We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Family Origin Histories: The Whaling Indians: West Coast Legends and Stories, Part 11 of the Sapir-Thomas Nootka Texts

By Tyee Bob

Review By Marlene Atleo

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 168 Winter 2010-2011  | p. 99-101

What do the stories of lineage significance say about the people who tell them? What is culturally salient to the tellers of the stories? What is culturally salient to the hearers of the stories, be they of the same lineage, culture, another culture, or the culture or lineage of another era? These three questions are the basis of this review of these lineage stories. Some of these stories were gathered by Edward Sapir of the Ethnographic Division of the Government of Canada between September and December 1910 and September 1913 and February 1914, and some of these were added to by Alex Thomas and Frank Williams in 1923. And some were recently translated and added to in the Barkley Sound region of Nuu-chah-nulth/Nootka ancestral territory. These refreshed publications of eighteen records of oral lineage histories, ?e?i:cha?in, or recollections of the old ones/ancestors, is a treat for a reviewer embedded in Nuu-chah-nulth lineage, history, and territory. This version of Part 11 of the Sapir-Thomas Nootka Texts (previously published in both English and Nuu-chah-nulth) both acknowledges and documents the complex history of creating the written record of the oral histories that would have been rendered at public ritual feasts and lineage gatherings as well as recounted as personal teaching. The documentation is enhanced pictorially with artefacts mentioned in the stories; with plates of people, places, and animals; and with the informants themselves. The maps of the territory, the endnotes, and the glossary of place names enhance the ability of the reader to appreciate the text itself which the addition of sound bites would further increase. The participation of several generations of Barkley Sound Nuu-chah-nulth in the rendering of these ?e?i:cha?in increases the credibility as well as the translation of the materials.

According to Umeek (E.R. Atleo 2004), traditional Nuu-chah-nulth stories function in a manner similar to scientific theory. Thus, the critical principles contained therein are culturally encoded for ensuring survival during changing resource structures, environmental change, political alliances, marriage, and food-gathering cycles (M.R. Atleo 2008, 2006). And, while they may seem “indifferent as narrative” (v), to those who are culturally aware they are imbued with indigenous knowledge and meaning-making, coded for division of labour, territory, age, gender, rank, and group-graded understanding. These stories are significant as they serve to aid Nuu-chah-nulth decolonization. They promote the reclamation of indigenous knowledges and identification of territories, which has become important to the current treaty process in British Columbia and in which the Nuu-chah-nulth have participated since the 1980s, beginning with the Meares Island controversy (Parai and Esakin 2003). 

Each story contributes uniquely to the feast of indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge. The Swan women, with their stained skins, are ritually active as they dig for camas and, in doing so, story the landscape with place names that create a cognitive map of the territory – a map they must read in order to gather foodstuffs (267). The picture of the ma:?ak (whale) slurping clams from the beach is deliciously memorable as a hunting strategy (375). How the potlatch mask mediates the articulation between the body and the spirit in the training for “getting” (achieving a materialization of objects through flow activities) shows the cognitive technology of Nuu-chah-nulth memory work (239). Another tells of unusual delicacies, such as abalone, which can be found by those who are diligent in their search for quarry such as shags or loons, which are not highly favoured foods (237). The riches of the people at Hisa:wist’a (Long Beach Peninsula) is prophesied, as is the process of creating cedar textiles from tree bark (209). The learning of songs in particular sacred sites as a way of encoding knowledge about the supernatural is revealed (149). These stories are like stars in the Milky Way: how can one read their meaning or know their significance unless one knows their context? Clearly these renderings were highly salient to the tellers, and possibly to their informants. It is hoped that the current translators can bring this salience to the current generation of Nuu-chah-nulth. From a narrative perspective these stories may not seem logical, but from a territorial and cultural perspective they are a delight. They are worthy of close inspection both for what they reveal and for what they do not reveal. Most of all, they are crucial to the survival of the Nuu-chah-nulth of Barkley Sound. 


Atleo, E.R. 2004. Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. Vancouver: ubc Press.

Atleo, M.R. 2006. “The Ancient Nuu-chah-nulth Strategy of Hahuulthi: Education for Indigenous Cultural Survivance.” In International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability 2 (1): 153-62.

–––––. 2008. “Indigenous Learning Models in the Context of Socio-Economic Change: A Storywork Approach.” In Indigenous Education: Asia/Pacific, ed. Wes Heber, 21-32. Regina: Indigenous Studies Research Centre, First Nations University.

Parai, Brian, and Thomas C. Esakin. 2003. “Beyond Conflict in Clayoquot Sound: The Future of Sustainable Forestry.” In Natural Resource Conflict Management Case Studies: An Analysis of Power, Participation and Protected Areas, ed. A.P. Castro and E. Nielsen, 163-82. Rome: UN Food and Agricultural Organization. 



Family Origin Histories: The Whaling Indians — West Coast Legends and Stories, Part 11 of the Sapir-Thomas Nootka Texts
Told by Tyee Bob, Sa:ya:ch’apis, William, Qwishanishim, Lo:tism, Tayi?a, and Chief Louie Nookmiis,
Prepared by Edward Sapir, Morris Swadesh, Hamilton Gorege, Alexander Thomas, Frank Williams, Katie Fraser, and John Thomas.
Edited by Eugene Arima, Henry Kammler, Terry Klokeid & Katherine Robinson.
Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization 2009. 396 pp. $34.95 paper