M.A. Theses: Rick Budhwa, 2002

Correlations Between Catastrophic Paleoenvironmental Events and Native Oral Traditions of the Pacific Northwest

The indigenous populations of the Pacific Northwest have consistently maintained that proof of their long occupation in their traditional ethnographic territories is embedded in their oral traditions. These oral accounts are the primary methods for recording indigenous epistemology and history. From a native perspective, historical references contained within oral traditions are considered factual. However, the western scientific community has not been as accepting of oral traditions, as actual accounts of the past. Geologists, archaeologists and physical anthropologists tend to revert to western science when reconstructing the past.

Native groups claim that information within their oral traditions is historically accurate. Therefore, one may presume that a comparison between oral traditions and scientifically known prehistoric and historic events would lead to similar interpretations. Past catastrophic environmental events (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, floods etc) with discrete, recognizable attributes, may serve as benchmarks for comparison to prehistoric references contained within oral traditions. For the most part, geologists have provided us with a specific range of dates and magnitudes for such events. In addition, such events, even of considerable age, would likely have been significant enough for a lasting record to be maintained by the indigenous population(s) in their oral traditions.

This study examines the relationships between the following three specific catastrophic paleoenvironmental events and native oral traditions that apparently refer to them: (1) the Mount Mazama climactic (or ‘caldera-forming’) eruption, 6850b.p.; (2) the Bonneville/Cascade landslide, 900-400b.p.; and (3) the megathrust earthquake related tsunami, 300b.p. The historical literature pertaining to indigenous groups (specific to each event) was reviewed for oral traditions that may refer to the event in question. Through the use of qualitative tables, relationships between the geological and archaeological evidence and the event depicted in the oral tradition are shown to exist. Moreover, a 'qualitative measure' is employed in a descriptive fashion, where a distinction is made between clear relationships and less obvious ones.

Perhaps such an evaluation of a portion of the indigenous perspective within a western scientific framework may serve as a foundation for further work in this area. Eventually, a combination of the two perspectives may yield a richer, more holistic view of the past.