This science project transformed an Indigenous North American community to become custodians of their own history


A small indigenous community on the northwest coast of North America has been hit by two giant earthquakes 300 years apart – one, literally, the other metaphorically, but both had an impact huge.

On January 26, 1700, a giant earthquake with a magnitude between 8.7 and 9.2 struck the coast, creating a tsunami that wreaked havoc from British Columbia to northern California.

The date is known so precisely because geologists began to take Native American stories seriously of a day when the sea rose and threw canoes into the trees a generation or two ago. They were able to link it not only to local geological evidence, but also to records in Japan of an “orphan tsunami” that struck without the usual warning of a previous earthquake.

It is now understood that the tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean from the North American coast. The Japanese at the time kept meticulous records, so we now know the date with an accuracy rarely available for geologic events three hundred years old.

This part of the story is pretty well known, although when scientists led by Brian Atwater at the University of Washington first made the connection in the 1990s, it was shocking news for people in Colombia. Britons, from Washington, Oregon and California, who had no idea they were sitting next to an offshore fault line capable of hitting them with a magnitude 9 quake at any moment.

But there’s another part of the story

A few years earlier, in 1970, a storm eroded a mud bank on the Makah Reservation near the far northwest tip of Washington State, revealing the ruins of an ancient village that had been buried by a landslide.

Geologists and anthropologists don’t know exactly when the mudslide happened: three hundred to five hundred years ago is the best they can say, but many believe it was triggered by the January 26, 1700 earthquake. “We’re operating with that assumption,” Janine Ledford, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center, said earlier this year in a keynote address at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America.

“Stories of a large landslide have been passed down,” she added. “My great-grandmother had described it.”

The exposed ruins were an important archaeological find, so a guard was posted to prevent looting while academic archaeologists were contacted, including the late Richard Daugherty, director of Washington State University’s Washington Archeological Research Center ( died in 2014 at the age of 91). ).

“Dr. Daughterty said when they started [excavating] that spring, he thought they would be finished in the fall,” Ledford says.

Eleven years later, the team had recovered 55,000 artifacts and permanently changed the trajectory of life on the Makah reservation.

The second “earthquake”

The most obvious change has been the construction of a museum which is a true regional showcase. But this is only the most visible effect. All of that excavation work, Ledford says, was done with local talent. “We have a higher percentage of people with archaeological experience than you can probably find anywhere,” she says.

But there is much more than that. Reserve high school, she says, has repeatedly seen 100 percent graduation rates, something most schools only dream of. “Some of those years we also had 100% of our students attending university. Some even earn advanced science degrees.

Why that isn’t entirely clear, but all those years of meticulously digging through the mud looking for clues to their tribe’s past couldn’t have hurt them.

“It inspired us,” says Ledford. “We have a lot of people who really value formal and informal education. My eldest son has two degrees, both in science.

There are also less quantifiable benefits. The digs not only allowed people to learn and practice archaeology, says Ledford, but they forced them to develop other skills and gave them confidence that they could do things they didn’t. hadn’t imagined they could do.

“You’re out in the mud early in the morning, watering your site,” she says, “documenting everything very precisely. I did not work at [the village buried in the mudslide], I worked on another site, but it taught me that you can draw, even if you don’t consider yourself an artist. When you have to draw something you’re looking at, I learned that I could. If you can see it, you can draw it.

“We have a lot of people who really appreciate formal and informal education.”

The process also helped the tribesmen uncover their past. Not that traditional culture would have died out if no one had ever been involved in the excavation of the buried village, Ledford says, but the scientific work has greatly inspired people – especially young people – to ask questions and learn from them. more about ancient ways, from old styles of basket weaving to how their ancestors lived off the sea, hunting seals and whales from canoes that could sail the open waters far beyond the view from the ground.

“An old man can describe the seal hunt to a younger man,” she says, “but it’s more impactful when you have a seal harpoon to really illustrate it.”

There are also benefits for non-Indigenous scholars and scientists who, observing how discoveries such as those at the Makah Reservation confirm the validity of ancient stories (such as the story of “canoes in the trees” and Ledford’s grandmother’s tale of a deadly landslide), realize the archaeological truths that may lie behind countless other traditions.

As an example, Atwater cites a tale of the Chinookan tribes of Lower Columbia, several hundred miles south of the Makah reservation, who described what was probably the very first sailing ship they had ever seen – a Spanish galleon now believed to have sunk off Nehalem, Oregon, in 1693.

The Chinookan legend, which was not collected, Atwater says, until 1891 – nearly 200 years after the sinking – describes how local residents found material that ran aground from the ship – a substance that would burn and would burn long and slow. They traded it everywhere, establishing among other tribes a reputation as great traders.

“An old man can describe the seal hunt to a younger man, but it’s more impactful when you have a seal harpoon to really illustrate it.”

Janine Ledford

A few years later, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the first to cross the American continent to the Pacific, visited Nehalem Bay and discovered the same mysterious substance. They called it ‘bear wax‘, said Atwater, but in reality it was beeswaxwhich the misguided galleon was transporting to Acapulco, Mexico, to be used in the manufacture of church candles (in 2018, the Oregon Historical Quarterly devoted an entire issue to the mystery of the beeswax galleon.)

Bottom line: It might be a good idea for outsiders to pay attention to ancient indigenous word-of-mouth stories, because surprisingly often these stories contain important nuggets of historical truth.

Meanwhile, the Makah continue to reap the rewards of their foray into archaeological research. A big lesson, Ledford says, came from their determination to keep the artifacts on their own land. The result was a flagship museum where not only tribesmen but also outsiders can see them in all their glory. From the start, she says, “we made it clear that the collection of artifacts excavated here remain on our reserve, rather than being moved to a distant location.” If others had better lab equipment to study them, they could bring their equipment to the reserve. “We’ve been very clear on that.”

Ultimately, she tells other Indigenous groups in a similar position, “I think we’ve done a really good job of developing our own narrative. [We’re] do not ask non-Indigenous scholars to speak on behalf of [us]. We speak for ourselves.

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