How Killer Whales Were Made

Haida Orca
Todd Jason Baker
From Adrift in the Sound

“The whole world is not like Sebastopol,” my college professor Alvin Hunter said as he prepared to school us in the particulars of cultural and physical anthropology. In the darkened auditorium of Santa Rosa Junior College in the 1970s, Hunter proceeded to show us the variety of ways we are human and how we came to be. He opened our eyes to a world of mysteries and magic.

Today, I smile to think of Hunter’s claim about Sebastopol. He meant, I think, that the world is not like small-town California. But, his perhaps intentional irony is that the place name he cited—Sebastopol—is a historical vestige of Russian colonization in America at Ft. Ross, now a state park on the Sonoma County coast. The former supply village is west of the charming town where I went to college, not far from the Russian River. Today Sebastopol is known for wine grapes and organic farms, but once served other purposes.

In 1812, the area was unsettled and became an supply point for the outpost of the fur-trading Russian-American Company, based in Alaska, after the area was claimed for the Czar. Perhaps Dr. Hunter’s joke is that the world is indeed like tiny Sebastopol–foreign and familiar at the same time, an amalgam of the larger world.

This knowledge explains, in part, my delight in finding Dartmouth anthropologist Sergei Kan’s new book, A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska. This 288-page photo book from the University of Oklahoma Press offers for the first time more than 100 images taken by amateur photographer Soboleff of Tlingit village life at the turn-of-the-century. The images, archived in the Alaska State Library, capture the everyday lives of Russian and American settlers who lived among the tribal people.

What’s of interest to me is Soboleff’s documenting the intertwining of these diverse cultures in coastal Killisnoo and Angoon. He photographed the community around him as an insider and also as a journalist. The images are unposed and natural, unlike the photography of his contemporaries. His photographs include the names of his Tlingit subjects, not just labels like “old woman,” “boy” or “Indian.” He knew and respected his subjects.

I did considerable research into Coastal Salish tribes for my novel, Adrift in the Sound, which includes Native American characters and incorporates traditional tales, from the Tlingit, Lummi and Haida nations. The melding of contemporary culture with historic traditions of Native Americans, which is depicted in Soboleff’s images, has been fascinating to me since college days, and is an underlying theme in my book. I remain fascinated with ways culture shifts and is absorbed to create  new and larger societies.

 Russian-Americans posing in Tlingit canoe
Tlingit Tale: How Killer Whales Were Made

Excerpt from Adrift in the Sound. as told by Lummi elder Poland, a life-long friend of main character, Lizette Karlson. The ranch dog, Tucker, has been badly injured in a confrontation with a killer whale that beached itself to grab a seal off the sand. The attack on Orcas Island has left Lizette shaken and Poland takes her to the barn to calm her while visiting new born lambs. They sit and he tells her this story:

“My cousin married a Tlingit woman,” he said. “Lives up north with her, got three kids, all girls. Grown up, married now. My cousin, see, he said his wife tells a story about how, in a time before killer whales, there was a hunter and totem carver named Natsilane. See?”

Lizette nodded, but didn’t see, felt blinded by grief after the orca attack on Tucker, and sniffled at the thought of the innocent pup’s rowdy ways, always clowning, she thought, wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She feared he’d die from his wounds and clutched the lamb she was holding to her chest.

“So, he got a wife on Duke Island.” Poland cleared his throat, got her attention, relaunched. “A chief’s daughter. Beautiful. Big chest.” Poland put down the lamb he was feeding and bobbled his hands in front of him. Lizette giggled.

“So,” Poland continued, “he lived with her people. And, at first the village people didn’t like him, but they saw he was a good hunter and he shared his kills with them. His wife’s brothers didn’t like being shown up by an outsider.

“They decided to get even, teach him a lesson. On the day of the big seal hunt they paddled near rocks, and Natsilane climbed out of the canoe and plunged his spear into a big bull seal that bellowed into the wind.” Poland suddenly trumpeted like a seal, startling Lizette and the lambs, making her burst into tears again. Poland hugged her, stroked her hair.

“Sorry,” he said. “I got excited. So, his spear point broke off in the seal.” Poland showed how it snapped with his fists, scaring the lamb cradled between his arms again. “The sea lion charged into the water. But that wasn’t the worst part. The brothers were paddling away as fast as they could, leaving Natsilane stuck on the rocks.”

Speaking softly now in the half light of the barn, Poland said, “What they did broke his heart.” He reached over Lizette and tucked the blanket tighter around her legs. “He pulled his cape over himself and slept on the rocks, but woke up when he heard his name whispered on the wind. He saw a sea lion a ways off that looked like a man and followed him into the water, down beneath the waves and into the Seal Chief’s house.”

“Where was Watches Underwater?” Lizette asked and snuggled tighter against Poland, letting the lamb suckle her fingers. “Couldn’t she help?”

“I told you. It’s a Tlingit story, not Lummi.” He cleared his throat. “No one’s watching in this story. Now, when they got to the great house down below, the chief asked Natsilane if he could help his injured son. Natsilane pulled his spear point out and sewed up the wound. The seal son healed and, later, the chief granted Natsilane the power to create life. The sea lions formed a raft with their backs and took Natsilane home.”

Lizette shifted the lamb on her lap. “Then what happened?”

“Well, the boy carved a fish out of spruce, the first killer whale. It was big and beautiful and no one had ever seen anything like it. When he put it in the water, it came to life and swam out to sea, sleek and black with a white saddle. It came back whenever Natsilane called.”

“This is a long story,” Lizette said, yawning.

“No, it’s a good story,” Poland said, putting down his lamb and standing up. “I told it to your father once. He wrote it down. It was the first orca and Natsilane taught it to hunt and help the people. It brought schools of fish to the families and they feasted every day.”

“Then what happened?” Lizette asked

“Happened?” Poland looked disappointed that she didn’t get the point of the story.

“Nothing happened. Now orcas live in the water and help the people. I’m telling you this so you understand the orca’s job and don’t get scared. Seals eat the fish, orcas eat the seals. We eat everything. Sometimes we work together, sometimes not. They’re hunters just like us, just like dogs. Just like Natsilane, that pup will learn and become a hunter.”

“My father used to tell me stories when I was little,” Lizette said. “But, his stories were shorter.” Poland pursed his lips, suggesting he didn’t approve of abridgement, and took the sleeping lamb from her.
 Tlingit woman in her Killisnoo home

Here’s a modern story of a young killer whale

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Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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