First Nations

photo M. Noonan

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 years.

"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 Potlach

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.

photo M. Noonan

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.

Orca Traditions

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 respected.


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.