A post by Museum volunteer, Megan Meloche ... This is my first time. I am inside a dugout canoe. It rocks back and forth dancing with the Pacific Coast waves. A fog has settled over us making the shoreline impossible to see, but I know it still must be there. It is cooler than normal for spring and a chill has crept its way into my bones. They begin to ache. I must not move. I must be still, quiet, invisible like the shoreline. Deep in the fog I hear the blowhole spray of a Grey Whale. Goosebumps have found a home on my arms, my heart quickens. The sound is haunting the first time you hear it so close.
As I look around the other the men are calm, patient, ready and alert. Then it comes. My eyes widen as I gasp in the wet cool fog around us. The whale’s size is startling, as nearly 35,000 pounds of mammal comes hurdling out of the water near our canoe. It seems to hover in mid air before crashing back down into its ocean home; waves send our canoe rocking from side to side. We settle our vessel and I realize my heart feels like it may leap from my chest. I can hear it pounding in my ears. A strong hand finds my shoulder, squeezing it, reaffirming that we will be fine. I must relax. We must wait for the next whale. I am a whaler. This is my first time.
This may have been the experience of a young boy on his first whale hunt off British Columbia’s coast. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island’s West coast are traditional whale hunters. Historically whaling served important social, spiritual and ritual functions within the communities. One oral tradition, passed down through generations, noted that the grey whale saved the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples from starvation. This illustrates how central the grey whale is to the community’s culture and identity.
Whaling also held great economic importance. Nuu-chah-nulth whaling haw’iih (chiefs) spent much of their time preparing for the hunt both physically, mentally and spiritually. Killing a whale was considered the highest glory, and the more whales a chief brought back to his village the more prestige and respect he received. Whaling was integral to Nuu-chah-nulth tradition. Up until the late 1920’s whaling was still a major component of social interactions for the Nuu-chah-nulth. However, with the onset of commercial whaling and the depletion of whales, this tradition began to fade.
As part of the whaling tradition the Nuu-chah-nulth carved large whaling canoes, 30 to 40 feet in length, from red cedar trees. These whaling canoes garnered great respect and took months to carve. The tree selected for a whaling vessel was chosen not only for its height but its strength and even growth. The canoes had a long tall prow carved to resemble a wolf with a large notched space between its ears used to store harpoons, and later masts. The wolf symbolized family, but could also symbolize the “sea wolf” or the killer whale that transforms into a wolf when it reaches land. The vessels were painted black with traditional artwork added to the canoes exterior. Here at the Canoe Museum, the Nuu-chah-nulth whaling canoe’s bow is painted to resemble a killer whale, an important creature in traditional teachings that was never hunted.
Our whaling canoe is a supreme example of craftsmanship and dedication needed to build one of these vessels. It is nearly 40 feet in length, a size you cannot believe until you stand next to it and imagine it crashing through the Pacific waves. The masts exhibited with the canoe are not original, but do show how masts would have been used post European contact.
The Nuu-chah-nulth canoe was acquired by our predecessor, the Kanawa Canoe Museum, from the Museum of the American Indian in the 1970s. The next time you visit our Museum be sure to take an extra moment and stand alongside the Nuu-chah-nulth whaling canoe and imagine carving it from the large red cedar or rocking back and forth in anticipation of the next whale.
All is quiet again. The steady sway of our canoe begins to calm me. I must be ready. We do not know when we will harpoon our whale. The fog is beginning to lift and I can see the shoreline off in the distance. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I am a whaler. This is my first time.
For further reading on Nuu-chah-nulth whaling traditions please see Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions, by Charlotte Cote.