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

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.



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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

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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

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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

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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.