Dolphin and Whale Magazine :  January issue 2011
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Ancient Knowledge and Indigenous Wisdom

 The Orca in the Art and Myth
 of the Tlingit Indians 
by Linda Schildkraut

                                                   Art Historian, New York

The native cultures of the Northwest Coast of America were prolific producers of spectacular art. Their art is primarily an animal art, and it is symbolic art which refers to ancestral spirits and totemic beings. One of the most prominent of these beings,
especially among the Tlingit, the people who inhabit southeastern Alaska, was the orca whale.

In Northwest Coast culture, the totemic being which endowed an ancestor with certain privileges is referred to as a “crest”. This crest-being, generally an animal, had some sort of contact with an ancestor in the mythic past. This contact, whether transformation, marriage, aid or even killing, granted the ancestor (and thereby his or her descendents), the right to refer to the crest and the ancestral exploit in myth and to depict them on crest objects. Crest objects were visual symbols of continuity with revered ancestors and therefore were manifestations of a noble heritage. Rank was the most important social concept and since in this culture an intimate association existed between social position and art, crest objects endowed the bearer with rank, wealth and power.

The objects upon which the crest was represented were many. They were utilitarian objects and they were ceremonial paraphernalia. The representation of the crest animal on any of these objects is based on observed reality. In the case of the orca, the natives were able to observe the animal in the inland fjords that permeated the region and also in the offshore waters that they traveled in their large ocean-going canoes. The most outstanding visual characteristics of the orca is the prominent dorsal fin which is unlike that of any other dolphin or whale. Other features are the striking white markings, the teeth, the blowhole, the flippers and the flukes.
Observed reality is only one aspect of the art of the area. The perceptions are tempered by myth and subject to stylization in accordance with the artistic conventions of the people. The latter may be enumerated  as: 1) emphasis or exaggeration of the most characteristic feature, which, in extreme cases, may be considered symbolic of the entire animal; 2) avoidance of empty spaces; 3) symmetrical display of the animal and the bilaterally split images which often result; and, 4) distortion of the animal due to compositional demands.  The latter can range from dislocation and rearrangement to near abstraction.

The Tlingit house-front painted with the orca crest (Figure 1) is a fairly typical and legible example of the crest. The animal is shown twice, in mirror image, to preserve the symmetry. Its tall dorsal fin is a clear identifier of the animal. At the base of the fin is a light colored joint mark (generally a round or eye form, but here dome-shaped), which indicates the point of attachment to the back. Joint marks are seen, too, in the flukes and flippers. In the latter, however, the simple joint mark has been elaborated into a face which can be said to represent the indwelling anthropomorphic soul of the part, and thereby the qualities of vitality, movement and intelligence which the Tlingit attribute to
the appendage. A similar motif is also seen along the back. These three medallions may be a design element derived from the depiction of vertebrae or ribs which is seen in many Tlingit orcas. It acts as a space filler and also exposes the side of the qwani, the animal’s human-like soul.

This image also displays an elongated mouth set with teeth, and a white stripe placed obliquely along the head. The latter may be a displaced version of the oblique stripe, derived from the creature’s natural white markings, which is seen on the snout of many Tlingit orcas.

The perception of the animal’s behavior also was significant for its role as a crest. Indeed, it was of even greater import than were the observed realities of nature. Most outstanding perhaps was the orca’s reputation for awesome ferocity, which evoked both fear and respect in the Tlingit. This reputation was based upon the orca’s notorious group method of preying upon true whales many times their size. Despite the fierce nature of the orca, the Tlingit believed that they would never harm humans, and would in fact aid them with gifts of strength and health, and ocean food, of which the orca was custodian and upon which the Tlingit depended for their subsistence. (Editor’s emphasis.) The foam emitted from the blowhole was also significant, for the Tlingit believed that the effluvia of the body possessed real power, and the orca’s foam was a very visible emission.

In addition, the Tlingit could see the orca as a kindred creature. In appearance, habitat and action, the orca is much like a fish. Its intelligence, gregariousness, method of hunting, mode of reproduction and skeletal system, however, are quite similar to
man’s.These things placed the animal in an anomalous category somewhere between fish and human and imbued it with a special status. All of these native beliefs made the hunting of orcas taboo. A strong symbiotic relationship existed between man and orca, elevating its status. (Editor’s emphasis.) The mythology of the Tlingit further reinforced the orca’s proximity to man, and thereby its exceptional nature. The myth of the origin of the orca and the subsequent acquisition of it as a crest, is one of the most fascinating myths of the entire Coast. This myth contends that the first orca was created by man and not fixed in its present form by Raven, as were the other creatures. Orcas did not exist until NatsAlante created them. NatsAlante, a Tlingit man abandoned by his brothers-in-law who disapproved of his quarreling with their sister, passed the time by carving orcas out of various woods. When he sat there in the water and chanted, they appeared to swim for an instant. Finally he carved some yellow cedar, and these transformed into live orcas. He then perforated their tall dorsal fins (perhaps to give him a good way to hang on?), and rode them back home, but thereafter only to help humans. Thus he and his descendants inherited the orca crest.

The symbolic relationship between orca and man is recounted in other myths as well. Na-ta-see, also a Tlingit man, befriended an orca who had become stuck on a rock during a seal chase. Na-ta-see freed the orca and was likewise rescued by it when he was deserted by former friends.

A beaded bib from Sitka, Alaska (Figure 2), illustrates this myth. The orca is depicted stuck on the rock, the small face beneath his belly. The bib was worn to conceal the neckline of European-style shirts, and the crest was placed upside down to be most visible to the wearer. The shape of the bib presented the artist with certain constraints. In order to avoid an unwanted projecting segment, the artist folded the all-important dorsal fin down into the orca’s side. This concise image then displays all the requisite features, teeth, flippers, flukes, ribs, vertebrae, white stripe on snout, blowhole (the circle bisected by the outline of the back), and dorsal fin which in this case is perforated and striped, joint marks on the flippers and the flukes, but in the case of the latter, the entire appendage has been elaborated into a face, not only to connote the spirit of the part, but also because the shape of the tail, together with the eye-shaped joint marks, strongly suggests a face….

Tlingit crest hats were highly valued and were worn with great pride at potlatches. An example of such a hat is Figure 3A and B. This helmet, from the early 19th century, was the most prestigious of the clan hats of the Shakes line of the Sitkina Tlingit from Wrangell, Alaska….The head of the orca is boldly carved in the round. Its eyes and teeth are of inlaid shell. A strip hammered onto the snout is the same oblique stripe seen in
previous images. The animal’s body is omitted, but that does not make the image incomprehensible. The tail and flippers continue onto the sides and back of the hat, and are symbolic of the whole body. They are rendered in painted low relief carving which functions as a two-dimensional design (Figure 3B). The side flippers, painted in a medium tone, are positioned horizontally and shaped so as to fit neatly into the space created by the tail and flukes, painted in a darker tone.

The all-important dorsal fin is rendered three-dimensionally. Located on top of the head of the orca, it surmounts four woven spruce root rings which indicate the number of potlatches given by the wearer. The fin is inlaid with shell and ornamented with human hair. Instead of a joint mark, this fin contains a complete anthropomorphic figure to connect the vitality of the appendage which, in this case, may actually have moved during the dancing. The perforation of the dorsal fin, located in the center of the body, denotes the umbilicus, which is an especially spiritual opening for the Tlingit….

A more complex type of image is the Chilkat blanket (Figure 4), which, despite its initial abstract appearance, also represents the orca crest. The distinguishing features of the animal are seen in the central portion of the decorative field, but the entire surface has been filled with anatomical details and pure design elements so as to avoid undecorated spaces….

Such blankets were worn over a dancer’s shoulders so that the central panel lay against the back. It was the most visible section and therefore was the area used for the depiction of the representative features of the crest animal. The orca’s perforated dorsal fin logically falls within this zone.

The images discussed demonstrate a part of the diversity of styles and modes of representation within tribal traditions. Even in the case of highly conventional images, identification of the crest animal is possible if the animal’s most important attribute is
discernible to the viewer, but other features are also depicted with great frequency and augment the dorsal fin in this regard.

The orca’s importance as a crest animal is based on mythological and zoological facts. Its natural primacy of the seas, ferociousness, kinship and assistance to man, all served
to elevate the animal to its special status and inspire the production of numerous important crest objects.

Figure 1 Tlingit house-front painted with the Orca Crest

Figure 2  Beaded bib from Sitka, Alaska

Similar beaded orca bib

Figure 3A Tlingit Crest Hat

Figure 3B  Tlingit Crest Hat

Painting depicting Tlingit Crest Hat

Chief Kramner wearing Chilkat Blanket

Figure 4 Chilkat Blanket
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