By Marc Snelling
Oral history of orcas saving humans stretches out for a millennia.
For example, Natsilane being saved from attempted drowning by his jealous brothers is a Haida and Tlingit story.
Nuxalk stories of Ista and Patsallht recount traveling with killer whales and how they got their black color. K’aa gwaay, the five finned killer whale of legends is carved on totem poles such as Ts’aahl Llnagaay at the Haida Heritage Center in Kay Llnagaay (Skidegate BC).
Haida Gwaii and the surrounding island and coastal lands of British Columbia (BC) and Alaska support rich and diverse life.
Stunning traditional art created by the peoples of this land is prized the world over, recognized for its expression of animal and human spirit. A fact recently noted by Lori Saldaña’s in her North Pacific dispatch. No animal figures as heavily in these traditional stories and art as orca.
‘Chief of the Undersea World‘ is a sculpture created by one of Canada”s best known Haida artists, Bill Reid. He was the son of a Scottish-German father and mother from T’aanuu in Haida Gwaii. (Queen Charlotte Islands BC) The original is housed at the Vancouver Aquarium and the above pictured plaster cast features prominently at the Museum of Civilization in the nation’s capital.
Not only did Bill Reid work to revive and continue the tradition, he helped mentor a new generation of artists. Today another generation of artists including Garner Moody, who carved the Ts’aahl Llnagaay totem, and Todd Baker, who creates traditional art, continue to produce these captivating images.
The stories of these nations speak of two times. One ancient – where the dividing line between human and animals was not clear – and today. The stories of orca and first man are intertwined.
The languages that these stories have been told in for generations have their own sound and rhythm.
Sgaan is the Haida word for orca, syut in Nuxalk. Both languages are currently being kept alive by small groups of elders and are in danger of becoming extinct. The number of fluent Nuxalk speakers was recently estimated at fifteen elders. First Voices is a website that has been created to help communities document and preserve this language legacy. Oral history and archaeology show that the Haida and their ancestors have lived in this region for well over ten thousand years.
A new generation faced with an increasingly unbalanced earth has begun to look at these stories from an older time with a new eye. The dominant view of today is short-term. The ancient stories all speak of karma-like concepts and how every action has a consequence, even if it is one felt hundreds of years later. The effects the extraction industries have had on this land over the past few generations only underline the morals of these stories. Increasingly people are seeing the value and message preserved in ancient wisdom and the old ways .
Natsilane was an intelligent, pleasant and skillful young warrior in a time before killer whales. He was an able sea lion hunter and spear carver who took as wife the daughter of a local chief. His traits made him an ideal choice for chief of his people. A fact that made his brothers-in-law extremely jealous. So jealous they plotted to drown him and took him out to sea fishing – further from shore than they had ever been.
His brothers threw Natsilane overboard and paddled away. Left to drown, he is found by sea otter, who floats Natsilane to an island where he is able to settle. There Natsilane carves a totem of a large black fish, grateful for his life being spared. He leaves this totem at the water’s edge. When he returns to shore the next day the carving is gone, and in the water is Blackfish, the first killer whale.
Blackfish guides Natsilane back to his home, where he finds his brothers out fishing in their boat. Natsilane asks Blackfish to destroy their boat, which it does. Natsilane orders that from then on Blackfish is never to harm humans again. Furthermore Blackfish is to help any humans in trouble at sea. Natsilane then returns to his village and becomes a legendary chief.
Some have claimed ot have seen Natsilane riding on the backs of two great black fish. Interpretation and telling of the story varies from family to family. The ending which may sound harsh, is in reality a happy ending. The moral of the story is that nature and good-spirited humans working together can defeat evil-spirited humans.
Ista is a traditional story of first woman and how she came to earth. In telling the story of Ista, Nuxalk people remember who they are and where they come from, their identity as Nuxalkmc. Traditional family origin stories are called Smayusta in Nuxalk.
Graciously they have shared their traditional stories, which enrich people’s of other nations who would read and respect them. Pastsallht, First Born, thought he was alone on Earth. He roamed the land and encountered the Sisawk people, who wore headdresses. Ashamed he was not a member of the Sisawk, Patsallht experienced jealousy, and so he continued his journey. At the water’s edge he met a group of people in a boat, and asked if they would give him a ride. They told him they would but he would have to cover his eyes.
Patshallt felt big waves hitting the boat and came to realize that the ‘people’ he was traveling with were in fact orcas. They traveled to Whannock, but the weather was so rough that the boat capsized.
First Born fixed the holes in the boat with pitch from the trees, burning it over a fire. That is why killer whales are black today. These memories are preserved today in song and dance as well as place names.
Nuxalknalus (King Island) is an island about thirty miles southeast of Bella Coola BC. A creek on this island is known to the Nuxalk people as ISTA – a former village site and place of origin of the peoples. In 1995 and 1997, Nuxalk people were arrested for protecting this area’s old growth forests from clear-cut logging. Their land has never been ceded and no treaty is in place, yet multinational logging corporations have clearcut on the island. The strength in spirit of these activists can be linked to the memory of their Smayustas – their origin stories.
Europeans also share a similar history. Numerous Greek myths include dolphins saving humans. People alive today talk about being saved from shark attacks by orcas. The species “orcinus orca” is actually a member of the dolphin family. One of the six largest dolphin family members are commonly called ‘whales’ for their size, a group also known as “blackfish”.
A man riding a dolphin is also a common Roman theme. This detailed mosaic of a man riding a dolphin is from a first century Roman villa in southern England.
Still other cultures recognize the dolphin as a friend to humans.
In Hindu mythology the goddess Ganga rides a dolphin in the Ganges River. The Ganges River dolphin or ‘South Asian river dolphin’ (Platanista gangetica) is an endangered freshwater dolphin. Ganga is honored in ceremony for good fortune and washing away sin. The actions that create sin are recognized as negative karma in Hinduism. Violating morals and ethics bring about negative consequences – a theme also present in the stories of the first people’s of the Northwest.
While stories of orca helping people are numerous, they are built to kill prey much larger than humans. A male orca weighs on average ten thousand pounds. Their place atop the ocean food chain has led to them being called “killer whales”.
Orcas were first placed in captivity by humans in the sixties. The first captured orca killed itself by running into the walls of it’s tank during it’s first day in captivity.
Since the seventies dozens of reports of captive orcas attacking humans have made news.
In our current decade instances of orcas killing humans have brought attention to the morality of keeping ‘The Chief of the Undersea World” captive. The killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum on February 24th, 2010 and the 2013 movie Blackfish have awakened much discussion on orca captivity. Her death came two months after trainer Alexis Martinez was killed by Keto an orca held at Loro Parque in Spain. Tilikum was previously implicated in the death of Keltie Byrne in 1991, and Daniel Dukes in 1999.
Tanks to hold captive orcas have been built in eleven locations in the world. Three of them owned by the SeaWorld chain of San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando. Ocean makes up over seventy percent of the earth’s surface. Orcas are found in every part of it, from the frigid arctic and Antarctic to the warm tropics.
The natural human footprint by comparison is twenty five percent of the earth’s surface. US law states two fully-grown killer whales can share a tank forty eight feet in diameter and twelve feet deep. A full grown orca is approximately twenty-four feet long.
Using the ancient stories of all nations as a guide it is clear to many that we need to treat orcas better. Not just for their sake, but for our own karma.
These stories also tell us that living in harmony with nature is essential to our long-term survival as humans. These creatures are more intelligent than many realize and have more to teach us then jumping for food and performing for a crowd. Increasingly, people from all over the world are motivated to protect the blackfish. As activists stand up for the respect of animals, the orca is a strong inspiration. Are they not still trying to save us?
Marc Snelling is not a member of the nations mentioned in this story and encourages readers to hear the stories of these nations from their own members.