Pacific Postcards

Shifting Plates and Shifting Perspectives - Camryn Cook

The Alpine fault line runs nearly the entire length of New Zealand, a distressing fact to those who live in the small southern pacific country. Like New Zealand, the Western coast of North America lies above a similar fault system, with shifting tectonic plates running from southern California all the way up to Washington, the location of the Cascadia subduction zone. The Cascadia subduction zone is known to produce some of the most detrimental earthquakes to date. Affecting Pacific northwestern populations for thousands of years, the Cascadia subduction zone has undergone significant change in its perception by coastal populations. By studying the perception of seismic activity in modern times, we can analyze how the view of natural disaster has changed as colonizers in the west pushed out indigenous cultural ideas in favor of a scientific explanation. The experience of mother and wife Alayne McLaren in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand provides us with a window into the modern experience of seismic activity, that of which has much changed over time around the Pacific rim. 

In Influences of Active Tectonism on Human Development, Eric R. Force discusses the history of seismic activity in New Zealand. Dating back to the paleolithic time, natural disasters have influenced cultures and driven the development of humans. While the Maori of New Zealand didn’t necessarily lose infrastructure to earthquakes, their settlement, means of collecting food, and trade economy were all strongly influenced by the tsunamis that struck the islands (Force 198). By looking at economic, political, religious, and other modern evidence, Force argues that this may still be the case. Societies settled around shifting tectonic plates have been altered over time to integrate the movements of the earth with their cultural practices and beliefs. 

On February 22, 2011, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck just over four miles from the center of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-most populous city. Still recovering from a magnitude 7.1 earthquake just 5 months before, New Zealand’s infrastructure crumpled at the shock of another major seismic event. Families were pushed deeper into financial instability and the city suffered great architectural and economic loss. A first-hand account of the tragedy documented by Ben Travers of The Daily Telegraph paints a picture of the physical and emotional toll these seismic events take on cities and their residents. Alayne McLaren, a survivor of the Christchurch earthquake, spoke about how her family was left with nothing. When she tried to go back to her house to retrieve some personal belongings, she was “repelled by tremors as she neared the porch (Travers).” She realized she would never step foot in that house again, the house where she had lived and loved for the past 13 years. One of the most significant impacts of this particular earthquake, besides the 185 deaths, was the shift in population. Citizens were leaving New Zealand in search of a haven. After many months of shaking ground and long delays in home insurance settlements, people decided that their lives would be better lived somewhere that didn’t lie directly over a major fault line. With no constant threat of earthquakes to worry about, families could regroup and start their new paths towards financial and emotional stability. This cultural shift seen in New Zealand can be seen in many bigger cities that lie on natural faults. The economic impact, a result of the crumbling infrastructure, drove people out of these seismically rich regions. 

Thousands of years ago, indigenous groups in these regions didn’t have major infrastructure or buildings that would be damaged as a result of earthquakes. This fundamental difference between native and modern societies explains why there has been a shift in the perception of natural disasters. Seismic activity has long been researched by professionals all over the world. As a result of the movement of the plates of the earth's crust, earthquakes seem out of our control as humans living on the surface. This modernized perspective on seismic activity has not always been the most popular. Indigenous groups, specifically those of the Pacific Northwest, share a very different view of the nature of natural disasters. 

Like the Maori of New Zealand, the indigenous cultures of the pacific northwest were also built upon seismic activity. Because this influence is not limited to a particular time period, we can conclude that the indigenous culture of the pacific northwest has been greatly influenced by the region's seismic activity (Force 196). Looking back a couple hundred, or even thousand, years, the indigenous groups of the Pacific northwest understood seismic activity in a more humanized and experiential way. Linking the “environmental transformation directly to the human condition,” the indigenous peoples up and down the coast of Cascadia connected earthquakes to healing and illness. “Even when seismic power was not explicitly associated with healing and illness, earthquakes … were understood to be moral events reflective of relationships between and among human people and the other residents of Cascadia (Thrush).” The understanding of earthquakes as a product of the relationship between the people and their places shaped indigenous experiences and understandings of their homelands. Seismic reality became an integral part of the Cascadian culture and they understood that they had “practically no way or time to try and save themselves (Thrush).” Accepting this reality, they lived in harmony with the earth and understood that anything that happened was a result of their actions. 

This native view of seismic activity is much different than the one that is normalized today. Using human action and culture as an explanation for the earth’s large-scale natural events seems almost unreasonable now given scientific developments, and this is the view colonials had when exploring and colonizing the Pacific northwest and Cascadia region. 

When colonizers landed upon the Cascadia region, they were unimpressed with the indigenous explanations of seismic activity and natural disasters. While modern environmental historians of catastrophe may agree that natural disasters are in part human creation, colonial scientists of the time ignored the indigenous forms of knowledge in favor of science over superstition (Thrush). With the colonizers came the depletion of indigenous culture - a pattern that can be seen all over the Pacific. Because many colonizers came from a place where seismic activity was not a constant threat, they did not understand the revised culture of the indigenous peoples. In the age of exploration, scientific discovery was an integral driving factor. It was this mindset that jeopardized the native culture of the Cascadia region and nearly erased the embedded ideas of seismic activity from indigenous communities. This heavy flow of new people into such a seismically active area is not something typically seen today. In her interview with Travers, Alayne discussed her home situation in New Zealand. “In time, [my home] may come to be repaired, but who now would want to buy in a city that must live with the ever-present threat of another catastrophe? (Travers)” This question posed by Alayne shows a stark contrast between the age of scientific exploration/colonization and the modern movement of people. Rather than following indigenous ideals and embracing the movements of the earth, people today have to consider the safety of their families with respect to natural disasters when deciding where to settle.  

Looking back to the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, much has changed over time with the introduction of colonization, science, and infrastructural development. As communities were colonized and developed, they lost their connection to the earth. Because of this, society was not built to understand these phenomena and didn’t adapt appropriately to the threats of seismic activity. From Alayne’s perspective, we see the result of this loss of touch between communities and the earth. When she lost her home, she lost her life. New Zealand was no longer the place for her, despite the many good years spent there with her family. Alayne’s connection to her homeland was not strong enough to keep her there, despite the troubles of seismic activity. 

The way that seismic activity interacts with daily life has greatly changed over time. Force’s ideas of seismic activity and tsunamis as a cultural stimulant and human-developing agent apply to communities who lived upon fault lines thousands of years ago as well as modern civilizations. While this interaction between land and humans is timeless, the integration of non-indigenous perspectives into communities that built their culture upon seismic activity has greatly impacted the way earthquakes are perceived today. Once a product of human action, earthquakes have become scientific feats that are strictly defined by the movements of the earth’s tectonic plates. The dehumanization of earthquakes shows a loss of connection between earth and those who live on it. Natural disaster is what built indigenous communities and forced them to adapt to the environment in which they settled. As the beliefs of these indigenous communities were buried by outsiders, the perspective of seismic activity in both New Zealand and the Pacific northwest shifted towards a more culturally disconnected scientific explanation. 


Works Cited

Force, Eric R. and B. G. Mcfadgen. “Influences of Active Tectonism on Human Development: A 

Review And Neolithic Example.” (2013).

Thrush, Coll & Ludwin, R.. (2007). Finding Fault: Indigenous Seismology, Colonial Science,  

and the Rediscovery of Earthquakes and Tsunamis in Cascadia. American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 31. 1-24. 10.17953/aicr.31.4.3374595624774617. 

Travers, Ben. "45 Seconds that Changed our Lives: As a Series of Seismic Disasters Batters the 

Pacific Rim, One Survivor of the New Zealand Earthquake Talks to Ben Travers." The Daily Telegraph, Mar 19, 2011, pp. 4. ProQuest,

This page has paths: