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THE LAST GREAT TSUNAMI

Tolowa tribal member Loren Bommelyn displays a warning sign featuring the Tolowa word for tsunami, "Tes-Ch'as." (The Pilot/Peter Rice).
Tolowa tribal member Loren Bommelyn displays a warning sign featuring the Tolowa word for tsunami, "Tes-Ch'as." (The Pilot/Peter Rice).

By Peter Rice

Pilot Staff Writer

Before the Sumatra tsunami wiped out over 100,000 people last year, and before the 1964 waves destroyed downtown Crescent City, there was The Big One, right off the coast of Brookings.

January 26, 1700, thousands of Tolowa, Yurok, and Wiyot people called home the area known to modern marketers as the Wild Rivers Coast home. Some even lived on the mouth of the Chetco River, in present day Brookings. The aboriginal territory of the Tolowa covered much of the area later known as Del Norte and Curry counties, extending north to the Sixes River.

The tribes fished the rivers for salmon, harvested shellfish and picked plants and berries from the forest.

But sometime in the evening of January 26, the tranquility stopped, and Mother Nature took an angry turn.

At around 9 p.m., an earthquake estimated at 9.0 on the Richter scale shook the entire Cascadia Subduction Zone, the long stretch of submerged land off the coast where two tectonic plates crunch together.

The resulting tsunami, estimated at 50-60 feet near Orick, Calif., crashed into the coast, likely decimating the native settlements.

The next morning, the tsunami, weakened from the long journey, showed up on the east coast of Japan, where fastidious record keepers noted the unusual six to 10 foot waves.

What we know about the 1700 tsunami comes almost exclusively from those Japanese records, geologic research (see story below) and a loose collection of stories passed down by several generations of native peoples.

The stories, often called oral histories, are the sorts of tales grandparents told their grandchildren on a rainy day before the age of television, though they take on special significance because the natives didn't have a written language.

"Everything you knew was in your mind," said Loren Bommelyn, a Tolowa tribal member who now teaches at the Tah-Ah-Dun Indian Magnet School in Crescent City.

Bommelyn, 49, grew up hearing the story of Test-Ch'as (pronounced TASTE-chahs), the Tolowa word for tsunami. His family lived up the Smith River several miles from Fort Dick. They raised cows and had a big garden.

"The TV reception that we had was horrible," he said. "Our winters were just filled up with family time."

Spending all that time with family and working with other community groups, Bommelyn heard the story many times from elder orators, especially when heavy rains set in.

"They would start talking about, ‘oh, maybe it will be like that time the earth flooded.' ... You're listening to it as a child as if this is a family fact."

And everyone paid close attention to the storytellers. As custodians of family and tribal history, "whatever they say is law," Bommelyn said. "I learned later that you can ignore people."

The story takes place in the village at the mouth of the Chetco River, and starts in the evening. The sun is going down, and even though that's normally the time to get ready for bed, people around the village are uneasy.

Two young people – a boy and a girl – are being raised by a conservative grandmother, whose hair has been ritualistically cut short in mourning of her husband's death.

Overall, the world seems to be pretty screwed up.

Then, for the first time in Tolowa stories, a dog talks to the children, warning of bad things to come (see story above).

The young people tell their grandmother, who tells them to head to a mountain called 'En-may, a name which later evolved into Mount Emily.

They left.

Meanwhile, the earth shakes and the village leader orders some men to check the ocean to see if the water had receded. It has. Houses collapse, and people run for the hills.

On top of 'En-may, the children barely escape the waves. Eventually, they make their way back to what had once been their village.

"There was no sign of human existence left at all," Bommelyn said.

The boy heads out on scouting trips to find other survivors, but doesn't find any. The pair eventually built a crude shelter, started fishing again, and gradually repopulated the world.

~~~

The story of Test-Ch'as doesn't come with a year attached, but Bommelyn said it's quite possible that the story is connected to the 1700 tsunami. There are certainly clues in the story that would point to a tsunami, including the earth shaking and the water receding just before the deluge.

Other stories of the earth shaking and flooding can be found in other oral histories around the coast, according to Jim Wheeler, a ranger at Redwood State and National Parks who recently gave a talk on the subject as a conference in Coos Bay.

"Stories extend from southern Humboldt all the way up to British Columbia," Wheeler said. "I think stories like this are probably based in fact."

Many of the stories were collected by a small platoon of anthropologists from the University of California Berkeley in the early 1900s. The Hearst family funded much of the effort initially, Wheeler said.

In one Yurok story, tribal members living at the mouth of Redwood Creek are so alarmed by the shaking and flooding that they perform an emergency version of a 10-day world renewal dance meant to calm and balance the earth for the coming year. Normally, the "jump dance" is only done once a year, after a 10-day preparation period.

"They tried to stop the waves by doing the dance – by balancing the earth," Wheeler said.

It doesn't work, and a Yurok medicine man then runs 10 miles south to a sweat house at Big Lagoon where he builds a fire out of old boards used in a house.

That would have been highly unorthodox, since the the usual fuel for sweat house fires is branches gathered ritually from near the tops of fir trees.

In the story, the sweat house fire finally does the trick, stopping the waves.

The house itself was later burned to the ground by white settlers.

~~~

Tsunamis didn't drive the native inhabitants away from the Curry and Del Norte areas, but the invasion of settlers – with the forced removals and massacres that came with it – came close.

Many of the stories in the Tolowa oral tradition have been lost, Bommelyn said, but he intends to keep as many alive as he can, including the tale of Test-Ch'as.

Using disaster preparedness money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he helped launch a public readiness campaign, making tsunami warning signs that incorporate the word test-chas.

One is posted on a building just outside his office.

And he's telling the story to his kids, just the way he learned it.

Soil sample tells tale of tsunami

The tsunami that hit the Pacific Coast left behind a massive amount of dirt which gives clues to the severity of the waves and a disaster scientists say will happen again someday.

Over the last few decades, geologists have taken "core samples" of the ground by sticking large pipes straight down into the earth and then analyzing the different layers of soil found inside.

In one sample, taken just off Highway 101 in Crescent City, the 1964 tsunami that originated in Alaska and the 1960 wave that came from Chile are both represented by an inch thick layer of gray dirt that came ashore with the wave.

But the 1700 tsunami, which originated at the fault line just off the coast, leaves a layer eight times as big.

"A lot of geologists around here have called it the decade of terror," said Vicki Ozaki, a geologist with Redwood State and National Parks.

Several earthquakes can even cause sudden losses in elevation of up to a few feet through a process called subsidence.

The result can be seen underwater in a section of Humboldt Bay, where the remains of tree stumps unexpectedly sit.

It is all the more amazing, according to Jim Wheeler, a ranger with Redwood State and National Parks, because Native American stories actually talk about quakes creating Humboldt Bay.

So when might this all happen again? It's hard to say for sure, but if you dig deeper, you get more information.

Humboldt State geologist Harvey Kelsey did a major core sampling at Bradley Lake in Curry County, and from the soil samples pieced together a theory that major tsunamis come in clusters every 400-500 years.

If the model holds true, the next round of earthquake-induced wave disasters is only 100 years or so off.

Still, Kelsey cautions, "we don't have any robust method of predicting."

Indian lore: Dog gives warning

In the Tolowa oral history detailing what was possibly the 1700 tsunami, a dog talks to two children right before the world is flooded.

While present day Tolowa will talk to their dogs, that was actually a social taboo just a few generations ago, because if the dog answered, it could signal another flood.

A Tolowa tribal elder once scolded Crescent City radio station owner Bill Stamps for playing the version of Jingle Bells that features barking dogs.

Dogs also figure prominently in many stories of earthquakes and floods, according to Jim Wheeler, a ranger at Redwood National and State Parks who has studied the issue extensively.

"Very often," he said, "in a lot of these earthquake stories, dogs start acting very weird."

People often report strange dog behavior surrounding earthquakes even today, but a U.S. Geological Survey study throws cold water on the idea, citing an analysis of lost dog ads in newspapers that shows no correlation between runaway pooches and earthquakes.

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