I am inside a dugout canoe, out passed the break line, rocking in the ocean. A fog bank has rolled in and I cannot even see the shore anymore. My skin is chilled and goose bumps are crawling up my bare back, shoulders, and arms.
Somewhere in the distance I hear the blow hole spray of a great whale. A creature 4 or 5 times the size of the canoe, and this crew will take it. I won’t look uncomfortable, or scared, around the other 7 men. They say I am a boy. But I am on a whale hunt for the first time. I am Nuu-chah-nulth.
About 300 years ago whaling was active and was a spiritual ritual and central to the Nuu-chah-nulth life and culture. Not only did a successful whale hunt provide food and resources for the village, it was also ceremonial to the people.
A crew of eight men would prepare in seclusion before the hunt. They would be connected physically, spiritually and mentally through bathing, meditating, and praying together.
“When we talk about whaling, it’s not ‘well, we are going to go whale hunting’. Whaling speaks to the spiritual realm in a most important way.” – Barney Williams Jr., Tla-oqui-aht First Nation.
The whale submerges and the harpoon is thrust into its left side just as the canoe is manoeuvred to approach it from the rear. The enormous creature contorts its body from side to side, struggling against the harpoon. The boat gets knocked to one side, the crew all lean to even it out, and it gets hit by the whale again, nearly capsizing. My hands feel like ice as I steady myself on the side of the canoe.
The whale moves away from the boat as the crew throws out the seal skin floats that were attached to the rope. The water begins to calm. I know the harpoon was thrust properly and it wouldn’t be long before the beast will pass. I know it is my time.
Completely prepared for this task I dive into the icy Pacific Ocean. My entire body shot with pain from the instant cold as I swim to the dead whale. Holding onto it where ever I can, wrapping my legs around its head I find the start of its massive mouth at the base of its jaw. Then with my needle made of bone I begin to sew the whales mouth shut. The wind blasts against my wet body, splashing water that feels like ice into my face.
Finally, I am finished. I swim back into the dugout canoe, pick up your oar, and with the other men, begin to tow the whale back to the village. It will not sink now that its mouth is tied shut. My body is freezing but my blood pumps hotter than ever. I am a hunter. I am strong. I am a man.
When we arrive back to the shore I see a celebration was already underway. People from the village down the coast have come to join in the festivities. My crew is victorious and the providers of the village. Now it was time to butcher the whale.
The chief is first to remove his portion, a section near the dorsal fin. Then he hands out the rest of the meat and blubber to the families in the tribe. We offer up thanks to the whale for giving up his life to provide this bounty for our people. Meat, fat, oil, bone, sinew…we will use it all.
The Nuu-chah-nulth were one of the few groups on the Pacific Coast whaled. Whaling is essential to Nuu-chah-nulth culture and spirituality and when the Europeans arrived it was the foundation of their economic structure.
It is reflected in stories, songs, names, family lines, and numerous place names throughout the Nuu-chah-nulth territories. It strengthened and preserved cultural practises, unwritten tribal laws, ceremonies, and teachings. All of these elements were amplified in the month spent bathing, praying, and fasting in preparation of the hunt and in the following celebrations.
The whale strengthened the relationships because everyone was involved in the processing of the whale, the celebrations, the feasting, and the carving of the artifacts that can still be seen today in many museums around the world. Everyone shared in the bounty of the whale. And the whale strengthened the people spiritually, psychologically and physically.
“Once the whale was cut up there was just the carcass. The bones were kept for different things. Like in our case, we kept the rib. The idea was the last whale that our family got, that they wanted to keep on of the major ribs to remind us of a legacy that was part of our family.”
- Barney Williams Jr., Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, on the last whale taken by his great grandfather on Easter Sunday, 1904.
Written by Amy Hancock