This scientific project transformed a North American indigenous community to become caretakers of their own history

This scientific project transformed a North American indigenous community to become caretakers of their own history

A small indigenous community on North America’s north west coast has been struck by two giant earthquakes 300 years apart – one, literally, the other metaphorically, but both had enormous impact.

On 26 January 1700, a giant earthquake somewhere between magnitudes 8.7 and 9.2, struck the coast, creating a tsunami that wreaked havoc all the way from British Columbia to Northern California.

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

It is now understood the tsunami travelled across the Pacific Ocean from the North American coast. The Japanese of the time kept meticulous records, so we now know the date with a precision rarely available for three-hundred-year-old geological events.

That part of the story is fairly well known, although when scientists led by Brian Atwater of the University of Washington first connected the dots in the 1990s, it was shocking news for the residents of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California, who had no clue they were sitting next to an offshore fault line capable of hitting them with a magnitude 9 temblor at a moment’s notice.

But there is another part of the story

A few years earlier, in 1970, a storm eroded a mudbank on the Makah Reservation, near the far northwestern tip of Washington state, revealing ruins of an ancient village that had been buried by a mudslide.

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

“Stories about a big mudslide got passed down,” she added. “My great-grandmother had described it.”

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

“Dr. Daugherty said when they started [excavating] that spring, he thought they’d be done in the fall,” Ledford says.

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

The second ‘earthquake’

The most obvious change was the construction of a museum that is a true regional showcase. But that’s just the most visible effect. All 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’s a lot more than that. The reservation’s high school, she says, has repeatedly seen 100 percent graduation rates—something most schools only dream of. “Some of those years we’ve also had 100 percent of our students attending college. Some are even earning advanced degrees in science.”

Why this is, isn’t fully clear, but all those years of meticulously digging through the mud seeking clues to their tribe’s past couldn’t have hurt.

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

There are also less quantifiable benefits. Not only did the excavation allow people to learn about and practice archaeology, Ledford says, it forced them to develop other skills and gave them confidence that they could do things they’d not realised they could do.

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

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

The process also helped members of the tribe learn about their past. Not that the traditional culture would have died out if nobody had ever become involved in excavating the buried village, Ledford says, but the scientific work very much inspired people—especially young people—to ask questions and learn about the old ways, ranging from older styles of basket-weaving to how their ancestors lived off the sea, hunting seals and whales from canoes that could navigate the open waters far beyond sight of land.

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

There are also benefits to non-indigenous scholars and scientists who, by watching how discoveries such as those on the Makah Reservation are confirming the validity of old stories (such as the “canoes in trees” story and Ledford’s grandmother’s account of a deadly landslide), realise the archaeological truths that may lie behind countless other such lore.

As an example, Atwater cites a tale from the Chinookan tribes of the Lower Columbia River, several hundred kilometers south of the Makah Reservation, who described what was probably the first-ever sailing vessel they’d ever seen—a Spanish galleon now believed to have foundered offshore from Nehalem, Oregon, in 1693.

The Chinookan legend, not collected, Atwater says, until 1891—nearly 200 years after the shipwreck—describes how the local residents found a material that washed ashore from the ship—a substance that would burn, and burn for a long, slow time. They traded it far and wide, establishing among other tribes a reputation as great traders.

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

Janine Ledford

A few years later, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the first to cross the American continent all the way to the Pacific, visited Nehalem Bay and found the same mystery substance. They called it ‘bearswax,’ Atwater says, but in reality it was beeswax, which the badly off-course galleon was carrying to Acapulco, Mexico, for use in making 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 carry important nuggets of historical truth.

Meanwhile, the Makah continue to reap the benefits of their foray into archaeological research. One big lesson, Ledford says, came from their determination to keep the artifacts on their own land. The result was a showpiece museum where not only members of the tribe but outsiders can view them in all their glory. From the beginning, she says, “we made it very clear that the collection of artifacts being excavated here stay on our reservation, rather than being removed to a remote place.” If others had better laboratory equipment with which to study them, they could bring their equipment to the reservation. “We were very clear on that.”

Ultimately, she says to other indigenous groups in a similar position, “I think we did a very good job of developing our own narrative. [We’re] not asking non-Native scholars to speak for [us]. We’re speaking for ourselves.”

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