Our Legends: Killer Whales & the History of the Coast Salish People
June 21, 2016
Imagine coming face to face with a legend.
Picture walking slowly along on a quiet mountain trail and coming to the realization that you’re not alone, that some forgotten primate from another generation was watching your every move.
Imagine a great creature in the sky blocking out the light of the sun itself, casting a shadow too large to belong to a creature that’s well-known to mankind.
The Sasquatch. The Thunderbird.
For the Coast Salish people living in the pacific northwest over a hundred years ago, there was a different undiscovered legend to fear. Whispers spoke in hushed tones of a terrifying marine predator that devastated salmon supply and earned its demonic name.
The Killer Whale
Legend has it that once the Cowichan People discovered the culprit behind the disappearing salmon stock, they called on yet another legend to help drive off the killer, a supernatural creature in its own right, the Tzinquaw, or Thunderbird. Images carved originally by the indigenous people of British Columbia depict the fearsome orca whale and the powerful thunderbird, often linked together by man in impressive totem poles. The people, the orca whale, the great birds and, truly, the whole of the animal kingdom eventually learned to share the land and the waters they called home. After all, the land belonged to no one, not man on the ground, bird in the air or creature in the water.
While the killer whale may have originally earned its fearsome nickname, its image is now symbolic of great respect, both for the basic needs of the animals with which we’re surrounded and a respect for nature itself.
Coast Salish Legends
You see, far before animals were chained in zoos or confined to aquariums, human beings coexisted and maintained a healthy distance from the domains of beasts. The Coast Salish people lived in harmony with a once-fearsome killer that, they would learn through careful observation, was very much dependant on their clans for survival, much like humanity itself.
From the perspective of the orca whale, humankind was equally as fearful, as hunting and whaling would demonstrate as far back as the 1600’s when commercial whaling decimated whales in the northern hemisphere, including the Right, Sperm, and Humpback populations.
But that’s another story. A sad one.
The Symbology of the Orca Whale
The symbol of the curved orca whale you see leaping into the air reflects the image the Coast Salish people of British Columbia would have seen first in their nightmares, but then, eventually, in their dreams. Today the orca symbolizes kindness, intelligence and compassion, a resounding endorsement for an animal that was once thought of as a cold-blooded killer. Orca whales travel with their families and work together to hunt. They live in harmony with their environment and remind humankind to do the same. Most orca carvings depict symmetrical images, reminding their viewers of the importance of balance and harmony.
To revere an animal once thought to be the scourge of human existence is the ultimate example of finding harmony where it was once thought impossible.
The Orca Legends Of Today
The story of the orca whale’s discovery in the pacific northwest is an important reminder of perspective. It’s taken far too long for humanity to treat the killer whale with the respect it deserves. Is this because we forget so quickly the legends of our ancestors? This is a wild animal that’s ruled the world beneath the waves of the pacific northwest for longer than history can remember.
The orca whale is still inspiring legends on our continent and throughout coastal communities all over the world. A symbol of freedom and independence, orcas have been reported to assist human beings in distress far from civilization. Meanwhile, orca whales in distress themselves have reluctantly reminded human beings of their raw power and mysterious intelligence.
There is nothing more liberating than the image of an orca whale – it’s a legend that has withstood the test of time and developed naturally in line with the pressing needs of a species that often confuses freedom with control: humans.