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Aalto University helps Native Americans relocate after concerns of an impending tsunami

Aalto University has received a rare opportunity to collaborate with a little-known Native American tribe from the Pacific Northwest. According to Aalto University Professor Trev Harris a natural disaster is threatening to wipe out their reservation in Washington State. They have started a "Move to Higher Ground" project to relocate their community.

Quileute-kansan La Push-niminen asuinalue sijaitsee Yhdysvaltain luoteisrannikolla meren äärellä. Se on maanjäristyksille alttiilla Kaskadien vyöhykkeellä, jolla kohtaa kolme mannerlaattaa. Image: Trev Harris, Aalto-yliopisto

Finland’s Aalto University is helping a rare North American indigenous people design a new hometown that is out of harm’s way.

According to Professor Trev Harris of Aalto University, the Quileute tribe of La Push, Washington holds a ritual each year, where every woman, man and child in the reservation summons local whales, dolphins, sharks, seals and other marine species to the community's beach by playing drums.

"The tribe’s chief then interprets the sounds they make", says Harris.

Harris says tribal leaders have received information from the Pacific Ocean whales that a tsunami would soon hit their community. La Push is located at the intersection of three tectonic plates, and is prone to earthquakes of a 9-point magnitude.  

The tribe started to make plans to move their community to higher ground. It is now seeking potential funding from both the State of Washington and the federal government to fund the relocation.

Friend of a friend of a friend

Aalto University became involved in the project through a Finn working at the Microsoft office in Seattle, who knew the person handling the business affairs of the tribe and heard of their situation. This Finn also knew the Associate Professor of the Aalto University School of Architecture, Trev Harris, and recommended the tribe approach Harris’ team.

The tribe chose the Aalto University group to plan a new community for them that would include 50 new housing units and a new school building. Harris and his team returned from their first visit to La Push in March. He tells how the tribe hired his group to complete the task.

“On the last day there was a meeting of the tribal council. When it was over, one of the tribe's former eldersstood and said ‘You’re all hired’”, to the students, Harris says. The statement was meant figuratively, as Aalto University is involved in the process as part of their coursework.

He says it wasn’t money alone that won his team from Finland the job.

“They were completely fed up with the business world seething around them. As soon as news of the government funding went public, all kinds of construction firms came peddling their wares. The chief said to me, that your team’s way of dealing with things shows us much more respect than what we are accustomed to.”

The Aalto University plan intends to take advantage of local woodworking skills and build the new Higher Ground community from Canadian redwood, in an effort to revive the indigenous building tradition.

“According to the tribe, the operation must be completed by 2017, before the threat arrives,” says Harris.

Indigenous tribe goes back 7,000 years

The Quileute are a Native American people from the western state of Washington in the USA. Their population currently numbers approximately 2,000. After signing the Quinault Treaty in 1855, the Quileute people settled onto the Quileute Indian Reservation, located near the southwest corner of Clallam County of Washington, at the mouth of the Quillayute River on the Pacific coast. The hub of the reservation is the community of La Push.

The Quileute name may already be familiar to many fans of vampire stories, because the best-selling Twilight saga features fictional shape-shifting members of the Quileute tribe that live in and around the Forks, Washington area. The tribe claims that its history in North America goes back 7,000 years.

Like many native peoples on Northwest Coast, the Quileute once relied on fishing from local rivers and the Pacific Ocean for food. The Quileute and the Makah tribes were also once great whalers.

Edit: This article was updated and corrected on April 22 to reflect changes made to the Finnish-language original.

Edit: This article was updated on April 23 to attribute the narrative about the customs and current circumstances of the Quileute tribe to Professor Trev Harris of Aalto University. Yle was unable to interview tribe representatives for this article.

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