Vancouver Island was the original
home of many First Nations peoples. This includes the
Tlingit, Haida, Nootka, and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples. Life
for these coastal tribes was linked to the land and the
ocean and fishing for salmon and halibut was an integral
part of their traditional lifestyle. Fish oil was
considered by coastal tribes to be "liquid gold". It
signified wealth, served as a trade item, and was used
as a dip for foods. Trees such as the cedar were
extensively used for building and for creating totems.
Above all, the First Nations tribes respected the land
that they lived on. By taking only what they needed and
using all of what they took, the coastal tribes ensured
the health of the land they depended on for thousands of
"Everything is related to one
another. Without the forests, without the water, without
the fish in the water, and without the wildlife in the
forest, we really don’t have anything. Nothing as a
people, or even as a human race." -- Pat Starit, elected
chief of the Get Get people
While in the Pacific Northwest, we
visited the U’mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay,
British Columbia. Through this center the Kwakwaka’wakw
people are working to preserve much of their old
traditional culture. U'mista houses an invaluable
collection of carved masks associated with the very
important potlatch ceremonies that were and are central
to Kwakwaka culture.
The potlatch was the great
ceremony of the coastal Pacific Northwest tribes.
Variations of the potlatch were was used to mark
important occasions such as births, marriages, and
deaths. The potlatch could last for weeks and hundreds
of people might attend. During this time many gifts were
exchanged between families and ceremonial masks were
worn in traditional dances. Each dance and mask held
certain meanings, and events during the potlatch
occurred in a very specific order. The entire potlatch
ceremony was performed from memory, for no written
records existed among the coastal First Nations tribes.
The First Nations tribes of the
Pacific Northwest felt strong spiritual and supernatural
ties to the forest, the sky and the sea. Each important
family would be associated with a particular living
creature; such as a wolf, raven, or killer whale. This
creature is referred to as the family’s crest. The
rights to crests are passed down from one generation to
the next, as are the rights to perform certain stories,
dances and songs during a potlatch.
Among the inherited potlatch
dances are those pertaining to the undersea kingdom. The
sea kingdom was especially important because the coastal
people depended on the ocean for much of their food and
livelihood. Fourteen different sea kingdom masks were
used, including those of killer whales, salmon, seals,
sea lions, herring and the chief of the sea.
The killer whale was a subject of
focus in the belief systems of many of the First Nations
tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Not surprisingly,
tribes such as the Haida, Tlingit, and Kwakwaka’wakw
held traditional beliefs about these powerful whales.
Within the Haida society, the
killer whales were viewed as members of a race of people
who operate in the underwater realm much as human
society does on land. The killer whales could capture a
canoe and take it underwater to transform the occupants
into whales. Thus, whales seen swimming near the shore
were really transformed humans trying to get in touch
with their families. Haida also used the killer whale as
a popular symbol of family, for the whales stay with
their families and travel in large pods.
Tlingit stories tell of how the
killer whale was created. A man named Natcitlaneh was
abandoned on an island by his jealous brothers-in-law.
He was rescued by sea lions and taken to their village
in a cave where he healed their chief. In return, the
sea lions granted him magical powers. Natcitlaneh carved
killer whales out of different types of trees. Finally,
when he carved the whale out of yellow cedar, it came to
life when placed in the sea.
Natcitlaneh held onto the
dorsal fin of the whale and went out to sea with it.
There, he saw his brothers-in-law in their canoes.
Natcitlaneh’s whale avenged him by smashing the canoes
and killing his wicked brothers-in-law. Natcitlaneh told
the whale that it must never again hurt humans. That is
why killer whales, to this day, do not eat people.
Boas tribes believed that killer
whales had the power to take away sickness. Whenever a
Boas person would see a killer whale swim past, they
would blow a mouthful of seawater at the whale and ask
the whale to take away sickness.
The Kwakwaka’wakw told of a
mysterious undersea kingdom presided over by a powerful
chief who lived in a copper house beneath the sea. The
beams that supported his house were made of sea lions
stacked on top of each other. This powerful chief
commanded creatures such as the killer whales, seals,
and sea lions. The Kwakwaka’wakw also told of hostile
beings of the deep, monsters that caused sea squalls and
overturned canoes. The killer whales were seen as
mysterious and powerful animals that were to be