Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Land and the People

Using a different approach this week, I noticed that the majority of the stories and myths of the native people of Alaska centered around the biotic; the flora and fauna around them and the creation of the animals they depend on for life.  What about the stories of the creation of the world ?, The mountains, volcanoes and earthquakes they have been living with for millennia?  Were there stories common to the people like the local Hawaiian legends of Pele? 
My first stop was the resources of books I have on Alaska Native writers and storytellers.  The only one I could find was a small story written from the 1800's that explained the formation of the Kozzocac Mountains of the Yukon River Delta.  The story is entitled Super Cockroach Tale and follows a Native hunter that sees in the distance a mountain that appears to move towards him as he observes it for a few days.  He becomes curious and decides to check it out for himself.  He notices others at the base of this moving mountain and learns that a shaman has taken it upon himself to learn why it is moving.  The shaman explains that a very large cockroach (indigenous to Alaska?), had carried it from up the Yukon.  They were once very large but because of the size of their load, the cockroaches today are small.  The Kozzovac mountains are the only landmarks down on the Yukon flats.Alaska Quarterly Review Vol. 4 No 3&4 Tim Afcan, Sr. The only mountain I could find that resembles this is Asaacaraq. The first landmark one can see as you travel of the Yukon.  I could be wrong and further research by someone else would be helpful.

Another story I found in an invaluable Time Life volume on Earthquakes that tells the story of Lituya Bay in Southeastern Alaska.  The Tlingit Indians of the area have hunted in the bay for generations but knew it as a deathtrap as well.  According to the legend, a demon frog like monster lives in the depths of the bay and when it becomes jealous of newcomers to the area will unleash a wave of epic proportions to capture those strangers and change them into bears. Modern analysis of the these waves have concluded that the bay lies along a major fault that lies under mouth of Lituya Bay.  Major earthquakes can topple large amounts of debris from the surrounding mountains and these landslides into the water displace large amounts of water resulting in enormous waves that have reached up to 3000 feet.  A website, documents these large waves and has found that one wave surged to 1740 feet above the bay.
Lituya Bay (Google Earth)
The only other reference to other landforms is the adaption of the inland Dena'ina people of the Lake Clark area.  If you fly, you might be aware of the Lake Clark Pass that connects Anchorage with the Lake Clark area and has been used for years by the Dena'ina people to access the coast and areas around Cook Inlet.   Stories passed down from oral traditions tell of a large glacier travelers needed to cross and of particular, a story about a young child that fell into a crevasse and was later rescued but lost a hand to frostbite.  I have personally flew through that pass and the the U-shaped valley is the only remains from that glacier.  What a great example of climate change over the collective memory of the Dena'ina. Nuvendaltin Quht'ana The people of Ellanna and Balluta.
Lake Clark Pass (Google Earth)

I love to tell the myths and legends of the Native Americans to enhance the interest of geologic change in Alaska and elsewhere.  Some find the stories juvenile and simple but I stress the importance of observation whether it be from the point of view of Alfred Wagner the scientist known as the father of Continental Drift or that of the indigenous people whose insights and observations should be just as important.
I have found several sites that incorporate Google Earth into Earth Science lessons.  One I use is the link from the AVO (Alaska Volcano Observatory),, that allows you to download a Google Earth file that will map recent earthquakes and active volcanoes from around the world.  Other sites allow the user to use real time data to map the mid-ocean ridge in the Atlantic through the actual work from the drilling on the JR research vessel,

Comments for 10-24-2010
My comments ranged from formal education in the Alaskan classroom, to brewing (root beer) to perceptions the kids have of scientists. Wonderful sites out there but feel blogs have TOO much emphasis on education today.


  1. I like your perspective about questioning the existence of native tales about geology. I think the answer maybe in your pointing out how some tales tell the story of geologic changes based on a visual “then and now” about a particular landscape. I’ll bet many more stories have similar clues. Certainly Lituya Bay is a great example of seismic activity outlined with a great myth.

    Also, I feel your concern about blogs being too much about education today. I am not sure what the alternative looks like, but I really like your blog. You added a lot to what we had to work with this week.

  2. I also thought it was an interesting take on geology and the lack of myths/stories/legends that explain geology. Could it be that this is because most geologic processes do not happen within the time frame of humans? People can keep track of cycles and changes in their lifetime, but it's difficult to comprehend beyond that.

    I did read about the tsunami in the book "Raven's Cry" ( It is fictional but based on fact. Interesting how most cultures have a flood story somewhere in them and it fits into their history in various ways.

  3. Thank you for sharing the stories. It was a nice addition to the lessons.

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  5. I remember hearing about some of the stories about the glacier that was once in the Lake Clark area. It's obvious from the topography around Nondalton that that was once the case. Thanks also for the AVO link - it looks to be quite useful.

    I hear you about blogs being too much about education. My wife is currenting tending one and it seems to encompass a lot but the educational facet keeps coming up.

  6. I really liked your research into traditional stories. Your relaying of the Tlingit legends of a monster frog living in the bay that created a death trap is so relevant to me. Native people have observed phenomenon, and their stories tell “tales” if the listener can make the conscientious link between culture and “science”.