"The Flood" Discussion

Erna Gunther (1896-1982), was a UW Professor of Anthropology, Chairman of the UW Anthropology Department 1930-1955, and Director of the Burke Museum for thirty years. She wrote numerous books on Northwest Coast Indian Ethnography.

Our last story, "The Flood", recorded by Gunther (1925), is a Klallam folk tale which recounts a version of the flood story. Flood stories are extremely widespread in Pacific Northwest Indian lore, although most versions have no story elements suggestive of either shaking or tsunami. Floods are the most frequently occurring natural disasters, and are certainly common throughout western Washington. Flood myths are known world-wide (Vitaliano, 1973). The story of Noah's ark is very popular, was very likely told by missionaries and early settlers. Native Americans may have incorporated some European stories in their repertoire (Marriott, 1952), and some of the Pacific Northwest flood myths may reflect outside influences. The story given by Gunther (1925) mentions heavy rain over many days and the death of children due to cold weather following the flood. This story does not mention shaking, but has one element that suggests a tsunami; the rivers become salty during the flood. The canoe-in-the-tree and "many dead" elements are very similar to those in the the Swan and Reagan accounts. We have included this story because it includes both typical and distinct story elements when compared with other Pacific Northwest Indian flood stories, and illustrates the difficulty of placing these stories into the context of an earthquake and tsunami. Typical story elements include foresight of the flood and preparation of canoes, rain, tying the canoe to the mountain and the death of many people. Distinct elements include the salt water, extreme cold, and the canoes striking the trees. These distinct and specific details give an impression of the recall of a real event.

From: Gunther, Erna, 1925, "Klallam Folk Tales", University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 113-170 Informants cited: Told by Joe Samson of Elwah, interpreted by Vera Ulmer


There was a man who told his people to make some canoes and to make them large and strong so they could endure storms. There was a flood coming. The people said the mountains were high and they could just go up the mountains when the flood came. He warned them again. Soon it began to rain and rained for many days. And the rivers became salt. The people said they would go up the mountains. When the flood came they took their children by the hand and packed the small ones on their backs. It became so cold that the children died. They had no way of getting to the mountains for the valleys were full of water and the rivers overflowed their banks.

The people that walked all died. Those that had canoes and water and food lived. Some who were in a canoe tied themselves to a treetop when their canoe hit the tree and split. Many died. Some tied themselves to mountains and the highest ones were saved. The flood uprooted all the trees. That is why there are no really large ones left today. All the trees of today grew after the flood.

From: Ella E. Clark, 1953, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, Berkeley CA. 225 pp.
p. 45

Sam Ulmer, a Klallam who lives near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, learned in childhood a similar story of canoes tied to a mountain during the great flood. The mountaintop broke off, he said, leaving the two points now visible at the ends of a saddle-like ridge in the Olympics. "The canoes floated away and came down, after the flood, to the place where Seattle is now. The people in the canoes became the ancestors of the Indians who used to live around there." From: Myron Eells, 1985, The Indians of Puget Sound; The Notebooks of Myron Eells, edited by George Pierre Castile, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 470 pp.

p. 266

The Clallams, whose country adjoins that of the Twanas, also have a tradition of the flood, but some of them believe that it is not very long ago, perhaps not more than three or four generations since. One old man says that his grandfather saw the man who was saved from the flood, and that he was a Clallam.


Back to the List of Stories