Celebrating cetaceans in Indigenous cultures

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Humans around the globe have been drawn to whales and dolphins for millennia, viewing them as guides, protectors, ancestral spirits, and even deities. Today, on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we’re celebrating the importance of cetaceans in Indigenous cultures!

Through our Whale Heritage Sites programme, we recognise the cultural significance of cetaceans to coastal communities across the world and encourage sites to engage with and include local Indigenous groups wherever possible.

For example, since Dana Point in California became a certified Whale Heritage Site, members of the Band of Juaneño Mission Indians/Acjachemen Nation have helped to launch the Dana Point Festival of Whales by conducting a Welcoming of the Whales ceremony.

Many of the locations that have achieved or are working towards Whale Heritage Site status are home to Indigenous peoples with a strong connection to whales and dolphins. Here are just a few examples of the different ways in which cetaceans are viewed by these cultures.

Aboriginal whale carvings in Bondi, Sardaka, CC BY 3.0

Ancestral totems

Aboriginal peoples, Australia

Aboriginal peoples along the Australian coast have had a strong connection to whales throughout history, which has taken form in many ways, from dreamtime stories to rock engravings dating back over 1,000 years. Whales are also a totem (family or clan emblem) for various Aboriginal groups.

Stranded whales acted as an important resource for Aboriginal peoples, who would use them for food, oil, tools, weapons, and shelter. Aboriginal peoples believed that they were able to play an active role in causing strandings by using traditional songs to call the whales onto shore. Conversely, some clans who had the whale as their totem were known to use songs to direct whales back out to deeper waters and avoid becoming stranded.

Gray whales in Baja California, slowmotiongli, via Getty Images

Guardians against evil

Pericúes, Baja California Sur

Cabo Pulmo, along with the rest of the southern coast of Baja California Sur, used to be populated by the now-extinct Indigenous group of the Pericúes. The Pericú were people of the ocean, living mostly on a diet of fish, shellfish and marine mammals, which they hunted in the southern Gulf of California.

One of the Pericú myths explains that whales were originally created as guards by the god Niparajá, who inhabited the skies. Niparajá’s enemy, Tuparán (also called Bac), waged a war against him. Niparajá fought and defeated Tuparán, but decided not to kill him. Instead, Niparajá threw his enemy from the sky and imprisoned him in a cave in the cliffs facing the sea.

To ensure that Tuparán would never be able to escape, Niparajá raised seven enormous creatures in the ocean – whales – who would be responsible for keeping guard against him. The Pericú believed that protecting whales was essential to keep the peace and save the world from the evil of Tuparán.

Sperm whale in New Zealand, oversnap, via Getty Images

Treasures of the ocean

Māori, New Zealand

In traditional Māori mythology, whales were believed to be supernatural beings who were descendants of Tangaroa, the god of the oceans. Whales were seen as guardians during long journeys across the sea and there were stories told of dolphins and whales saving people’s lives by carrying them to safety.

For this reason, cetaceans were often considered to be tapu (sacred) and were commonly recognised as taonga (treasure). This is a view that continues today and their status as taonga species has even been recognised in legislation.

Until the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, Māori people did not hunt large whales, but would use stranded whales for food, oil, and bone for cultural artifacts, after the body had been treated ceremoniously by tribal priests.

Some Māori tales warned against failure to show proper respect to whales, such as a story in which a tribal war god took the form of a whale who had stranded but was still alive and killed everyone who attempted to eat him.

Kwakwaka’wakw killer whale mask, Sailko, CC BY 3.0

Powerful spirits

Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, Vancouver Island North

The Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation are one of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including their traditional territory on northern Vancouver Island.

Max’inuxw, the killer whale, is one of the most highly respected animals in the Kwakwaka’wakw culture. It’s believed that they can guide people to safety, heal sickness, and show people where to find food in time of famine. They are also regarded as ancestors of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, with the same spirit as humans.

One legend tells the story of a group of boys out in a canoe who encountered a family of killer whales and cruelly shot arrows at their dorsal fins. One of the whales was hit by an arrow, causing the pod to become angry and swim towards the canoe. Panicked, the boys started paddling to shore, closely pursued by the whale who had been struck.

The dorsal fin of the injured whale suddenly transformed into a man, who reached out and grabbed the boy who had shot the arrow, holding him in the air by his heel. The whale told the boy that, for as long as he lived, the boy would never be able to walk properly and would always live in pain as a result of what he had done.

Ever since that day, the boy and his people showed great respect to the killer whales because it was understood that they were human too. The clan painted the crest of the killer whale on the front of their houses and composed songs and dances to honour them. The elders never allowed anyone to taunt or hurt the killer whales again.

Common dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel, Adam Ernster

Brothers and sisters

Chumash, Santa Barbara Channel

The Chumash people are native to the area surrounding the Santa Barbara Channel, extending from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. The Chumash believe that their connection to the ocean and marine life is not only spiritual, but familial. Dolphins are considered to be blood brothers and sisters of the Chumash people because of the key role they play in the Chumash creation myth.

According to this myth, Hutash, the Earth Mother, created the Chumash people from the seeds of a magical plant that she buried on the island of Limuw, now known as Santa Cruz Island. As the Chumash thrived and their population grew, Hutash realised that she needed to help them leave the island and go to the mainland, so she used a rainbow to make a bridge for them to walk across.

However, when they were crossing, some people looked down at the fog-covered sea far below and became so dizzy that they fell from the bridge. To save them from drowning, Hutash transformed the fallen people into dolphins. This is why the Chumash call the dolphins their brothers and sisters and believe that seeing a dolphin is a symbol of good luck.

Chumash stone whale sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain

The importance of traditional knowledge

The stories here demonstrate the range of significant roles that cetaceans have played – and continue to play – in different native cultures around the world, as well as the importance of recognising the knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have lived in harmony with the marine environment for centuries.

Wildlife conservation has typically been dominated by modern Western thinking and colonial practices such as ‘fortress’ models of nature protection and ‘parachute’ science. However, as the field progresses to become more inclusive, ethical, and collaborative, it’s vital that programmes like Whale Heritage Sites help to turn the tide and embrace the value of Indigenous knowledge and cultural connections.

(Cover photo of Kwakwaka’wakw whale design house board by the Detroit Institute of Arts, public domain.)

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