “discuss continents in terms of

their velocities.”38

In late-twentieth-century Cascadia, continental velocities were outpaced

by the speed with which the region’s new geological understandings devel-
oped. Although the CSZ had been identified soon after the rise of plate

tectonic theory, most geologists imagined that it slipped slowly, evenly, and

imperceptibly—essentially, they imagined that Cascadia was relatively safe.

Then, in the 1980s, a series of events took place that challenged these basic

assumptions. First, the Mount St. Helens eruption on 18 May 1980 leveled

more than 600 square kilometers of forest, killed fifty-seven people, and

blocked commercial shipping on the Columbia River for several weeks. The

eruption also drove home the point that the CSZ’s volcanic offspring were

active, far more active than most people previously thought.39 Meanwhile,

investigations into the seismic safety of a proposed nuclear energy facility

in southwest Washington yielded additional evidence of the region’s seismic

potential. First made public in the late 1980s, a picture had begun to develop

of Cascadia’s potential for what one journalist called a “big jolt.” A subduction

Finding Fault 11

quake on the Pacific coast of Mexico that heavily damaged Mexico City and

killed more than seven thousand people drew intense public interest; this was

most Cascadians’ first glimpse of the true nature of their region.40

The story of how geologists and others proceeded to determine the

precise nature and timing of the most recent big jolt—a megathrust quake

on the CSZ—illustrates the best in interdisciplinary environmental research.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, scholars from several disciplines in at least

three countries reopened a window into Cascadia’s precolonial environ-
mental history. Sediment cores from the region’s coastal zones showed sharp

horizons between soil and overlaying sand, which suggested an abrupt and

catastrophic drop followed by a rushing-in of seawater and sand. Similar hori-
zons were found as far as eight miles up some coastal rivers. Stands of dead

trees along the Washington coast were inundated and salt-killed during the

same event. Using dates from radiocarbon and from comparisons between

tree rings in these “ghost forests” and those of neighboring old-growth trees,

scientists began to look to the eighteenth century’s dawn as the date of this

most recent great quake. The winter of 1699–1700 coincided neatly with

Japanese records of a mysterious “orphan” tsunami that had struck the island

nation in late January 1700. Based on the waves’ amplitude, direction, and

timing as they struck a series of Japanese harbors, the earthquake that caused

the tsunami was determined to be at least magnitude 9 and most likely to have

occurred on the coast of Cascadia. (It was the coast of Cascadia—the whole

thing moved as a single entity.) Tsunamis also travel at a known velocity, and

so the most recent megathrust quake on the CSZ could be dated to about 9:00

p.m. on the night of 26 January 1700. Cataclysm had come on a Tuesday.41

Although some scientists looked to tree rings, soil horizons, and Japanese

documents, other scholars, including this article’s authors, began to look

for evidence of that midwinter night’s terrible events in the histories of the

indigenous peoples of Cascadia. In conjunction with published sources and

living Native communities, they brought the stories of Thunder and Whale

into conversation with more obviously empirical data. What they found was

that these stories strengthened the case for regionwide megathrust quakes.42

Archaeologists, meanwhile, contributed evidence that not only corroborated

the reality of those quakes but also suggested that indigenous stories of great,

people-dispersing floods may be memories of actual events.43 Together, oral

tradition and archaeological evidence brought indigenous experiences of

place and history back into Cascadia’s geological story. Thus, interdisciplinary

inquiry resuscitated, and ultimately vindicated, indigenous and local forms of

knowledge while science, which in its literalism had hitherto been deficient

in its ability to grasp the metaphorical meanings of Whale and Thunderbird,

began to “catch up” with indigenous environmental knowledge.44

But beyond providing localized descriptions of seismic events and simply

corroborating what science has already proven, can indigenous seismological

traditions also be considered scientific data in their own right? More to

the point, might they be able to point us toward new scientific discoveries?

This has certainly been the case in fields such as medicine and agriculture;

whether it will be so with seismology remains to be seen—it is only in the late

12 american indian culture and research journal

twentieth century that geologists have begun to understand their inquiry into

the region’s environmental past as a historical question, rather than simply

a scientific one. Robert S. Yeats, a former Oregon State University professor

and advocate for seismic hazard education, wrote recently that “maybe the

time during which records have been kept, less than two hundred years, is

too short for us to conclude that the Pacific Northwest is not earthquake

country.” Noting that the Northwest was “the last region of the Pacific Rim

to receive settlers willing to record their history,” Yeats suggests that the

recent arrival of textuality to Cascadia has limited our ability to apprehend

the region’s past.45 On one level, this is true: writing came last to this part of

North America. At the same time, the recentness of written records does not

explain colonial science’s tardiness in confronting indigenous data. Almost

as soon as colonialism arrived in the Northwest, its agents—Franz Boas,

James Swan, and numerous others—began to collect stories of earthquakes

and tsunamis. These sources effectively push Cascadia’s written history back

several generations before the arrival of explorers like Cook and Vancouver.

The recentness of regional textuality, then, cannot explain by itself why stories

of Thunder and Whale are only now being brought into the discussion of the

region’s dangers.

Instead, the problem seems to be with the data. Seismic hazards researcher

Ian Hutchinson and archaeologist Alan McMillan have noted that indigenous

stories can be extremely difficult to work with because of compression, frag-
mentation, and lack of contextual detail. “Perhaps because of the difficulty

of working with such materials,” they suggest, “few academic researchers

have given the evidence of past seismic events contained in the oral tradi-
tions much credibility.”46 Most notable among the perceived shortcomings of

indigenous environmental knowledge is its alleged resistance to dating: only

rarely can stories be placed in linear, calendrical time. But a number of stories

that describe the CSZ’s megathrust quakes and tsunamis include references

to time (examples include “perhaps not more than three or four generations

ago” in a story collected in the 1860s and “about seven generations ago” in

another collected seventy years later).47 Examined in aggregate, these stories

line up with the tree rings, turbidites, and other kinds of data associated with

the January 1700 megathrust event. In other words, they might have helped

point the way to that fateful Tuesday, had researchers been more prepared or

inclined to look (see fig. 3).48

What this suggests, then, is that colonial science’s struggle with indig-
enous seismology in Cascadia comes not just from the region’s short textual

history or from the perceived “timelessness” of indigenous oral traditions.

Rather, that struggle also has its origins within colonial science: from its own

youth in this region and from its technological and disciplinary limitations

but more importantly from its preferences for certain kinds of data and for

data produced by certain kinds of people. The rediscovery of Cascadia’s

seismic potential—for the use of the word discovery certainly seems hubristic

in this context—is thus embedded in, and reflective of, the relationships

between the two different kinds of societies, indigenous and settler, that have

inhabited the Northwest Coast of North America.

Finding Fault 13

1650–1825 (1c) “This is not a myth . . . my tale is seven generations

old . . . there was a great earthquake and all the houses of the Kwakiutl

collapsed.”—La’bid in 1930

1456–1756 (3) “The masked dance . . . originated with a man . . .

who lived about 12 generations ago.”—Unidentified informant in 1936

1670–1795 (4) “. . . the mask was first obtained five generations

before her own. . . .”—Mrs. Robert Joe, age >80 in 1950

1655–1814 (6) “The tide . . . rushed up at fearful speed. . . . The

Clayoquot who thus became a chief was the great-grandfather of

Hy-yu-penuel, the present chief of the Sheshaht. . . .”—Unidentified

informant in 1860

1640–1740 (7) “These are stories from my grandfather’s father

(born c. 1800), about events that took place four generations before

his time . . . over 200 years ago” “. . . the land shook . . . a big wave

smashed into the beach.”—Chief Louis Nookmis, age 84 in 1964

1600–1775 (13) “One old man says that his grandfather saw the man

who was saved from the flood. . . .”—Unidentified informant c. 1875

1400–1715 (17) “. . . eight or nine generations from my grandfather

there was a flood.”—Frank Allen, age 60 in 1940

1690–1805 (27) “My grandfather saw one of the old women (survi-
vors) who had been left alive. She had been hung up on a tree,

and the limbs of that tree were too high up. So she took her pack

line and tied it to a limb, and then when she wanted to go down by

means of that, she fell, she was just a girl when she fell from it. Her

back was broken from it (she had a humpback thereafter). That is

what she told about the raised water.”—Annie Miner Petersen, age 73

in 1933

1657–1777 (28) “. . . there was a big flood shortly before the white

man’s time, . . . a huge tidal wave that struck the Oregon Coast not

too far back in time . . . the ocean rose up and huge waves swept

and surged across the land. Trees were up-rooted and villages were

swept away. Indians said they tied their canoes to the top of the

trees, and some canoes were torn loose and swept away. . . . After

the tidal wave, the Indians told of tree tops filled with limbs and

trash and of finding strange canoes in the woods. The Indians

said the big flood and tidal wave tore up the land and changed

the rivers. Nobody knows how many Indians died.”—Beverly Ward,

recounting stories told to her around 1930 by Susan Ned, born in 1842

Figure 3. Earthquake and tsunami story elements from accounts in figure 1 and the accounts’

estimated date ranges.

After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, it is all too clear what a subduc-
tion zone megathrust quake and its resulting tsunamis look like. The event

that claimed nearly a quarter-million lives near the Indian Ocean’s shores

on 26 December 2004 captured the world’s attention and compassion with

apocalyptic scenes of destruction and suffering. Tsunamis along the coast of

Aceh, near the quake’s epicenter, piled as high as twenty-five meters, moved

at a clip of fifteen meters per second, and wiped away entire cities. From

Thailand to Sri Lanka and eastern Africa, human choices gave shape to the

disaster’s specifics: dense communities built on in-filled shorelines, the lack of

a regional tsunami warning system, and the killing curiosity that brought many

down to the beach to watch the sea recede. The largest and costliest disaster

in recent human history, the Indian Ocean earthquake and its tsunamis have

illustrated the unthinking agency of nature at its most horrific and humanity’s

role in the specific shapes that disasters take.49

In Cascadia, geologists and other observers have closely examined

the events of Boxing Day 2004 for one very good reason: the Sumatran

14 american indian culture and research journal

Subduction Zone and the CSZ are virtually the same size and thus bear

similar destructive capabilities.50 Combined with the 305th anniversary of

the last CSZ megathrust event, the Aceh quake inspired a wide range of

public discussion about the region’s tectonic dangers, from media coverage

of “inevitable disaster” and “haughty assumptions” to public hearings on

improved warning systems and coastal shelters. Such discussions have not

been limited to the threats of the CSZ; Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer also reported

in detail what would happen if another quake struck the fault zone that runs

through that city. At last, Cascadia might be taking such warnings seriously.

Since the Indian Ocean quake and tsunamis, emergency management agen-
cies have held town hall meetings in coastal communities, while one member

of Washington’s congressional delegation, using the political rhetoric of

the day, called “nature . . . the real weapon of mass destruction.” State and

provincial disaster-management officials have also begun meeting with tribal

communities who live on the coast. As Cascadians debate what to do about the

seismic threats they now understand they face, indigenous accounts of earlier

earthquakes and tsunamis are routinely included in the discussion, not just as

colorful stories but also as incontrovertible proof.51

Recognizing indigenous seismological data, putting it to use, and under-
standing the politicized landscape in which such deployments of knowledge

take place are three separate things. Just as the development of geology

took place within the context of colonialism and just as colonial science has

struggled with indigenous knowledge, policies intended to mitigate the next

big jolt’s effects in Cascadia are still entwined with the colonial structures that

continue to shape life in the region. Just as the “discovery” of Cascadia’s past

great earthquakes highlighted differential power relations between indigenous

and settler populations, so too will efforts to prepare for future earthquakes.

As the old forms of colonialism have collapsed throughout the world,

indigenous peoples have placed new and increasingly successful demands

on the nation-states, colonial or postcolonial, in which they have found

themselves. These demands—individual and collective ownership, access to

subsistence resources, and the sacred nature of traditional territories—often

center on the question of land. In some places, indigenous communities have

taken on the role of co-managers of those territories; this is especially true

in large swaths of Cascadia. In British Columbia and western Washington,

the past three decades’ treaty-rights cases have provided a legal and political

platform from which indigenous communities exert control over the use and

management of their homelands. Treaty law in Cascadia has provided critical

precedent for indigenous land rights throughout the world.

Along with this new political ascendancy of indigenous land rights,

indigenous forms of knowledge have also arrived at center stage as a way

to understand and manage ecosystems and natural resources. During the

same years that Cascadian scientists were “discovering” their region’s seismic

potential, interest in traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) also began

to develop momentum. The 1987 publication of Our Common Future, more

commonly known as the Brundtland Report, by the World Commission on

Environment and Development gave voice to a growing sentiment among

Finding Fault 15

scholars, practitioners, and indigenous people that traditional forms of

knowledge could and should have a place at the table.52 Since the 1980s,

the collection and use of TEK has not only contributed to the growing role

of indigenous communities as co-managers of their territories but also has

brought a renewed interest in local forms of knowledge more generally, which

challenges earlier preferences toward abstract, delocalized knowledge and

further reinforces indigenous claims to territory and resources.53

But for all its potential, TEK also presents new challenges. The first,

as anthropologist Michael F. Brown has noted, is that “categories basic to

science, such as the distinction between the animate and inanimate, may

have no standing in indigenous knowledge systems.” Second, the differential

power relationships between indigenous communities and governmental and

scientific bodies has caused scholars such as Paul Nadasdy, as well as many

indigenous leaders, to question whether shoehorning TEK into bureaucratic

environmental management regimes only replicates older inequalities.

Third, the tension between bureaucratic and indigenous understandings of

expertise is compounded by the belief among many indigenous people that

using TEK out of context renders it meaningless or even dangerous. The

earthquake and tsunami traditions included in this article, for example, were

part of specific ceremonial and social settings, and, in many cases, the details

of these contexts are lost to the historical record, which calls into question

exactly how much use present-day researchers—geological, anthropological,

or historical—can really make of them.54

Perhaps the greatest concern in regard to TEK, however, is that it will not

be used to benefit the people among whom it originated, which will result in

what scientist and global justice advocate Vandana Shiva has named biopiracy:

“the creation of property through the piracy of other’s [sic] wealth.”55

Biopiracy has a long history; as Londa Schiebinger and others have docu-
mented, colonial botanizing—the search for new foods and medicines—was

often at the imperial project’s heart and routinely depended on indigenous

and other forms of local knowledge.56 In more recent eras, indigenous knowl-
edge, resources, and practices obtained through corporate prospecting have

been patented or trademarked, with the original bearers of that knowledge

then being labeled as having infringed on a corporation’s rights. Similar

concerns exist in regard to academic research; as Linda Tuhiwai Smith has

noted, “indigenous peoples are deeply cynical about the capacity, motives,

or methodologies of Western research. . . . [I]t told us things already known,

suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who

already had jobs.”57

In Cascadia, where indigenous notions of intellectual and cultural

property are particularly strong, the relationship between researchers and

the researched have been complex and fractious, particularly regarding

TEK and resource management. Recent studies of traditional indigenous

uses of devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum) in the treatment of adult-onset

diabetes, for example, have spurred rapacious overharvesting of the plant

and a renewed commitment among ethical researchers and their indigenous

collaborators to protect certain kinds of knowledge and resources.58 South

16 american indian culture and research journal

of the border, the Tulalip tribes of Washington State are currently drafting

laws—according to some observers, the first of their kind anywhere—that will

trademark not only indigenous knowledge but also cultural resources on and

off the reservation, including plants used for medicines and other purposes.59

These kinds of on-the-ground encounters radically transform the terms by

which research, management, and exploitation—whether of resources or

of peoples—take place.

Similar tensions are now beginning to appear in Cascadia in regard

to seismology. Although in some indigenous communities in the region,

seismological traditions fell dormant or even disappeared in the chaos of

resettlement, in other communities these traditions persisted into the late

twentieth century. For example, even before the Indian Ocean devastation,

Chief Robert Dennis of the Huu-ay-aht people on the west coast of Vancouver

Island had announced that his people were considering relocating their

village on Pachena Bay—the destruction of which is described above—to

higher ground and were asking for Canadian federal funding to do it. Since

the events of Boxing Day 2004, the Huu-ay-aht have also been meeting with

other Nuu-chah-nulth communities, most of whom also have shoreline settle-
ments that a tsunami would wipe out, to decide on a broader plan in regard

to relocation, evacuation planning, and community education. To make their

case, Dennis and other Nuu-chah-nulth leaders note that knowledge from

their communities has helped science understand seismological phenomena

in Cascadia. That they should benefit from the use of that knowledge is, to

them, obvious.60 And on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the Quileute

tribe has closed public access to a popular scenic beach in order to encourage

the National Park Service either to cede or purchase for the tribe about eight

hundred acres of high ground, citing the tsunami threats to their low-lying

coastal reservation. Their close relatives the Hoh, meanwhile, conduct evacu-
ation drills and seek congressional approval to change their reservation’s

boundary to include higher ground.61 Such savvy mobilizations of the settler

society’s new awareness of seismic danger, informed by indigenous traditions

and the findings of Western science, have the potential to force governments

and scientific bodies to come to terms with the political and economic rami-
fications of the use of indigenous knowledge. Anything else, particularly in

Cascadia where indigenous communities make up a significant portion of

coastal populations, would be the geological equivalent of biopiracy.

The next time that the CSZ, the Seattle Fault, or one of the other seams

that run through Cascadia shudders and gives way, the resulting earthquakes

and tsunamis will likely overshadow all the seismic events of the past century

and a half—combined.62 The most recent event on the CSZ, for example, was

one thousand times stronger than the deep quake that struck Puget Sound in

2001. The more we learn about this place, the grimmer the prognosis, which

is only compounded by the development that has taken place since the arrival

of empire in Cascadia. In a region where perhaps two hundred thousand

indigenous people once lived, now millions make their home, and where

great longhouses and elaborate fish traps were once the most complex built

structures, now highways, gas pipelines, and water and sewer mains cross the

Finding Fault 17

Seattle Fault, and oil refineries, sewage treatment plants, and populous and

vulnerable cities now cover the landscape. One study, focused only on Oregon

and using conservative estimates, predicts that a magnitude 9 CSZ quake and

its concomitant tsunamis would claim five thousand lives and do some $12

billion worth of damage—if it came in the winter, when the coastal population

is at its lowest. Add Washington, British Columbia, and northern California

into the equation, as well as other places throughout the Pacific Basin that

would surely be affected by tsunamis, and have the quake take place during a

sunny summer weekend, and the death tolls would likely be on a scale more

like that of December 2004.63

Despite the regional soul-searching inspired by recent events in the

Indian Ocean, widespread denial regarding Cascadia’s seismic fate remains

a serious possibility now that the easily distracted public eye has wandered

from the tragedy of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and their neighbors. Robert Yeats

has described the responses he received after warning other Cascadians about

the risks they face:

Telling my Northwest neighbors that we have an earthquake problem

has been like telling them about carpenter ants in their basement

or about high blood pressure and high cholesterol as a result of

high living. The reaction was, “Yes, I know, but I don’t want to think

about it, let alone do anything about it.” . . . I began to feel like the

watchman on the castle walls warning about barbarians at the gate,

begging people to take me seriously.64

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are significant forces arrayed against disaster

prevention in Cascadia. Some business leaders on the Oregon coast worry

about the effects of tsunami paranoia on the local economy, and thus are

resisting lengthy public discussion of the issue. Meanwhile, despite calls to

add dozens of new warning buoys to the Pacific’s tsunami warning system,

half of those already in existence are inoperative thanks to budget shortfalls,

while relevant federal agencies such as the National Oceanographic and

Atmospheric Administration and the US Geological Survey are notoriously

underfunded, even as offshore oil drilling is back on the table in Canada and

the United States. For the moment, the region’s geological realities have yet

to be integrated into the administrative, economic, and cultural structures of

settler society.65

Beyond controlling the line between survival and death, Cascadia’s seis-
mological destiny will also reshape the region in ways we cannot predict. As

Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders have shown, giant earth-
quakes typically have a “vibrating string” of social aftereffects. On a scale of

weeks and months, such events can spawn epidemics, economic decline, reli-
gious revivals, social unrest, and even diaspora. Infrastructure reconstruction

and economic revival, if they happen, can take years or decades, while over

the course of centuries—as in the case of Cascadia’s indigenous traditions—

earthquakes can become indelible parts of a region’s culture.66 Such events

can also shape societies’ encounters with each other, as in the case of the Great

18 american indian culture and research journal

Nobi Earthquake of 1891, which killed thousands in Japan and transformed

Meiji-era attitudes toward Japanese nationhood and culture, modern science,

and the West.67 In Cascadia, the land is a contingent historical force that acts

within specific contexts of power, morality, and social relationships, which

suggests that it may be time to return to the notion of reciprocity between

humans and nonhuman forces that was once so dominant in the region and

perhaps add to that a greater reciprocity between the diverse human societies

that now exist there.

In his exploration of earthquakes, science, and culture in California,

David L. Ulin has asked, “How do we talk about earthquakes? How do we

even approach them, let alone integrate them into our lives?”68 This is

perhaps one of the greatest questions that faces not only Californians, who

already have strong—if also superficial—cultural understandings of “the big

one,” but also anyone who lives in a place where the earth shakes and the

sea suddenly rushes inland. In the case of Cascadia’s seismic past, present,

and future, such questions are closely related to each other, and, at their

core, they are not just scientific inquiries. A few months after the 1906

earthquake that destroyed San Francisco, for example, a Yurok elder told

an ethnographer that “now Earthquake is angry the Americans have bought

up Indian treasures and formulas and taken them away to San Francisco

to keep. He knew that, so he tore the ground up there.”69 Settler society’s

scientists may not be ready to see earthquakes as moral events, as indigenous

people (and others) did and sometimes still do, but social relations of power

and knowledge have inherently moral dimensions, from which scientific

inquiry cannot easily or ethically be divorced. The rediscovery of indigenous

seismology in Cascadia attests to the power of interdisciplinary inquiry and

of the relationship between different forms of knowledge and their social

contexts. That we may all benefit, indigenous and newcomer alike, should

be the goal.


1. For in-depth coverage of the Nisqually Quake, see seattlepi.nwsource.com/

quake/yearlater.asp (accessed 25 August 2007). The event is also discussed in Robert

S. Yeats, Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest: A Survivor’s Guide, 2nd ed.

(Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004), 47, 49–50.

2. Magnitude determination is based on measurement and varies somewhat

according to which quantity is measured. For details, see http://earthquake.usgs.gov/

learning/faq.php (accessed 25 August 2007).

3. The Puget Sound Lowland Earthquakes of 1949 and 1965: Reproductions of

Selected Articles Describing Damage, comp. Gerald W. Thorsen, Washington Division of

Geology and Earth Resources, Information Circular 81 (Olympia: Washington State

Department of Natural Resources, 1986).

4. The term resettlement (as opposed to settlement, which implies that the land

colonized by Europeans and others was empty) is taken from R. Cole Harris, The

Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver:

University of British Columbia Press, 1997).

Finding Fault 19

See table of historical Pacific Northwest earthquakes in Yeats, Living with

Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, 365–68.

5. See, e.g., early editions of Bruce A. Bolt, Earthquakes: A Primer (San Francisco:

W. H. Freeman, 1978).

6. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New

York: Vintage Books, 1998), esp. 32–33, 326–27.

7. See Theodore J. Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural

Disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Stephen J. Pyne’s multi-
volume Cycle of Fire series.

8. One of the most articulate explications of this idea remains Steven Shapin

and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Press, 1989).

9. Story-source location map from R. S. Ludwin, R. Dennis, D. Carver, A. D.

McMillan, R. Losey, J. Clague, C. Jonientz-Trisler, J. Bowechop, J. Wray, and K. James,

“Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories,”

Seismological Research Letters 76, no. 2 (2005): 140–48. Estimated 1700 rupture from K.

Wang, R. E. Wells, S. Mazzotti, H. Dragert, R. D. Hyndman, and T. Sagiya, “A Revised

3-D Dislocation Model of Interseismic Deformation for the Cascadia Subduction

Zone,” Journal of Geophysical Research 108, no. B1 (2003): 2026.

10. There is some debate about the exact extent of the CSZ; some of the

peoples mentioned here have traditional territories outside its most commonly cited

boundaries. Their stories, however, may well reflect experiences with events on the

CSZ. Cascadia more broadly conceived is also marked by seismic activity on additional

faults such as the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather Slip Zone, a northern fault similar

in many respects to the famed San Andreas Fault in California. For information on

turbidite evidence, see Alan R. Nelson, Harvey M. Kelsey, and Robert C. Witter, “Great

Earthquakes of Variable Magnitude at the Cascadia Subduction Zone,” Quaternary

Research 65, no. 3 (2006): 354–65.

11. Franz Boas, Tsimshian Mythology (Washington, DC: Bureau of American

Ethnology, 1916), 883.

12. For the most recent synthesis, see Kenneth M. Ames and Herbert D. G.

Maschner, Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and Prehistory (London:

Thames and Hudson, 2000). It should be noted that many indigenous communities

in the region believe that they were created in situ.

13. See www.activetectonics.coas.oregonstate.edu/main_pages/turbidites/

turbidites.html (accessed 25 August 2007).

14. Yeats, Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, 82.

15. Charles Hill-Tout, The Salish People: The Sechelt and the South-Eastern Tribes of

Vancouver Island, ed. Ralph Maud (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1987).

16. E. Y. Arima, D. St. Claire, L. Clamhouse, J. Edgar, C. Jones, and C. Thomas,

“Between Ports Alberni and Renfew: Notes on West Coast Peoples,” Canadian

Ethnology Service, Mercury Series Paper 121 (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Museum of

Civilization, 1991), 231.

17. G. M. Sproat, Scenes and Studies of Savage Life (London: Smith, Elder, 1868),

124–25. Tseshaht and Sheshaht are two Anglicizations of the same Nuu-chah-nulth


18. A. L. Kroeber, Yurok Myths (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976),

20 american indian culture and research journal

463; Melville Jacobs, “Coos Narrative and Ethnologic Texts,” University of Washington

Publications in Anthropology 8, no. 1 (1939): 53; Cora A. Dubois, “Tolowa Notes,”

American Anthropologist 34 (1932): 261.

19. James G. Swan, Diary, January 1864, Manuscripts, Special Collections, and

University Archives, University of Washington. Interestingly, to date, no paleoseismic

evidence of subsidence or tsunamis has been discovered at Waatch Prairie.

20. Franz Boas, “Traditions of the Tillamook Indians,” Journal of American Folklore

11 (1898): 23–38 and A. B. Reagan, “Myths of the Hoh and Quileute Indians,” Utah

Academy of Sciences 11 (1934): 17–37.

“Pictographic painting, the coat of arms of Shewish, Seshaht Chief. . . . The

figure at the base . . . represents the mammoth whale upon whose back the whole

creation rests. Above the whale are seen the head and wings of the giant . . . Thunder

Bird.” Illustration by J. Semeyn, from A. Carmichael, Indian Legends of Vancouver Island

(Toronto: The Musson Book Company, 1922), 32.

21. For references to many of these stories, see Alan D. McMillan and Ian

Hutchinson, “When the Mountain Dwarfs Danced: Aboriginal Traditions of Paleoseismic

Events along the Cascadia Subduction Zone of Western North America,” Ethnohistory

49, no. 1 (Winter 2002), 41–68; Ruth S. Ludwin et al., “Dating the 1700 Cascadia

Earthquake”; R. S. Ludwin, C. P. Thrush, K. James, D. Buerge, C. Jonientz-Trisler, J.

Rasmussen, K. Troost, and A. de los Angeles, “Serpent Spirit-power Stories along the

Seattle Fault,” Seismological Research Letters 76, no. 4 (July/August 2005), 426–31.

22. Keith Thor Carlson, ed., Coast Salish-Stó:l ̄o Historical Atlas (Vancouver:

University of British Columbia Press, 2001), 10–11; Edward S. Curtis, The North

American Indian, vol. 9 (1913; repr. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970), 37–38; Claude

Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks (Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 1982), 159.

23. Franz Boas, Kwakiutl Tales (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910),

27–32; Franz Boas, Ethnology of the Kwakiutl (Washington, DC: Bureau of American

Ethnology, 1921), 951–56.

24. Franz Boas, “The Nootka,” Second Annual Report on the Indians of British

Columbia (London: British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1891), 613;

Boas, Kwakiutl Tales, 123.

25. G. M. Sproat, The Nootka: Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, ed. C. Lillard

(Victoria, BC: Sono Nis Press, 1987), 124–25; Edward Sapir, “A Flood Legend of the

Nootka Indians of Vancouver Island,” Journal of American Folklore 32 (1919): 351–55.

26. For discussion of reciprocity between Aboriginal societies and their envi-
ronments in British Columbia, see Nancy M. Turner, The Earth’s Blanket: Traditional

Teachings for Sustainable Living (Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 2005).

27. For an overview of Annales approaches to history and their impact, see

Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School, 1929–1989 (Palo Alto,

CA: Stanford University Press, 1990). For one of the most well-known examples, see

the 1992 University of California Press reprint of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and

Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries. For two examples of North American environmental

history that draw on the Annales tradition—one from the first years of the field’s

modern development and one that has been published recently—see William Cronon,

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and

Wang, 1983) and Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial

Concord (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

Finding Fault 21

28. Cole Harris, “How Did Colonialism Dispossess? Comments from an Edge of

Empire,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94, no. 1 (2004): 165–82.

29. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

(London: Zen Books, 1999), 58.

30. Alix Cooper, Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in

Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

31. See Michael A. Bryson, Visions of the Land: Science, Literature, and the American

Environment from the Era of Exploration to the Age of Ecology (Charlottesville: University

Press of Virginia, 2002), 3–31.

Colin Scott, “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest?: The Case of James Bay

Cree Knowledge Construction,” in Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries,

Power, and Knowledge, ed. Laura Nader (New York: Routledge, 1996).

32. See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human

Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); David Wade

Chambers and Richard Gillespie, “Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science,

Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge,” Osiris 15 (2000): 221–40.

33. Gerald Holton, “On the Jeffersonian Research Program,” Archives

Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences 36, no. 117 (1986): 325–36; Kathleen Tobin-
Schlesinger, “Jefferson to Lewis: The Study of Nature in the West,” Journal of the West 29,

no. 1 (1990): 54–61; cadastral survey field notes and plats for Oregon and Washington

(Denver, CO: US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1982).

For the application of Enlightenment ideals to indigenous territories in the region,

see Daniel W. Clayton, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island

(Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000).

34. Suzanne Zeller, “The Colonial World as a Geological Metaphor: Strata(gems)

of Empire in Victorian Canada,” Osiris 15 (2000): 85–107; John R. Hensley,

“Transacting Science on the Border of Civilization: The Academy of Science of St.

Louis, 1856–1881,” Gateway Heritage 7, no. 3 (1986–87): 18–25.

35. See Robert E. Ficken, Unsettled Boundaries: Fraser Gold and the British-American

Northwest (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2003); E. A. Schwartz, The

Rogue River War and Its Aftermath, 1850–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,

1997); David Burley, Senewélets: Culture History of the Nanaimo Coast Salish and the False

Narrows Midden (Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 1989); Morda C. Slauson,

From Coal to Jets (Renton, WA: Renton Historical Society, 1976).

36. See Cultures of Natural History, eds. N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

37. For an exhaustive catalog of European ideas about earthquakes and their

causes, see Erhard Orser’s Historical Earthquake Theories (HEAT) at www.univie

.ac.at/Wissenschaftstheorie/heat/heat-1/heat000f.htm (accessed 25 August 2007).

Transition example: Peter Gould, “Lisbon 1755: Enlightenment, Catastrophe, and

Communication,” in Geography and Enlightenment, eds. David N. Livingstone and

Charles W. J. Withers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 399–413; Theodore

E. D. Braun, The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: Representations and Reactions (Oxford:

Voltaire Press, 2005). For a comprehensive account of the origins of modern geology,

see Rachel Laudan, From Mineralogy to Geology: The Foundations of a Science, 1650–1830

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

38. John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and

22 american indian culture and research journal

Giroux, 1998), 34. For discussion of the history of plate tectonics theory, see H.

W. Menard, The Ocean of Truth: A Personal History of Global Tectonics (Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1986); Naomi Oreskes, ed., Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s

History of the Modern Theory of the Earth (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003).

39. For an account of this process of rediscovery, see Yeats, Living with Earthquakes,

esp. 3–4. See also Linda Roach Monroe, “Scientists Fear Big Jolt Can Happen in

Oregon,” The Oregonian, 26 February 1987, E1.

40. T. H. Heaton and H. Kanamori, “Seismic Potential Associated with Subduction

in the Northwestern United States,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 74,

no. 3 (1984): 933–41; Brian F. Atwater and Wendy C. Grant, “Holocene Subduction

Earthquakes in Coastal Washington,” Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 67,

no. 44 (1986): 906; Yeats, Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, 54–57.

41. A. R. Nelson et al., “Radiocarbon Evidence for Extensive Plate-Boundary

Rupture 300 Years Ago at the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Nature 378 (1995): 371–74;

K. Satake, K. Wang, and B. F. Atwater, “Fault Slip and Seismic Moment of the 1700

Cascadia Earthquake Inferred from Japanese Tsunami Descriptions,” Journal of

Geophysical Research 108 (2003): 2325; D. K. Yamaguchi, B. F. Atwater, D. E. Bunker, B.

E. Benson, and M. S. Reid, “Tree-Ring Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake,” Nature

389 (1997): 922–23; C. D. Peterson and G. R. Priest, “Preliminary Reconnaissance

Survey of Cascadia Paleotsunami Deposits in Yaquina Bay, Oregon,” Oregon Geology 57,

no. 2 (1995): 33–40; Brian F. Atwater, The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a

Parent Earthquake in North America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).

42. T. H. Heaton and P. D. Snavely, “Possible Tsunami along the Northwestern

Coast of the United States Inferred from Indian Traditions,” Bulletin of the Seismological

Society of America 75, no. 5 (1985): 1455–60; John J. Clague, “Early Historical and

Ethnological Accounts of Large Earthquakes and Tsunamis on Western Vancouver

Island, British Columbia,” Current Research 1995-A (1995): 47–50.

43. Ian Hutchinson and Alan D. McMillan, “Archaeological Evidence for

Village Abandonment Associated with Late Holocene Earthquakes at the Northern

Cascadia Subduction Zone,” Quaternary Research 48 (1997): 79–87; Diamond Jenness,

The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian (Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum,

1955), 33; Oliver N. Wells, Myths and Legends of the Staw-loh Indians of South Western

British Columbia (Sardis, BC: privately printed, 1970), 19; Oliver N. Wells, The

Chilliwacks and Their Neighbours (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1987), 88–92; Charles

Hill-Tout, “Report on the Ethnology of the Southeastern Tribes of Vancouver Island,

British Columbia,” in Maud, The Salish People, 157; Dorothy Kennedy and Randy

Bouchard, Sliammon Life, Sliammon Lands (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1983), 154; T.

F. McIlwraith, The Bella Coola Indians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948), 2:

504; Susanne Storie, ed., Oweekano Stories (Victoria: British Columbia Indian Advisory

Committee, 1973), 59; E. Y. Arima et al., “Between Ports Alberni and Renfrew:

Notes on West Coast Peoples,” 164; Ella Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), 323; Elizabeth Colson, The Makah

Indians: A Study of an Indian Tribe in Modern American Society (Minneapolis: University

of Minnesota Press, 1953), 47.

44. Dorothy Vitaliano, Legends of the Earth (Bloomington: Indiana University

Press, 1973); Luigi Piccardi, “Active Faulting at Delphi: Seismotectonic Remarks and

a Hypothesis for the Geological Environment of a Myth,” Geology 28 (2000): 651–54;

Finding Fault 23

Robert L. Kovach, Early Earthquakes in the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 2004).

45. Yeats, Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, 2, 8.

46. Ian Hutchinson and Alan D. McMillan, “Archaeological Evidence for Village

Abandonment Associated with Late Holocene Earthquakes at the Northern Cascadia

Subduction Zone,” Quarternary Research 48 (1997): 79–87.

47. Swan, Diary, 57; Myron Eells, “Traditions of the ‘Deluge’ among the Tribes of

the North West,” American Antiquarian 1, no. 2 (1878): 70; Boas, Kwakiutl Tales, 122.

48. Brackets by story numbers group stories from a common geographic locale;

symbols are as in figure 1. The “Whale” motif is enclosed in quotation marks to cover

a variety of sea monsters that appear in the stories. Date range estimates used the

following assumptions: a “generation” is no fewer than fifteen and no more than

forty years; events before age five are not remembered; the maximum life span is one

hundred years; flood survivors were “old” when interviewed; and an “old” person is at

least forty. From R. S. Ludwin et al., “Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake.”

49. Multiple news outlets reported on the mysterious “primitive sixth sense”

that told Andamanese and other tribespeople living on islands in the Indian Ocean

to move away from the coasts before the tsunami’s arrival. E.g., see “Knowledge of

Natural World Saved Primitive Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands from Tsunami,”

The Hindu (New Delhi), 5 January 2005.

50. Information on the US Geological Survey’s press conference comparing

geological structures in Indonesia and Cascadia can be found at soundwaves.usgs.

gov/2005/03/outreach.html (accessed 25 August 2007).

51. For examples, see Richard L. Hill, “Cautionary Tales of a Catastrophe,”

Oregonian, 25 July 2007, http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/stories/index.ssf?/

base/science/118531952745660.xml&coll=7 (accessed 30 July 2007); Tom Paulson,

“New Findings Super-Size Our Tsunami Threat,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7 February

2005, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/211012_tsunamiscience07.html (accessed

9 February 2005); Larry Lange, “Tsunami Would Be Disaster to Seattle,” Seattle

Post-Intelligencer, 8 February 2005, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/211158_

tsunamiseattle08.html (accessed 9 February 2005).

52. Nancy J. Turner, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” in The Rain Forests

of Home, eds. Peter K. Schoonmaker, Bettina von Hagen, and Edward C. Wolf

(Washington, DC: Island Press, 1997), 275–98.

53. See Sarah A. Laird, ed., Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge: Equitable

Partnerships in Practice (London: Earthscan, 2002); Doreen Stabinsky and Stephen B.

Brush, eds., Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous People and Intellectual Property Rights

(Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996); Darrel A. Posey and Graham Dutfield, eds.,

Beyond Intellectual Property: Toward Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and

Local Communities (Ottawa, ON: International Development Research Centre, 1996);

Paul Sillitoe, Participating in Development: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge (London:

Routledge, 2002).

54. Michael F. Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 2003), 205–8. For discussion of the “violence” done to indigenous

knowledge in nonindigenous contexts, see Roy Ellen, Peter Parkes, and Alan Bicker,

eds., Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Transformations: Critical Anthropological

Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2000). For the perils of “co-management,” see Paul

24 american indian culture and research journal

Nadasdy, Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in

the Southwest Yukon (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004). For

discussion of the social context of indigenous knowledge, see Julie Cruikshank, The

Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory (Lincoln: University of

Nebraska Press, 1997).

55. Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (Boston: South

End Press, 1997), 2.

56. See Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic

World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Londa Schiebinger and

Claudia Swan, eds., Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern

World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

57. Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 117–18 .

58. See Trevor C. Lantz, Kristina Swerhun, and Nancy J. Turner, “Devil’s Club

(Oplopanax horridum): An Ethnobotanical Review,” Herbalgram 62 (2004): 33–48.

59. Krista J. Kapralos, “Copyrighting Culture: Tulalips Assert Rights to Stories,”

Everett Herald, 15 April 2007, http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20070415/

NEWS01/704150722/-1/extras01 (accessed 25 August 2007).

60. Susan Lazaruk, “Coastal Island Band Considers Move to Avoid Future

Tsunami,” The Province, 26 January 2005, A9; Mark Hume, “B.C. Natives Fear Tsunami,

Seek to Move,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 26 January 2005, A1, A7.

61. See Rachel La Corte, “Quileutes Block Beach Access in Push for More Tribal

Land,” Seattle Times, 24 November 2006, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/

localnews/2003445301_dispute24m.html?syndication=rss (accessed 25 August 2007).

62. See Yeats, Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest; John E. Armstrong,

Vancouver Geology, eds. Charlie Roots and Chris Staargaard (Vancouver, BC: Geological

Association of Canada, Cordilleran Section, 1990); John Clague and Bob Turner,

Vancouver, City on the Edge: Living with a Dynamic Geological Landscape (Vancouver, BC:

Tricouni Press, 2003).

63. See, e.g., the official reports on CSZ and Seattle Fault scenarios published

at www.pnsn.org/NEWS/PRESS_RELEASES/SCENARIOS.html (accessed 25 August


64. Yeats, Living with Earthquakes, vii.

65. Sandi Doughton, “Talks to Focus on State’s Tsunami Readiness,” Seattle Times,

9 February 2005; Hill, “Oregon Girds for Inevitable Disaster”; Charles Pope, “Politics

Could Sink Revamped Tsunami Warning System,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7 February

66. Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, Earthquakes in

Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press, 2004).

67. Gregory Clancey, Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity,

1868–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

68. David L. Ulin, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault

Line between Reason and Faith (New York: Viking, 2004), 7.

69. Kroeber, Yurok Myths.