Learning from Legends: Indigenous Oral Traditions and Tsunami Safety

Monday 11:15-11:45am PT / 12:15-12:45pm MT / 1:15-1:45pm CT / 2:15-2:45pm ET Online
Share-a-Thon Part of Share-a-Thon


Sarah Glancy, University of Hawaii-West Oahu


I will briefly describe the activity and how I use it in the classroom. The full activity with links to websites with traditional stories will be provided.


In this jigsaw activity, students are placed in groups. Each group reads a different written record of an oral history about tsunamis. These indigenous stories are from around the world. To guide their interpretations, students answer activity questions. They look for tsunami characteristics and safety information. Then the groups are mixed. Students share what they learned from each story. Groups compare stories. They discuss: Are there any similarities in the warning signs, descriptions of the tsunami waves, or damage and did the traditional stories contain any safety information? I extend the lesson by sharing the importance of preserving and utilizing traditional knowledge. In Simeulue Island, oral traditions informed generations that feeling an earthquake and observing receding water were signs that a tsunami would quickly arrive and to immediately move to higher ground. Although close to the epicenter of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, only seven out of approximately 75,000 people on the island died. Lessons from the stories that students read are integrated into lessons on modern scientific understanding of tsunamis (causes and characteristics) and tsunami safety (natural warning signs). Students learn that disaster management personnel are using traditional knowledge to improve local hazard preparations.


Target Audience: Undergraduate introductory geology, geologic hazards, or earth science courses. No prior tsunami knowledge is assumed. I have taught this activity in small (24 maximum) classes, both in person and synchronous online through Zoom.

Use: I teach in Hawaiʻi where tsunamis are a major hazard. I use this activity as an engaging "hook" to introduce students to tsunami science and safety. For my geology classes, this activity leads into 1-2 additional days of studying tsunami science. For my geologic hazards class, this is the start to a multi-day tsunami unit.

Why It Works

This inclusive, transdisciplinary, and engaging activity makes science more approachable to a diverse range of students, especially students with "science anxiety," students who are afraid that they cannot learn science. Through this exercise, students learn that science does not always require expensive equipment and that observations of the natural world are scientifically valuable. This activity shows students that scientific understanding is not exclusive to western elites. People from all around the world for centuries have strived to understand the world around them through systematic observations, or in other words, science. Students see how oral traditions preserve scientific observations and safety information. It also shows students how traditional knowledge is increasingly valued by modern day scientists and emergency management groups to improve tsunami preparedness.

I teach at a minority serving institution. Many of my students are Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders. These stories resonate with some of these students, especially as the Hawaiian Islands experience renewed interest in Native Hawaiian traditions.

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