The Juan de Fuca plate and the Cascade Subduction zone.

Indigenous Knowledge Underlies Northwest Earthquake Research


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.”

RELATED: Traditional Knowledge Informs of Japan-Style Earthquake Danger Off U.S., Canada

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.

RELATED: Cascadia’s Locked Fault Means Massive Earthquake Is Due in Pacific Northwest: Seismologists

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.

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Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
Too many idiots looking at the mention of earthquake foot or wrestling wildlife than at what the tellers were trying to describe. It doesn't help when OTHER (white) idiots decide that the stories are about ancient astronauts. It really doesn't help when the 'ancient astronaut' idiots somehow convince indigenous peoples that their stories are about warring extraterrestrials.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
The article only reminds of the OLD JAPAN (indigenous) and how THEY related and dealt with earthquakes and tsunamis. The 2005 quake related villages moving and 'marking' with stone tablets where to establish living accomodations up on the hill-side; away from the low-lands and potential for floods. This must've been back in the 1700s when early Japanese practiced these sensible efforts. Land and houses were dirt-cheap in those days (sarcasm).