Cross Cultural Earthquake Experience



Background to the stories: Indigenous oral accounts of this large earthquake and its tsunami were recorded from Vancouver Island to northern California. The account we read was told by late Chief Louis Clamhouse of Huu-ay-aht First Nation, recorded in his language in 1964, and translated. It has minimal changes to it to give a sense of how it was told. The tsunami from the 1700 earthquake crossed the Pacific in about nine hours and was recorded by officials in Japan. We’ll also read the Japanese account. We’ll look at the modern science story which includes evidence upholding both the Huu-ay-aht and Japanese stories. Each story (traditional, clerical, and scientific) has ways of validating itself as a true story. Facts in the traditional story were verified through specific ancestors, genealogy, memorable rituals, marriages, lives lost, and territories. The Japanese record was validated by sharing records with magistrates and accounting for emergency supplies given to tsunami survivors. The scientific account came from four different lines of peer-reviewed, published evidence and by many scientists working together across disciplines and international boundaries. Read the three stories.


The Modern Science Story follows in very simplified form. The dense, oceanic, tectonic Juan de Fuca plate that normally, sub-ducts (dives) slowly under the less dense, North American plate, was stuck in late 1699. When it suddenly became unstuck in January, 1700, it caused a mega-thrust earthquake calculated to be 9.0 on the Richter scale.

Both the Juan de Fuca and Pacific plates arise from molten rock, coming up through the Endeavour Ridge, west of what is now southwestern Canada and northwestern USA. The Pacific plate moves to the west towards Asia and the Juan de Fuca plate moves eastward about as fast as your fingernails grow. As the Juan de Fuca plate ‘slides’ under the North American plate, moving batches of small tremors release energy from the subduction (one going under the other).

Today, using GPS technology we can actually measure the land moving east-west in longitude and the up-down movement in elevation. A mega-thrust earthquake results from the tectonic plates getting stuck, the energy of these very large moving masses of rock builds up as does the elevation of the continental plate at its edges where it is literally pushed up. Then something gives and a huge release of energy shakes the land and sea. The shaking starts landslides and underwater slides causing tsunamis: waves with very large heights and speeds. On land, the shaking liquefies wet sandy and silty areas and the quick release drops land elevations causing seawater flooding, which kills low lying coastal forests and along with tsunamis, deposits marine ‘evidence’ inland.

Until scientists discovered the “scientific” evidence themselves and confirmed the date with the written Japanese account, traditional First Nations’ knowledge was discounted. The ‘triangulation’ of these stories might be an example of reconciliation of different ways of knowing. Even though it took science almost 300 years to catch-up with traditional knowledge, science accepts the truth in the oral account at last. Only pieces of the stories are presented here, so if you have time read a fuller account in the book At Risk[1] by John Clague and others as well as the whole Chief Louis Clamhouse story[2] as it was recorded and translated in the book Between Ports Alberni and Renfrew. Names and place-names are Anglicized here. This story belongs to Huu-ay-aht.


Chief Louis Clamhouse “This is the story about the first Anacla or Pachena Bay people. It is said that they were a big group at the time of, him whose name was Hayoqwis’is ‘Ten-head-on-beach.’ He was the chief; he was of the Pachena Bay tribe; he owned the Pachena Bay country. Their village site (one of several) was Lota’a; they of Lota’a lived there….They were members of the Pachena tribe”. …(Chief Louis describes details of a marriage protocol that tested strength and ability of four sons of the Huu-ay-aht Kix’iin and how one son died trying. The Kix’iin chief had come to Lota’a to perform a “ceremonial woman purchase” involving the eldest daughter of Hayoqwis’is. This was “before the big earthquake, before the big flood".)

“They (Huu-ay-aht) got in marriage, the elder daughter. The Pachena Bay chief brought (territory) as dowry for his elder daughter to my grandfather’s ancestor…. who now has many descendants. It is them now, who are descendants of the first Pachena Bay people. There is no one left alive (at Lota’a) due to what this land does at times. They had practically no way or time to save themselves. I think it was at nighttime that the land shook. It was a sandy beach. It was floating, it is said, consisting only of sand, … They were at Lota’a and they simply had no time to get hold of canoes, no time to get awake. They sank all at once, were all drowned; not one survived. Only his (Hayoqwis’is) older daughter went to Kix’iin (Huu-ay-aht) as a bride from whom my former grandfather was descended. It is said no one ever knew what happened. I think a big wave smashed into the beach. The Pachena Bay people were lost. Nothing was known of what happened and what became of them. But they on their part who lived at Ma:lts’a:s “House-Up-Against-Hill’ (across the bay from Klutus Point), the wave did not reach because they were on high ground. Right against a cliff were the houses on high ground at M’a:lsit “Coldwater-Pool”. Because of that they came out alive. They did not drift out to sea with the others. Everything then drifted away; everything was lost and gone…”

Japanese Official Account: translated from a written record of the aftermath in Kuwagaski, Honshu Island where the tsunami that had no shaking associated, swept along about 1,000 kilometers of shoreline with waves up to several meters high in some locations. (from Clague et al (2006)) “The tsunami arrived at night on January 27, 1700; villagers fled to high ground; the water destroyed thirteen houses and set off fires that burned 20 more; in response, magistrates in nearby Miyako issued rice to 159 persons and sought wood for shelters; they kept other officials informed of their emergency efforts.”

Figure 1. Tsunami (red bar) passes from west to east, deep to shallow, above Ocean Networks Canada NEPTUNE seafloor pressure sensors. As waves pass overhead, pressure sensor reflects depth of water. There is almost an hour between the wave passing over deep water Cascadia basin sensor and shallow water Folger Passage at entrance to Barkley Sound. The ancient Huu-ay-aht village site, where Chief Louis Clamhouse’s ancestors survived the 1700 tsunami, is only a short paddle away from Folger Passage and the photo at the top of these pages is of a regular wave, breaking on a beach that was hit by the 1700 tsunami.

The data presented in the ONC graph above (See Figure 1.), was compiled from NEPTUNE data collected after the devastating 2011 mega-thrust earthquake, near Japan. Now, there are even more sensors. West coast Vancouver Island now has a better forecasting system for tsunamis as part of Ocean Networks Canada’s near field detectors which gives valuable time and wave height and speed information.

This lesson plan and activity was created by Anne Stewart for Ocean Wise Education 


E.Y. Arima, St. Claire D., Clamhouse L., Jones C., Thomas, J. (1991) Between Ports Alberni & Renfrew: Notes on West Coast Peoples, Canadian Ethnology Service, Mercury Series, Paper 121, 323 pp.

J. Clague, Yorath, R., Franklin B., and Turner C. (2006) At Risk: Earthquakes  & Tsunamis on the West Coast. Tricouni Press, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 200 pp.

Ocean Networks Canada (ONC)


1. Create your own tsunami story using art elements to express the feelings you experienced reading any of the three stories of the 1700 mega-thrust Earthquake and tsunami. Use art to help tell your story, (words, poetry, drawing, painting, etc.). 

If you are stuck on the art part and happy with making a simple 4-page kids’ book, try this. Fold a sheet of paper in half and then in half again. Use the top half of the outside page as a title page, the bottom half as the beginning of the story, the two inside pages as the middle of the story and the back outside page as the end of your story. Add colour, movement, emotion, and words, as you wish. 

Take photos of your story. 

2. List four things that happen when tectonic plates suddenly move after being stuck for a while.



3. Complete this table comparing and contrasting the three story-telling methods.

Story Authority

Oral Knowledge (Spoken Word by Traditional Knowledge Holder)

Government Record

(Brush and ink on rice paper.)

Scientific Record

(Published scientific papers.)

Storyteller (year)



Japanese government officials (1700)

Dr. John Clague, and other geologists and geophysicists (1990s)


Genealogy, dowry passed down, places to live that were safe and not safe in a earthquake/tsunami



Peer reviewed papers, four lines of evidence (drowned trees;

Details (Similar or not similar, for example shaking versus no shaking)

Shaking, liquid sand, they sank all at once, all were drowned, wave destroyed homes, taken out to sea, high land was safe.





Liquefaction, shaking, land sinks, massive underwater landslides, wave, ghost forests, marine sand layers in marshes and lakes, carbon dating etc.


Be prepared, not scared. Help prepare for an earthquake/tsunami at home and school. Do you know about taking cover and holding on? Ask your teacher to help your class practice the drill. Do you already have emergency kits or ‘go-bags’ ready? What are five items in your ‘go bag’ for emergencies? If you don’t have a go bag, what are your top five items for the grab-bag that you are going to put together? If you live in a coastal community, take a look at a map with one of your adults and talk through high land escape routes in different locations and where you would meet up with family if you get separated. Get involved with your local community emergency response group and start a youth volunteer section.

To return to the Ocean Shapes Earth page, click HERE

To take the section quiz, click HERE

Learning Objectives

This activity may be used to support the following learning objectives and competencies 

Grades: Intermediate, Secondary 

Big Ideas

4: Energy can be transformed 

5: Earth materials change as they move through the rock cycle and can be used as natural resources 

7: Earth and its climate have changed over geological time

8: The behaviour of matter can be explained by the kinetic molecular theory and atomic theory 

8: the theory of plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains Earth's geological processes

9: The biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere re interconnected and matter cycles and energy flows through them

10: Energy is conserved, and its transformation can affect living things and the environment

Earth Sciences 11: Plate tectonic theory explains the consequences of tectonic plate interactions 

Earth Sciences 11: Earth materials are changed as they cycle through the geosphere and are used as resources, with economic and environmental implications.



Questioning and Predicting

  • Demonstrate curiosity about the natural world
  • Observe objects and events in familiar and unfamiliar context 
  • Identify questions about familiar objects and events that can be investigated scientifically
  • Make predictions about the findings of their inquiry

Planning and Conducting 

  • Suggest ways to plan and conduct an inquiry to find answers to their questions
  • Consider ethical responsibilities when deciding how to conduct an experiment
  • Make observations about living and non-living things in the local environment
  • Collect simple data

Processing and Analyzing Data and Information 

  • Experience and interpret the local environment
  • Identify First Peoples perspectives and knowledge as sources of information
  • Sort and classify data and information using drawings or provided tables
  • Identify patterns and connections in data
  • Use tables, simple bar graphs, or other formats  to represent data and show simple patterns and trends
  • Compare results with predictions, suggesting possible reasons for findings
  • Demonstrate an openness to new ideas and consideration of alternatives
  • Apply First Peoples perspectives and knowledge, other ways of knowing, and local knowledge as sources of information


  • Make simple inferences based on their results and prior knowledge
  • Reflect on whether an investigation was a fair test
  • Demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of evidence
  • Identify social, ethical and environmental implications of their and others’ actions and investigations
  • Identify some of the assumptions in secondary sources
  • Identify possible sources of error
  • Exercise a healthy, informed skepticism, and use scientific knowledge and findings to form their own investigations and to evaluate claims in secondary sources
  • Critically analyze the validity of information in secondary sources and evaluate the approaches used to solve problems
  • Demonstrate an awareness of assumptions, question information given, and identify bias in their own work and secondary sources
  • Consider the changes in knowledge over time as tools and technologies have developed
  • Evaluate their methods and experimental conditions, including identifying sources of error or uncertainty, confounding variables, and possible alternative explanations and conclusions

 Applying and Innovating 

  • Transfer and apply learning to new situations


  • Represent and communicate ideas and findings in a variety of ways, such as diagrams and simple reports, using digital technologies as appropriate
  • Express and reflect on personal or shared experiences of place



4: Learning how humans, animals, and plants sense and respond to their environment 

4: the effect of temperature on particle movement 

5: The rock cycle

5: First Peoples Concepts of Cinterconnectedness in the environment 

5: Local types of earth materials 

5: power the rate at which energy is transferred. 

7: Evidence of climate change over geological time, connections between natural disasters and man-caused problems, through physical records and local First Peoples knowledge 

8: Plate tectonic movement

8: Major geological events of local significance

8: First Peoples knowledge of local geological formation and significant local geological events

8: Layers of the Earth 

9: Matter cycles within biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems 

9: First Peoples knowledge of interconnectedness

Earth Sciences 11:

  • Properties of earth materials
  • surface and internal processes of the rock cycle
  • economic and environmental implications of geological resources within BC and globally
  • Evidence that supports plate tectonic theory 
  • factors that affect plate motion
  • first peoples knowledge of local plate tectonic settings and geological terrains 

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