Special report: Legends tell of past tsunamis

December 08, 2006 12:00 am

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Native American legends tell stories that underscore geological evidence of at least one large tsunami.

Vicki Ozaki, a geologist with Redwood National and State Parks, said her staff incorporates the oral histories into a presentation it gives visitors.

During a two-day meeting and "desk event" held Tuesday and Wednesday at Del Norte Volunteer Fire Department administrative offices, Ozaki explained the connection.

Core samples collected in the areas of Big Lagoon and the mouth of Redwood Creek indicate sand deposits from old tsunamis, called "paleotsunamis."

The Yurok tribe has a settlement in that area called Orekw, near a place where the settlement of Siwutsu was once sited.

Ozaki told the 50-plus Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group attendees that she became curious about the location of Orekw, sited about 60 feet above the water level – curious until she heard the legend, put together computer-generated images of what would happen along that stretch of coastline if a large tsunami swept soil and vegetation down to bedrock level..

That's called "scouring." Scientists who visited areas of Indonesia after the damaging magnitude 9.1 earthquake Dec. 26, 2004.

When Ozaki showed attendees what scouring in the Orekw area might have looked like, based on data fed into the computer, the 60-foot elevation of the village made much more sense.

The Yurok legend tells the tale of an old man and his brother became angry and began to fight after someone tied their hair together as they slept in a sweathouse.

The ocean turned rough from the men's anger, and a breaker swept the village of Siwutsu away.

Breakers continued to rise at Orekw as the people who lived there sought out the person who knew the formula to combat the water.

The story is linked to a ceremony called the Jumping or Deerskin dance that can be held outside its normal time and place to stave off an impending catastrophe.

Other legends use images of earthquake and thunder, two forces conspiring to scare people, or use flood images that are linked to earthquakes.