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Indigenous Knowledge Underlies Northwest Earthquake Research

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The land shook, and the ocean flooded in.

Indigenous oral history up and down the coast from northern California as far north as British Columbia tells, in different ways, the same story. Be it the Nuu-chah-nulth on Vancouver Island talking about someone getting earthquake foot, or the Yurok stories of Thunderbird and Whale fighting, it all adds up to one thing: Around 1700, a massive earthquake and tsunami tore apart the region.

Although Indigenous Peoples in the Northwestern U.S. and British Columbia have long recounted such tales, scientists only gave them credence upon discovering the Cascadia fault and the danger it causes. As The New Yorker reported in a comprehensive piece in July about the Juan de Fuca plate and the Cascadia subduction zone, researchers didn't turn to indigenous knowledge until they discovered the fault and began calculating when it was due for another jolt.

“In a 2005 study, Ruth Ludwin, then a seismologist at the University of Washington, together with nine colleagues, collected and analyzed Native American reports of earthquakes and saltwater floods. Some of those reports contained enough information to estimate a date range for the events they described. On average, the midpoint of that range was 1701,” The New Yorker noted. “It does not speak well of European-Americans that such stories counted as evidence for a proposition only after that proposition had been proved.”

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An article in Hakai Magazine changes all that by starting with indigenous accounts of the great earthquake and tsunami, which wiped out entire villages and left canoes hanging in trees. In numerous tribal accounts, it is all laid out.

“What the indigenous people knew all along, geologists have known only since 1984,” writes Ann Finkbeiner in Hakai.

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That’s the year that a study was published, and soon afterward, researchers began looking at indigenous accounts. They started with the Makah, deciding “to take the Makah story not as myth, but as history,” Hakai notes. The researchers “did something un-geoscientific: they decided to take the Makah story not as myth, but as history. That is, they assumed the Makah “were describing a geologically-recent tsunami, compared the Makah narrative with their understanding of Cape Flattery’s geology, found the similarity between story and geology ‘noteworthy,’ and published their findings in the scientific literature.”

This spurred another search, and eventually accounts were rounded up from 40 tribes.

Read The Great Quake and the Great Drowning in Hakai Magazine, and then move on to The Really Big One in The New Yorker, to read about the unfolding of the research into the fault from both angles.