Thunderbird and Whale

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"Thunderbird and Whale" is an indigenous myth belonging to the mythological traditions of a number of tribes from the Pacific Northwest.

Pacific Northwest Region that includes parts of Canada and the United States

The Pacific Northwest (PNW), sometimes referred to as Cascadia, is a geographic region in western North America bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west and (loosely) by the Rocky Mountains on the east. Though no official boundary exists, the most common conception includes the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) and the U.S. states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Broader conceptions reach north into Southeast Alaska and Yukon, south into northern California, and east to the Continental Divide to include Western Montana and parts of Wyoming. Narrower conceptions may be limited to the coastal areas west of the Cascade and Coast mountains. The variety of definitions can be attributed to partially overlapping commonalities of the region's history, culture, geography, society, and other factors.


Story Summary

Whale was a monster, killing other whales and depriving the Quileute tribe of meat and oil. Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving. It soared out over the coastal waters, then plunged into the ocean and seized Whale. A struggle ensued; the ocean receded and rose again. Many canoes were flung into trees and many people were killed. Thunderbird eventually succeeded in lifting Whale out of the ocean, carrying it high into the air and then dropping it. Then another great battle occurred on land.

The Quileute, also known as the Quillayute, are a Native American people in western Washington state in the United States, currently numbering approximately 2,000. They are federally recognized tribe, Quileute Tribe of the Quileute Reservation

Thunderbird (mythology) legendary creature in certain North American indigenous peoples history and culture

The thunderbird is a legendary creature in certain North American indigenous peoples' history and culture. It is considered a supernatural being of power and strength. It is especially important, and frequently depicted, in the art, songs and oral histories of many Pacific Northwest Coast cultures, but is also found in various forms among some peoples of the American Southwest, East Coast of the United States, Great Lakes, and Great Plains.

Supernatural Anything inexplicable by scientific understanding of the laws of nature

The concept of the supernatural encompasses anything that is inexplicable by scientific understanding of the laws of nature but nevertheless argued by believers to exist. Examples include immaterial beings such as angels, gods and spirits, and claimed human abilities like magic, telekinesis and extrasensory perception.

In one of many variant versions of the myth, the sound of the whale dropping into the sea is the source of thunder. A young boy of a Vancouver Island people, the Comox, was fascinated by the sound of thunder, and heard it from behind a point of land. He crossed that point, following the sound of thunder, and discovered the spectacle of the Thunderbird seizing and dropping the whale. The Thunderbird saw the boy, and told him that the story was now his, and he had the right to wear the Thunderbird mask and wings at the potlatch.

Vancouver Island Island on the western coast of Canada

Vancouver Island is in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. It is part of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The island is 460 kilometres (290 mi) in length, 100 kilometres (62 mi) in width at its widest point, and 32,134 km2 (12,407 sq mi) in area. It is the largest island on the West Coast of the Americas.

Potlatch gift-giving festival and economic system

A potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary economic system. This includes the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, and Coast Salish cultures. Potlatches are also a common feature of the peoples of the Interior and of the Subarctic adjoining the Northwest Coast, although mostly without the elaborate ritual and gift-giving economy of the coastal peoples. A potlatch involves giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a leader's wealth and power.

In another variant, the flapping of the Thunderbird's wings is the source of the thunder

Reconstructing the myth

In the 1980s, geologists found evidence that an earthquake, powerful enough to send a tsunami all the way to Japan, hit the American Pacific Northwest in 1700. Some ethnologists believe that "Thunderbird and Whale" is a description of that disaster. [1] [2] [3]

Geologist Scientist who studies geology

A geologist is a scientist who studies the solid, liquid, and gaseous matter that constitutes the Earth and other terrestrial planets, as well as the processes that shape them. Geologists usually study geology, although backgrounds in physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences are also useful. Field work is an important component of geology, although many subdisciplines incorporate laboratory work.

Earthquake Shaking of the surface of the earth caused by a sudden release of energy in the crust

An earthquake is the shaking of the surface of the Earth, resulting from the sudden release of energy in the Earth's lithosphere that creates seismic waves. Earthquakes can range in size from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt to those violent enough to toss people around and destroy whole cities. The seismicity, or seismic activity, of an area is the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time. The word tremor is also used for non-earthquake seismic rumbling.

<i>Tsunami</i> Series of water waves caused by the displacement of a large volume of a body of water

A tsunami or tidal wave is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water, generally in an ocean or a large lake. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other underwater explosions above or below water all have the potential to generate a tsunami. Unlike normal ocean waves, which are generated by wind, or tides, which are generated by the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun, a tsunami is generated by the displacement of water.

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1964 Alaska earthquake First-largest earthquake in history

The 1964 Alaskan earthquake, also known as the Great Alaskan earthquake and Good Friday earthquake, occurred at 5:36 PM AKST on Good Friday, March 27. Across south-central Alaska, ground fissures, collapsing structures, and tsunamis resulting from the earthquake caused about 131 deaths.

Folk memory is a term sometimes used to describe stories, folklore or myths about past events that have been passed orally from generation to generation. The events described by the memories may date back hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years and often have a local significance. They may explain physical features in the local environment, provide reasons for cultural traditions or give etymologies for the names of local places.

Juan de Fuca Plate A small tectonic plate in the eastern North Pacific

The Juan de Fuca Plate is a tectonic plate generated from the Juan de Fuca Ridge that is subducting under the northerly portion of the western side of the North American Plate at the Cascadia subduction zone. It is named after the explorer of the same name. One of the smallest of Earth's tectonic plates, the Juan de Fuca Plate is a remnant part of the once-vast Farallon Plate, which is now largely subducted underneath the North American Plate.

1700 Cascadia earthquake The 1700 Cascadia earthquake occurred along the Cascadia subduction zone on January 26, 1700 with an estimated moment magnitude of 8.7–9.2, on the Juan de Fuca Plate

The 1700 Cascadia earthquake occurred along the Cascadia subduction zone on January 26 with an estimated moment magnitude of 8.7–9.2. The megathrust earthquake involved the Juan de Fuca Plate from mid-Vancouver Island, south along the Pacific Northwest coast as far as northern California. The length of the fault rupture was about 1,000 kilometers, with an average slip of 20 meters (66 ft).

Cascadia subduction zone Convergent plate boundary that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to Northern California

The Cascadia subduction zone is a convergent plate boundary that stretches from northern Vancouver Island in Canada to Northern California in the United States. It is a very long, sloping subduction zone where the Explorer, Juan de Fuca, and Gorda plates move to the east and slide below the much larger mostly continental North American Plate. The zone varies in width and lies offshore beginning near Cape Mendocino Northern California, passing through Oregon and Washington, and terminating at about Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Megathrust earthquakes occur at subduction zones at destructive convergent plate boundaries, where one tectonic plate is forced underneath another, caused by slip along the thrust fault that forms the contact between them. These interplate earthquakes are the planet's most powerful, with moment magnitudes (Mw) that can exceed 9.0. Since 1900, all earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have been megathrust earthquakes. No other type of known terrestrial source of tectonic activity has produced earthquakes of this scale.

Paleoseismology The study of earthquakes that happened in the past

Paleoseismology looks at geologic sediments and rocks, for signs of ancient earthquakes. It is used to supplement seismic monitoring, for the calculation of seismic hazard. Paleoseismology is usually restricted to geologic regimes that have undergone continuous sediment creation for the last few thousand years, such as swamps, lakes, river beds and shorelines.

Cape Mendocino landform

Cape Mendocino, approximately 200 miles north of San Francisco, is located on the Lost Coast entirely within Humboldt County, California, USA. At 124° 24' 34" W longitude it is the westernmost point on the coast of California. The South Cape Mendocino State Marine Reserve and Sugarloaf Island are immediately offshore, although closed to public access due to their protected status. Sugarloaf Island is cited as California's westernmost island.

Brian Franklin Atwater is a geologist who works for the United States Geological Survey and is also a research professor at the University of Washington.

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A submarine, undersea, or underwater earthquake is an earthquake that occurs underwater at the bottom of a body of water, especially an ocean. They are the leading cause of tsunamis. The magnitude can be measured scientifically by the use of the moment magnitude scale and the intensity can be assigned using the Mercalli intensity scale.

The haietlik is a lightning spirit and legendary creature in the mythology of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) people of the Canadian Pacific Northwest Coast. According to legend, the haietlik was both an ally and a weapon of the thunderbirds, employed by them in the hunting of whales. They are described as huge serpents with heads as sharp as a knife and tongues that shoot lightning bolts. A blow from a haietlik would injure a whale enough that the hunting thunderbird could carry it away as prey. The haietlik was variously described as dwelling among the feathers of the thunderbirds to be unleashed with a flap of the wings, or inhabiting the inland coastal waters and lakes frequented by the Nuu-chah-nulth people.

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A teletsunami is a tsunami that originates from a distant source, defined as more than 1,000 km (620 mi) away or three hours' travel from the area of interest, sometimes travelling across an ocean. All teletsunamis have been generated by major earthquakes such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, 1960 Valdivia earthquake, 1964 Alaska earthquake, and 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

Ella Elizabeth Clark was an American educator, author, and Professor Emerita of English. Although Clark was not a trained anthropologist or folklorist, she collected large numbers of American Indian and First Nations oral traditions and made them available to a wide readership.

Ghost forest

Ghost forests are areas of dead trees in former forests, typically in coastal regions where rising sea levels or tectonic shifts have altered the height of a land mass. Forests located near the coast or estuaries may also be at risk of dying through saltwater poisoning, if invading seawater reduces the amount of freshwater that deciduous trees receive for sustenance.


  1. Ludwin, Ruth. 2002. "Cascadia Megathrust Earthquakes in Pacific Northwest Indian Legend." University of Washington Dept. of Earth and Space Sciences.
  2. Ludwin et al. 2005. "Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories". In: Seismological Research Letters, Volume 76, Number 2, March/April 2005
  3. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). 2005. "Native American Legends of Tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest." Western Coastal and Marine Geology.