Orca Soundings

Talk given at opening of “Against the Current” exhibit, 2020 Salt Spring Arts Council

Call me Ishmael. 

Moby Dick is a book that presents one of the most pure villains in literature: Ahab, the captain of the doomed whaling ship  the Peqod,  embodies the Man vs. Nature domination trip that has resulted in our Current ecological crisis.  Ahab represents the howling anguish of a humanity so alienated from the Earth that we begin to see our very home, our mother planet, as a force to be vanquished. Of course, in so doing we kill ourselves. 

Moby Dick is set in a time when  ships crowded with desperate men set out to  kill whales in order to light coal blackened cities, and lubricate the cogs of the machines that would consume the great forests of the world. Whaling: not the last time man went to war with nature for oil. 
Ahab is wounded: in an earlier conquest, the whale Moby Dick chewed his leg off. For a prosthetic, he uses a whale jawbone. He is broken, limping, and hellbent for revenge. 

One reading of Moby Dick is as a story of trauma; Melville spent 4 years on whaling ships and witnessed untold violence as these majestic leviathans were dragged from the sea, butchered  on deck, and rendered  for oil in enormous iron cauldrons. 

The book is an allegory for the American Dream and for the colonial plunder that is its nightmare shadow. In the end, every character dies save the narrator, Ishmael, who escapes clinging to a pitch lined coffin he uses as a lifebuoy. Ahab, in Shakesperian extravagance, is both hanged AND drowned, dragged by Moby Dick to the bottom of the sea  entangled in his own harpoon. After destroying the ship, Moby Dick swims off to live another day..  the real hero of Melville’s story is the whale. 

While Moby Dick highlights the worst in human nature, there is another set of tales about whales, and heroism, that come from right here in the Pacific Northwest.  

In Indigenous stories of the coast,  the Blackfish represents the transcendence  that can be achieved when nature and humankind are united. Whales are teachers, delivering lessons about the perils of upsetting the balance of nature, and the beauty that results from humble belonging to, and proper reverence for, the family of all life. 

The Tlingit story of Natsilane tells of a skilled carver and fisherman, who During a sea lion hunt, is thrown overboard by His jealous brothers.  He is rescued by a sea otter, who guides him to a rocky island and shows him the best fishing grounds. Otter also gives Natsilane a pouch of seeds: sowing them, Natsilane grows a forest, creating the whole majestic array of trees of the Pacific Northwest.  in appreciation of the gift of the otters, Natsilane carves them totems out of the spruce, red cedar, and hemlock forest he’s planted.  One day, he leaves one of his creations, a yellow cedar whale, on the shore: the next day, the carving is gone but in the bay is a blackfish: the first orca whale. The orca guides Natsilane back to his home village, but not before exacting revenge on the treacherous brothers who had abandoned him at sea. A wise leader and tempered by his experience in the wilderness, Natsilane orders that from this day forward the orca must never harm a human , and that when orca finds a human in trouble at sea it must help him. Many carvers have told the story of Natsilane, who is often portrayed riding the back of an orca: indigenous fishermen invoke the hero Natsilane to this day.


From mythology, to history : the  Nuu-chah-nulth Peoples were among the very few coast Salish groups to practice whale hunting. This was not a light relationship. Before embarking on whaling journeys, Nuu chal Nuth warriors fasted, offering prayers and rites at sacred shrines.  The Nuu-chah-nulth believe that the whale chose his killer and would only submit to someone worthy.

Hunters set out in  canoes made from a single cedar tree. In addition to the seafaring skill required to follow whales out to sea, once caught, the most difficult job ensued: Imagine stepping out, one foot on your boat and one on the head of a whale and stitching closed the mouth with a giant needle and thread . They would  then have to navigate back home by song and stars … dragging the whale, whom they considered to be an ancestor, behind. Looking slightly further south, and to modern times: In the Lummi Nation,  elders use song and ritual to reach out to the “longhouses under the water”, as they envision the orcas’ habitat, to offer the whales their blessings and listen for a reply. Totem poles are carved with the orca’s image, sometimes accompanied by a human rider as a symbol of rebirth. Tribal members talk of feeling the whales passing by, like a calling from their relatives.

It’s why a group of Lummi have been campaigning for years for the release of the orca known as Lolita, or Tokitae from Seaworld in Florida: since the 70’s Tokitae has languished in captivity against the protests of her human relations who consider her to be kin.

And of course, people in this room will remember that the environmental movement as we know it today has its roots in confronting industrial whaling. Calling themselves rainbow warriors, Greenpeace activists sailed out to the whaling grounds and, instead of pointing harpoons, pointed cameras, using media to bear powerful witness to the devastation caused by ships that, by the 1970’s were hunting whales to make pet food and margarine. The Greenpeace warriors sewed open the world’s eyes: and forced a reckoning with society’s Ahab tendencies. 

It was the discovery of fossil fuels that first let up the pressure on whales. Ironically today, the same fossil fuel industry is possibly a more profound threat to whales than even Ahab could have conceived. And in our neighbourhood,  it is Indigenous Peoples, who are  standing in the way of oil and gas developments that threaten to drive orcas to extinction. 

Back in 2016, we were celebrating the demise of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, a pipeline planned to carry tar sands bitumen up through Kitimat and along BC’s north and central coast .  After a pitched legal battle led by Indigenous Nations, the project was shelved. The same day, Trudeau announced the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline and tankers project: TMX, for short, and shortsighted for its aims to chug the last dregs of heavy crude oil from the boreal forests of Alberta and spit it onto tankers in Burrard Inlet before shipping it down to refineries in California. 
Adding another 400 supertankers a year to their habitat, agreed scientists, would spell the end for the 3 pods of resident orca whales who have lived in these waters for approximately forever. 

As we geared up for another fight in the courts and on the streets to stop TMX, something interesting happened. 

People began to dream. 

The first person to talk about the orca dreaming was Robin Hood – her real name. Dr. Robin Hood in fact, not a woo-woo mystic but a cultural keystone species expert, told me, “I had the most significant dream of my life. I was taken down underwater and just hung out with the orcas.  The dream was like a transmission. The orcas messages was, Here we are, we love you guys. But We are in a terrible state. Being in their presence :  I felt like the energetic love and beauty and intelligence of the whales was infused in my whole body. When I woke up, I thought: what do I do with this message?” 
One by one, people shared their orca dreams. 

The dreamers were extraordinary people but also serious and scientific people who also knew, down to their toes, that the orcas were communicating. The message was pretty clear: “help us.”

The moccasin telegraph started up and soon a bunch of artists — therapists, writers, researchers, filmmakers biologists, horticulturalists, sculptors, and activists — were sitting around a table plotting out this grand vision that became Orca Soundings. 

The seed of the idea was this: What if we were to make a pod of orcas, and pair each member with a human counterpart, to bring the lifeworlds of these amazing creatures to the surface?  Each human would become a spokesperson for their kindred whale, and would interpret their stories through their chosen medium.

Paul Burke and Ana Gustafson made the project a reality, putting in hundreds of hours of work crafting 78 whale puppets. Each whale was paired with a human counterpart, who got to know their cetacean sibling’s name, age, and story. We had gatherings and work parties, and when the whales  were ready we filled U-hauls and school busses full of orcas that went riding on ferries and careening down the highways to join protest marches, swim through shopping malls and mass outside courthouses. Everywhere they went, the orcas brought a lightness and a gravitas: once you were paired like that, it was profound o embody the urgency and the desperation of a species every bit as sentient and brilliant as we humans, being slowly cornered and deafened out of neglect and outrageous avarice. 
This is from Jennifer Abbot, member of orca soundings. 

“I was matched with the orca named Princess Angeline. 
She was a matriarch, whose offspring  travelled with her  within a social network most humans long for but never find. But now, the orca Princess Angeline is presumed dead, from starvation due to growing marine traffic, pollution and a diminishment of the chinook salmon she relied on. 
Her loss is a loss for her pod and her species. But her loss is also our loss. Princess Angeline’s namesake was the daughter of Chief Seattle. She was buried in a coffin the shape of a canoe.
A decade ago, in some strange way, I might have felt Princess Angeline’s death was in part my failure.
Could I have done more?  I’ve woken up to how our economic system offloads responsibility for its destruction onto individuals while dismissing the intrinsic value of life and the planet.  But I understand my real power comes in joining with others to defeat the life-destroying dimensions of 21st century extractive hyper-capitalism. And it’s too powerful to take on except in large numbers. 
I’ve no doubt  Princess Angeline would want us to join forces against this system. When we do, we might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the orcas out on the Salish Sea, fighting right alongside us.”

Many of us are transplants here, so how can we belong to the orcas?  

 Just as plastic from afar washes up on our beaches, ours is a remix culture. This does not mean we can thieve from sacred treasure chests of indigenous peoples.  But; though many of us come from away, these mosses, these trees, these pathways of Salish Sea are the nurseries where we cultivate our relationships and our stories. Just as Natsilane the whale rider grew the very trees that he later carved into offerings, well trodden places contain, suggest, and give birth to stories when we carefully attend to them.
Simply, if you keep still and listen,  the orcas may just swim up to you in your dreams and claim you for kin. 

In this moment in history, we are standing on a forking path: in one direction is vengeful Ahab,  who aims to subjugate nature by slaughtering the holy and unconquerable Moby Dick. Of course, he perishes, as shall too, we if we allow the Ahabs of the world to preside. 

And along the other path is a Nahlisane way, one that upholds a customary relationship between humans and whales that fundamentally recognizes, and seeks to uphold, an intelligent balance in which both species coexist, and dare I say, dream into one another. 

Orca Soundings is still a going concern. So is TMX, and so is Coastal Gas link. Heartbreakingly, since the original pod of 78 were made, the number of southern resident orcas has declined to 76. So we continue to pick up the orcas whenever there is a call for representation of those creatures whose complex languages are at risk of being  drowned out. The orca soundings pods appear like the conscience of the coast wherever they go.  Because each whale has a name and a story, and each person who carries that whale acts as the embodiment of that story, the project is a beautiful act of making the invisible, visible. 

We live in times in which heroism can feel futile. We let ourselves be talked out of our power: the problems are too great, our leaders too shrunken, the great forces of nature now diminished by the ravages of a million lost and broken Ahabs. It can feel exhausting to sustain an opposition when so much ground keeps eroding under our feet. 

But Iets’ say that though these times demand grieving,  they demand we carve totems to the forces of good, as well.  These times  demand an art and a grandeur on a scale that befits the old stories. When someone asked the poet Gary Snyder why they should bother to save the planet, he cried, “because it’s a matter of character, and a matter of style!”  All of our heroes — from Natsilane  to Robin Hood — would have fought for the salvation of the wild.

So: we shall.