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The Whaling Indians: Legendary Hunters

By Frank Williams

Review By Umeek Atleo

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 145 Spring 2005  | p. 120-2

THE INTENT OF The Whaling Indians: Legendary Hunters is to present the “Native point of view” and so that will also be the perspective of this book review. On the surface of things, the method to achieve this intent is straightforward and simple. Sapir, a leading linguist of his day, recorded this ethnography in the Nuu-chah-nulth language. To save time and money, Sapir taught a local Native, Alex Thomas, how to write and record these ethnographies in his own language. Subsequently, the first two volumes were published in 1939 [Nootka Texts) and 1955 {Native Accounts of Nootka Ethnography). The present volume contains 28 accounts of hunting, 24 of which are about the preparation, pursuit, and capture of whales. 

Does the book present the Native point of view? Yes and no. Yes, in that the ethnographic accounts are presented both in the original language as well as in an English translation so that any contemporary speaker, such as me, might check to see if the translation is more or less accurate. While the meaning-sense of a sentence may be captured in translation, the original fluency is often lost, as in the following case. In account number 110, page 191, the sentence “Now the chief who was named Sorehead-[Whale] Hunter was staying home” is translated from “Walyaqil ya: Haw’ilPi ?okla: ?1: chqiqmi:k” which literally translates from each Nuu-chah-nulth word as Walyaqil-(Being at home), ya-(there), Haw’lPi-fahe one identified as a chief, lord, great personage), ?okla:-(in the sense of whose name is), ?l:chqiqmi:k-(creator or maker of sorehead). What is lost in translation here is the immediacy of the action in the original language (i.e. being at home in the ever-present now) as well as the power, implied in the original, found in the name of the chief. It appears from the translation that it is the chief who has the sore head but the suffix mi:k in this name clearly indicates the achievement of spiritual power as is illustrated by numerous other names with the same suffix, such as Cha: kwa:siqmik, Ko:hw’isaqmi:k, and Hi: tsswatqmi:k. Each of these names was acquired as a result of demonstrations of spiritual power that allowed each to be successful, or, more to the point, allowed each to become accomplished at some important skill. This is not a small matter. It can be argued that the translation “Hunter” in this name is a mistranslation because the suffix mi:k in a name indicates an achievement, an accomplishment, in the very same way that the prefix “Dr” before a name indicates an accomplishment today. By itself, “Hunter” can apply to one who is either successful or unsuccessful. Nuu-chah-nulth names left no ambiguity as to meaning since a name was always descriptive of reality. 

More glaringly, the Native point of view is obscured both in the title and the introduction of the book. The misnomer “Indian” is by now well known. Not well known is the contemporary self-description of the people as Nuu-chah-nulth. The subtitle “Legendary Hunters” does not represent a Native point of view. Any legend, by definition, lacks accurate historical evidence according to Western historical tradition. Since the stories come from an oral tradition they cannot be said, from the Western tradition, to contain accurate evidence. However, from a Native point of view, these stories are not legend but actual historical accounts that have their own rules of evidence found within their own life ways in family storytelling traditions, feasting, potlatching, and demonstrations of spiritual power that are as reliable a way of confirming facts as scientific methodologies. A major rule of evidence or methodology of the Nuu-chah-nulth is ?o:simch, which I have spelled oosumich in my book Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview (UBC Press, 2004), and translated as “bathing” in this edition but which I have translated as “careful seeking in a fearsome environment” or simply as “vision quest.” Oosumich was common practice known throughout all Nuu-chah-nulth land as an effective means of acquiring knowledge, power, and success in this world. Just as there are ineffective scientific methodologies that do not negate the reliability of sound scientific data so too are there ineffective oosumich methods as pointed out in The Whaling Indiansbut when the oosumich method is done properly then the outcome can, from a Native point of view, be as sound as any scientific finding. 

On this same point of ineffectiveness of method and outcome, the Native point of view is misrepresented in the introduction. While the Native point of view is presented in the favourable characterization of the Native translators such as Saiyaxh’apis who is described as “unfailingly good-humored and courteous” as well as in the technical explanation of the orthography of the texts, the introduction actually foregrounds an academic point of view that has proven problematic to the Native point of view during the past 500 years. On page xix is the comment that West Coast whaling is “more a matter of prestige than economy” and again on the same page: “Whales were often struck and then lost.” Neither of these statements is untrue but from a Native point of view it might be said that Whaling is more about the great secret discovery through the method of oosumich that heshookish Tsawalk, everything is one. This worldview is mainly about the great discovery by Son of Raven that the spiritual realm and temporal realm are so intimately related that any kind of life is completely dependent upon the quality of this relationship. The quality of the methodology of oosumich, vision quest, determines the quality of this relationship, whether the whaler and whale can form a relationship as evidenced by the action of the whale when it “hugs” the whaler’s canoe. The failure in the methodology of oosumich that results in a whale being lost is not a failure of the methodology but a failure of applying the methodology effectively. This is also true of science – ineffective methodology always produces unreliable results. In the same vein, the emphasis upon losing whales after they are struck is an academic point of view usually employed in a deliberate and derogatory sense when observing another culture that is considered to be inferior. 

Overall, this ethnographic account of some of the Nuu-chah-nulth people is an important work, especially if it can be placed within the context of a Nuu-chah-nulth worldview rather than in the context of an academic perspective such as that found in the introduction. What is the rationale for the way of life of the whaler? How did the information for the methodology of oosumich arise? These and other questions are answered in Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview.