What Do Killer Whales Symbolize in First Nations Culture?
June 20, 2018
The killer whales living off the coast of British Columbia hold a strong home in the hearts of the First Nations people living in the Pacific Northwest. Just seeing an orca whale breach the surface of the water from land evokes raw emotions that tie generations of Canada’s First Nations together.
In fact, it ties single generations together, too. Because it’s not often you see one killer whale without seeing another. And another. And soon enough, the entire extended family.
Killer Whales & Bonds of Family
The resident orcas of BC live together in huge groups called pods, the largest of which in the area being J-Pod. These orcas are identified by name and possess many of the same familial habits as the people of Canada’s First Nations. They’re loyal. They’re dedicated. They demonstrate compassion. Large extended families remain together for years. Examples of these characteristics are seen in orcas such as Spieden, an adoptive grandmother born in 1933 who cares for a young male killer whale named Onyx. Another is Slick, a mother of five who’s very social and rarely seen swimming without her family close by.
These are just the obvious examples we see every season. Every calf born in an orca whale pod is cared for individually. They’re nurtured and taught the way of life by their entire marine village.
Transient killer whales may differ in the fact they travel in smaller groups in order to stealthily hunt their prey, but the bond of companionship and cooperation is still apparent, just as it was in the Coast Salish First Nations People in British Columbia over a hundred years ago.
Living in Harmony
First Nations symbolism doesn’t stop with killer whales. One of the most common companions of orca symbolism is the thunderbird. Coast Salish legend tells of a time when the salmon of the Cowichan River disappeared because of a particularly predatory orca whale. When the people of the river called upon a supernatural creature known as the Tzinquaw, or Thunderbird, a mighty battle ensued and the salmon eventually returned. Today, these legends teach us that the sea, the land, and the skies have ample resources for both human and beast, and it’s imperative to maintain the balance between civilization and the natural world.
There are other legends of orca whales and the Thunderbird, including deals made between the two beasts to share the land and the sea. While the Thunderbird is much more elusive, the orca whales of BC are a constant reminder of the power of living in harmony with the ocean and our marine neighbours.
A Spiritual Strength
Many First Nations legends involve powerful examples of reincarnation. Told over centuries, these stories maintain ties to the past while also honouring the future – a future where the souls of the deceased live on in the orca whale, the most revered symbol of strength in the eyes of the aboriginal people of Canada.
The orca whale is the largest predator in the world. They are intelligent and invoke resiliency and pride in a people that has endured incredible hardship. Their telltale black and white markings, their characteristics, their legends – all these elements create an imprint on the human heart and remind us of the raw power of the ocean and the gifts it gives us when we show its inhabitants the respect they deserve.