Reincarnation, Orca Whales, & the First Nations People of the West Coast
September 7, 2017
Last month as I was happily cruising through the water in a zodiac tour boat out of Victoria’s harbour, I had myself a moment.
Perfectly content and excited for the adventure upon which I was embarking with ten or so other nature enthusiasts, I was nonetheless overcome with a sudden sensation that I didn’t belong.
Here we were, a group of land-dwelling human beings, venturing into the watery turf of a magical, mysterious, and ancient creature – an animal that’s lived in the pacific ocean’s waters for far longer than we have. Did we have the right to explore their territory? Surely we don’t belong here, and surely our presence is noted by the orca whales, the humpbacks, and all the other types of marine life that call this area home.
Then I remembered one of the most important tenets of the relationship between orca whales and the west coast first nations people who’ve called the Salish Coast home for over a century.
Bare with me a moment here, but every culture on Earth has its own rituals and traditions surrounding death and the next step. For the people of the west coast first nations, one of the most gripping examples of mutual respect amongst orcas is an old legend stating that if you drown while at sea, you’re reborn as an orca whale. The story is a way to explain the common experience of orcas venturing close to boats and attempting to communicate with the people who live on nearby shores – or the people who used to be their families, friends, and recently-lost relatives.
This respect is what relaxed me that day on the zodiac – as long as we’re not over-stepping our boundaries, natural curiosity with our marine neighbours is fine.
This point was highlighted even further that day when, a few minutes after encountering a group of small orcas playing in the waves, our captain announced we’d be moving on so we didn’t wear out our welcome.
A Life Beyond This
No greater example of the reincarnation legends exists than that of Luna the Whale. Just over a decade ago an overly friendly young orca separated from his pod was making local residents of Nootka Sound a bit nervous. After all, he’d only recently shown up on the scene, far from his pod over 400 kilometres away, although he had been separated from the pod for over two years.
So why was he suddenly so interested in the area?
Legends goes that the recently deceased chief of the Mowaat and Muchalaat First Nations, Chief Ambrose Maquinna, found himself within the spirit of Luna the Whale. He died only days before the mysterious orca was first spotted in the area. The Mowaat and Muchalaat were so fierce in their beliefs that they protected Luna from being captured by authorities, leading him away from Nootka Sound in row boats with singing and drums.
Despite their efforts, however, Luna was killed by a tugboat just two years after the incident.
I don’t know if I believe in the legends of orca reincarnation the orca whales of the west coast, and the first nations people who hold them so dear, but it doesn’t matter either way. The respect shared between humans and orcas in the area runs deep, strong, and true.
And it’s a respect I’m happy to share in, too.