Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 10, 2001 - Issue 31



When Thunderbird Battled Whale, the Earth Shook


by Tom Paulson Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

"There was a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters."

So says an ancient tale told to generations of Quilleute and Hoh Indians. Variations of this saga of an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the Whale are found among Pacific Northwest Tribes from Vancouver Island to Oregon's Tillamook tribe.

It's clear now that the stories document a massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the Northwest before the arrival of European settlers. But because the tales were treated as myths, it wasn't until the early 1990s that one researcher recognized their value for the study of earthquakes.

"These stories just bristle with information," said Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist at the University of Washington. In addition to using the tools of modern science and technology to study earthquakes, Ludwin has spent considerable effort looking into the tribes' oral histories of these events.

Popular descriptions of earthquakes have always been an important resource for seismologists.

Ludwin and others have identified previously unknown quakes from scouring 19th century news clippings or other reports. Tribal lore had been a largely untapped resource, she said, because much of it had been lost to time and the information is often disguised.

"When I first started looking into the tribal histories, I was looking for statements that said something like 'the ground shook' or 'the land slid' or that sort of thing, direct descriptions," Ludwin said. But this isn't the way the tribes described things, she said. Major, traumatic events were described in the rich tradition of tribal mythology.

"It's not trivial information," Ludwin said. Once you dig deep enough and begin to understand the patterns and symbols conveyed by the words and sentence structures, she said, an astonishing amount of descriptive data begins to emerge.

In the mid-1980s, UW geologist Brian Atwater found evidence proving that the region had been hit in 1700 by a massive "subduction zone" quake big enough to send a destructive tsunami all the way to Japan. Starting in the early 1990s, Ludwin began searching for Native American descriptions of the event.

"Along the way, I picked up a lot of stories about landslides," she said. But she couldn't find anything that seemed to match the 1700 event, until she took a closer look at the story of Thunderbird and Whale.

"It's a story of the underworld versus the over-world," Ludwin said.

The Whale was a monster, killing other whales and depriving the people of meat and oil. The Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving. The great bird soared out over the coastal waters, then plunged into the ocean and seized the Whale.

A struggle ensued first in the water, the tribal tale says. "The waters receded and rose again. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed and numerous lives were lost."

The Thunderbird eventually succeeds in lifting the evil Whale out of the ocean, carrying it "high into the air (and then) dropping it to the land surface at Beaver prairie. Then at this place there was another great battle."

Ludwin, borrowing tools from anthropology and linguistics, was able to sort out statements meant to convey traditional wisdom or perspective from the statements that seemed to refer to actual, witnessed events.

"A picture began to emerge that looked a lot like what you'd expect from a major quake," she said. One tribe even had what sounds like an explanation for aftershocks, noting Whale had a son, Subbus, who took Thunderbird several more days to locate and kill. The earth-rumbling struggle persisted, but eventually Subbus was subdued.

"I can't say for certain this was the 1700 event, but it sure sounds like it," Ludwin said. "You hear the same story from tribes all along the coast."

She intends to continue trying to piece all these oral histories together to see if these descriptions offer scientists today any new information. It's a technique seismologists have used for a long time, before they had instruments to give them hard numbers.

"Even into the 1960s, the best information we got was reported by 'human seismometers,'" Ludwin said.

Despite all the technical instruments and scientific methods applied today, seismologists still want to hear from individuals. Anyone with a good tale can file a "felt report" through the UW ( or the USGS.
Did you know?

The Thunderbird:

To the Northwest Coast people this great bird, living high in the mountains, was the most powerful of all spirits - the personification of "chief." When Thunderbird was hungry he ate whales. On the West Coast, he grasped two lightning Snakes which lived under his wings and threw them down onto a surfacing whale. The snakes, striking with their lightning tongues, killed the sea mammal; the Thunderbird swooped down, picked it up with his strong talons and flew with it to the mountains, there to devour it.

On totem poles, as in prints, Thunderbird is always shown with great outstretched wings. Its distinguishing features are the curled appendages on the top of the head (said by some to be power symbols) and the sharply recurved upper beak which is similar to Hawk's beak.



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