Killer Whales and Haida Culture
Killer Whale, Photo by Skipper Laas. Image taken with a zoom lens and heavily cropped.
  • August 6, 2019

I was born and raised on Haida Gwaii in the village of Skidegate. I was very lucky to have been brought up in my culture. During my time as a naturalist and a zodiac skipper it’s been interesting to see the similarities between killer whale societies and my own. The Haida people are matriarchal and matrilineal this means the oldest women in the clan makes the decisions. My great grandmother at 86 years old is our current matriarch and even though each clan has a chief he still needs to run his ideas by the matriarch to get the go ahead. Killer whales also have a matriarchal society, the oldest female tells them where to go, what to eat and when.

Haida Canoe
Haida Canoe, Laas and others paddling.

Matrilineal means we follow the blood line of our mothers. Haida people are separated into two different crests, either an eagle or a raven, we are then divided by clans which are made up of the mothers side of the family, for example I am in the Skidegate Gidins (eagles) because my mother is, her mother is as well, and so on. This is very similar to how we group killer whales, especially in this area. We have transients and residents which are further divided into family groups which are classified by who the mother is. The parallels between the two are interesting to see, maybe it’s also why killer whales are a significant part of Haida culture. Interestingly killer whales were a crest that was allowed to be used by certain families in either the raven or the eagles clans the difference was in the dorsal fin and saddle patch, which we see when comparing residents and transients have a slightly different saddle patch.

The Haida myths and legends about killer whales tells how they are supernatural beings and how they basically ruled the underworld. The underworld in Haida culture refers to the ocean and everything in it. The killer whales had their own villages equivalent to the Haida villages on the surface with longhouses lined up with each other. The stories the Haida have about killer whales are endless, many of them end up being about a killer whale that stole a woman from the shore because he wanted to bring her back to his village and marry her.

Killer Whales Dorsal fins
Killer Whale dorsal fins. Photo by Skipper Laas, image taken with zoom lens and heavily cropped.

There are also stories about the origins of killer whales and stories of their strength. Some say killer whales descended from coastal wolves. There was a story about a man with two wolf pups who, as they grew bigger and bigger, would swim out to sea to hunt whales. They would bring whales back for dinner everyday until one day a heavy fog came in and the wolves became lost at sea, eventually turning into killer whales.

There’s another story about how the supernatural beings were holding a contest. The island of Haida Gwaii was sinking, and to see who would be given the job of holding it up, they needed to see who the strongest. In this contest was a boy who had the ability to wear the skin of others. The contest was to see who can lay on a bed of hot coals the longest, the boy knowing the killer whales skin was the toughest, decided to cheat he took the killer whales skin and wore it when the supernatural beings weren’t looking, he won the contest. It is said he now holds up Haida Gwaii on a totem with his little pet ermine, when there is an earthquake on Haida Gwaii it is said to be the ermine running up and down the pole.

Haida Killer Whale totem pole
Haida Totem Pole with a Killer Whale carving dating back 200 years. Photo by Skipper Laas.

Storytelling was always a a very respected job in Haida culture, each family would pass down their stories through generations. There would be a designated storyteller who had to learn each of these stories and remember them word for word. So many stories still remain today thanks to these story tellers, many were lost in past disasters that hit the Haida population but it’s amazing the amount of heritage we were able to hold on to thanks to those stories and traditions that were passed down.

There are many more stories from Haida culture that depict the wildlife we see on our trips and I will definitely be sharing more of them as the season goes on. It is always a joy when others take an interest in both the wildlife and the culture that has been around these islands for centuries.

Written by Zodiac Skipper Laas.

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