Orcas in First Nations Culture
March 20, 2013
As the first inhabitants of this beautiful land, West Coast First Nations have developed, over the millennia, a rich and fascinating culture surrounding the typical animals found in our waters and forest. And of course, as a frequent sight along our coasts, the beautiful orca is an important part of First Nations culture, as much in their visual works as in their oral tradition.
Whale watching Victoria BC is a great activity of its own, but the beauty and meaning of orcas is more than simply watching them swim around. Learn about some of the legends and stories the First Nations have taught us about those beautiful mammals.
The killer whale symbol
First Nations art often pictures the killer whale as an aggressive-looking and powerful being. The orca represents many different attitudes and ideas, often revolving around luck, compassion and family. They are known to some tribes as the guardians of the sea, protecting the people (especially sea travellers) against sea monsters. Because of their strong group behaviour orcas represent the strength of love and the bonds of family.
Boas tribes believed that if you saw a killer whale pass by and spat seawater towards it, the killer whale would heal your illnesses.
Stories about killer whales
The First Nations have many stories about killer whales. There is a legend that says that humans who drown at sea become killer whales. Thus, whales interacting with boats or swimming close to shore are really trying to communicate with their human families. Some tribes, as was illustrated by the Luna case some years ago, believe that chiefs can reincarnate into orcas.
The Tinglit tribe tells the story of Natcitlaneh, who was given magical powers by sea lions in thanks for healing their chief. With these powers, he started carving killer whales out of wood. Once, he carved one out of yellow cedar, and it came to life. Natcitlaneh held on to his creation’s fin and headed out to sea. There, they met Natcitlaneh’s brothers-in-law, who had exiled him to a desert island. Out of revenge, the killer whale broke the canoes, and the brothers-in-law drowned. Horrified, Natcitlaneh ordered the whale to never kill humans again, explaining why orcas have never attacked humans in the wild.
The peoples of our region have a rich culture surrounding killer whales—these are only a few of the legends and stories they still pass on today.
Photo: Orca sculpture at the Museum of Civlization in Gatineau, ON. By Steve on Flickr.