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Native American Legends of Tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest

For general interest, studies and accounts regarding Native American Legends of possible tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest are excerpted below. Much of the information on this page was presented by Jim Bergeron, Oregon Sea Grant, Astoria Extension at a 1995 Meeting in Seaside, Oregon. Those interested in the subject are encouraged to refer to the original reports:

•Heaton, T. H., and Snavely, P. D., Jr., 1985, Possible tsunami along the northwestern coast of the United States inferred from Indian traditions. Bull. Seism. Soc. Am., 75, 1455-1460.

•Anderson, D., 1995, Oral History: Legends give valuable hints. Eureka, California Times-Standard newspaper. Sunday Feb. 12, 1995.

•Swan, J.G., 1868, The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the entrance to the straight of Juan de Fuca, Washington Territory. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 200, 108 pp.

Makah Legend (as accounted by Swan, 1868)

The only tradition that I have heard respecting any migratory movement among the Makahs, is relative to a deluge or flood which occurred many years ago, but seems to have been local, and to have had no connection with the Noachic deluge which they know nothing about, as a casual visitor might suppose they did, on hearing them relate the story of their flood. This I give as stated to me by an intelligent chief; and the statement was repeated on different occasions by several others, with a slight variation in detail.

"A long time ago," said by informant, "but not at a very remote period, the water of the Pacific flowed through what is now the swamp and prairie between Waatch village and Neeah Bay, making an island of Cape Flattery. The water suddenly receded leaving Neeah Bay perfectly dry. It was four days reaching it lowest ebb, and then rose again without any wave or breakers, till it had submerged the Cape, and in fact the whole country, excepting the tops of the mountains at Clyoquot. The water on its rise became very warm, and as it came up to the houses, those who had canoes put their effects into them, and floated off with the current, which set very strongly to the north. Some drifted one way, some another; and when the waters assumed their accustomed level, a portion of the tribe found themselves beyond Nootka, where their descendants now reside, and are known by the same name as the Makahs in Classett, or Kwenaitchechat. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed, and numerous lives were lost. The water was four days regaining its accustomed level."

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Legends and Folklore of the Northern Lights

The aurora borealis has intrigued people from ancient times, and still does today. The Eskimos and Indians of North America have many stories to explain these northern lights.

One story is reported by the explorer Ernest W. Hawkes in his book, The Labrador Eskimo:

The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss,

over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the

heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material

arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the

spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who

have died a voluntary or violent death, and the Raven, have been

over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to

guide the feet of new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora.

They can be seen there feasting and playing football with a

walrus skull.

The whistling crackling noise which sometimes accompanies the

aurora is the voices of these spirits trying to communicate

with the people of the Earth. They should always be answered

in a whispering voice. Youths dance to the aurora. The

heavenly spirits are called selamiut, "sky-dwellers," those who

live in the sky.

Evil Thing

The Point Barrow Eskimos were the only Eskimo group who considered the aurora an evil thing. In the past they carried knives to keep it away from them.

Omen of War

The Fox Indians, who lived in Wisconsin, regarded the light as an omen of war and pestilence. To them the lights were the ghosts of their slain enemies who, restless for revenge, tried to rise up again. Dancing Spirits

The Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska interpreted the northern lights as the dancing of human spirits. The Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River believed that the aurora was the dance of animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga.

Game of Ball

Most Eskimo groups have a myth of the northern lights as the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. The Eskimos of Nunivak Island had the opposite idea, of walrus spirits playing with a human skull.

Spirits of Children

The east Greenland Eskimos thought that the northern lights were the spirits of children who died at birth. The dancing of the children round and round caused the continually moving streamers and draperies of the aurora.

Fires in the North

The Makah Indians of Washington State thought the lights were fires in the Far North, over which a tribe of dwarfs, half the length of a canoe paddle and so strong they caught whales with their hands, boiled blubbles.Stew Pots

The Mandan of North Dakota explained the northern lights as fires over which the great medicine men and warriors of northern nations simmered their dead enemies in enormous pots. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin regarded the lights as torches used by great, friendly giants in the north, to spear fish at night.

Creator Reminder

An Algonquin myth tells of when Nanahbozho, creator of the Earth, had finished his task of the creation, he traveled to the north, where he remained. He built large fires, of which the northern lights are the reflections, to remind his people that he still thinks Folklore is from Legends of the Northern Lights, by Dorothy Jean Ray, The ALASKA SPORTSMAN, April 1958, reprinted in AURORA BOREALIS The Amazing Northern Lights, by S.I. Akasofu, Alaska Geographic, Volume 6, Number 2, 1979 All of the Aurora images on this page are copyrighted (2003 Jan Curtis) and are intended for non-commercial, educational uses. Larger versions of these photos and many others can be viewed from Jan Curtis homepage, Home of the Northern Lights

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