by: Tsimka Martin
From time immemorial until the early 1900s, my Nuuchahnulth Tla-o-qui-aht ancestors were in the practice of hunting whales from canoes. The whale hunt is one that was central to our culture. The respect for, and the importance of the whale continues to be visible, in our songs, dances, traditional names, artworks and the carving of whale hunting-size canoes.
In the early 1900s the Canadian industrial whale hunt was over-harvesting whales primarily for their blubber and caused whale populations to plunge, which was part of the reason the traditional whale hunt stopped happening. The other reason is that there were extensive forced assimilation programs and an attempt at genocide of native people at the hands of the Roman Catholic church and the Candadian government. This was happening over about 5 generations for about a 100 year time period in our homelands, and didn’t allow for traditional practices to continue due to the massive disruption to families and communities.
Whale hunters went through rigorous preparation to be ready to hunt whales. The exact kind of ritual around preparation varied from hunter to hunter but was always lengthy and incredibly important. In part, it necessitates that the hunter to go off alone into what western culture and English language calls “wilderness”, but is home and Hahuulthi to Nuuchahnulth people. There, the hunter participated in a holistic preparation process. This included cold water bathing and fasting, physical fitness routines, mental preparation, and spiritual preparation to tap into natural and supernatural powers. The seasoned hunter often spent months preparing in advance of a whale hunt. The first time hunter may take years of intensive preparations, and would be groomed as he grew up by his community for this special role.
Traditionally the role of being a whale hunter in the canoe belonged to men. The wife of a whale hunters also performed rigorous ceremonial preparations. From the time the men left shore in their canoe, she was to be in a continued state of still meditation and prayer, a communion with the whales spirit. She was communicating, asking the whale to give up its’ life for her community, as the life of one whale can supported everyone in Tla-o-qui-aht and beyond. During the preparation-time the whale hunter and his wife would abstain from each to be fully focused on the upcoming hunt. They had to make themselves worthy of the whale.
Our word for whale in general is Ihtuup. Taken apart into it’s suffix parts, “Ih” means “really big” and “tuup” means “animal” or “creature”. There are several kinds of whales that were hunted by Nuuchahnulth peoples. Among them the Humpback and Grey whale, both of which are still commonly seen in this area; others include the Fin whale, the Sperm whale, and possibly the Minke whale, Right whale and Blue whale.
When the time came to hunt, the canoe or canoes would leave the shore early, arriving at the hunting grounds at dawn. One hunting arrangement that was used consisted of 3 canoes: 2 of these were whale hunting canoes, and the third canoe is a smaller “communicator” canoe. A whale hunting canoe was usually around 35 feet and hosted 8 hunters. It was outfitted with about 40 fathoms of cedar rope carefully placed in a basket, paddles, several sealskin floats with unique Tla-o-qui-aht designs painted on them, a lance, a large bone spike, and a yew wood harpoon that was about 15 feet long. The harpoon shaft was constructed in 3 separate sections of yew wood, spliced together so that there would be less side to side spring and more penetration on the impact of the throw. The head of the harpoon was a detachable piece made of antler bone, sinew and mussel shell. The sinew was smoothed over and strengthened with tree pitch.
The whaling grounds were offshore on the open ocean. When a canoe arrived at the whaling grounds, there might be many whales. The lead hunter and harpooner (also a chief) , would know which whale he was meant to go after as a result of his spiritual preparation and communication with the whale. He would ready his stance and the canoe would come alongside parallel to the whale. The hunter would strike, aiming for the whales’ heart when the whale was at the surface taking a breath. The hunters would detach the harpoon shaft from the harpoon head as soon as possible after the strike. The harpoon head was pre-attached to the cedar rope that would deploy smoothly from the basket as the whale swims away. Immediately after the strike was a critical time. The whale could thrash, smashing the canoe or killing the hunters, so the hunters had to paddle the canoe away quickly. Seal skin floats attached to the cedar rope served the purpose of slowing the whale down, hindering it from diving deep and helping the crew in being able to track the whales’ swimming course. At this point the crew would come along side the whale again and lance the whales’ shoulder blade area to impede the movement of its’ fins.
The harpoon shaft or another lance could be used to kill the whale if it had not yet died. Then, it was one crew members’ job to dive into the ocean and put a spike through the whales lips tying the whales mouth shut. This served to stop the whale from filling with water and created an aerodynamic point from which to tow the whale.
My grandpa Levi Martin speaks about how there are special gifts given through ceremony. He explained that during one whale hunt situation in former times, the whale was towing the crew further and further out away from land on the open ocean. One of the hunters began to chant a song to the whale that he received as a result of his spiritual preparation. The whale then turned around and towed them all the way back to their village.
During a hunt the smaller “communicator” canoe would tell the village when the whale had been harpooned. When that happened, all the people in the village would stop what they were doing and send what can be described as a big reiki beam to the whales’ spirit from shore.
The people would sing songs to welcome the whale ashore when it was being brought in. Once the whale was on the village beach, its’ life was honoured by the people with eagle down blessings and and the body was carved up into specific sections that were given to the families according to their role in the community. Everything they could think to use was used. The sinew was highly useful, the bones are good for tools and weapons, the blubber was a major resource that could be rendered into oil and was a major item of trade spreading out among other First Nations far and wide.
A whale hunt in my ancestors’ community was a big deal. The Tla-o-qui-aht and larger Nuuchahnulth community today carries pride in our ancestors traditions. We remain connected to the spirit of the whale through all the many gifts that they have given us.
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