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Tsux'iit: Understanding Indigenous Spirituality

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Section: Original Peoples

May 20, 2005

Tsux'iit: Understanding Indigenous Spirituality

by Kim Petersen

Members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation paddling near Tsux'iit.
Since 1493, when Pope Alexander VI granted Spain dominion over the "Americas" and gave Africa, the Caribbean and a bit of present-day Brazil to Portugal, the conquest of the "Americas" has been sanctioned by Christian religious authorities. While the native Original Peoples have been forcibly made familiar with Christianity, the settlers' contemporary understanding of the plethora of indigenous religions remains vague at best.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, a modern day clash of beliefs is playing out. Canadian officials have attempted to subordinate the reverence for life that is integral to the spirituality of the communities that have lived there for thousands of years.

The majestic killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the largest dolphins, which have become emblematic of the province of British Columbia where they swim in residential pods or as wide-ranging transients. In 1999, a killer whale was born to L-pod, the largest of the southern resident pods that ply the waters of the Pacific Northwest. In July 2001, this young killer whale, L98, turned up alone on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island in Nootka Sound (where British navigator James Cook received a hearty welcome in 1778. The name Nootka is believed to derive from Cook's poor rendering of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tongue).

The juvenile cetacean took up residence near Gold River -- a small community situated inland on Muchalaht Inlet -- and received intense media attention. The killer whale was named Luna in a contest sponsored by a Seattle newspaper because it "explores the ocean like the moon explores the earth"; however, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation (MMFN) named it Tsux'iit after their late Chief Ambrose Maquinna. "Chief Ambrose said he'd like to come back as a Kakawin [killer whale in Nuu-Chah-Nulth language]," said Jamie James, MMFN fisheries manager. "Four days after his death, Tsux'iit showed up." According to James, in the MMFN culture everything works as 'fours.' Therefore, Tsux'iit's appearance was an auspicious event for the MMFN.

James explained, "Chiefs believe that when they die they shape-shift into other animals that walk this earth. In the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation culture the Kakawin is the enforcer of the Sea, the Wolf is the enforcer of Land and the Eagle is the enforcer of the Air. All living creatures have a significant purpose in their lives in relation to the water, land, and air. The Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation has always been the protector of their land and resources for thousands of years and continues to this day."

Some thought that Tsux'iit would eventually rejoin L-pod but this has so far not transpired. Tsux'iit seemed healthy and his boisterous antics and friendliness began to draw tourists to a community still recovering from the economic loss of its pulp mill in 1998. However, it was feared that Tsux'iit 's curiosity for boats and human contact was putting him at risk and steps were taken to minimize direct contact. Based on the successful reuniting of another killer whale, Springer, with its pod, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) made plans to move Tsux'iit.

Dave Wiwchar, media and communications advisor to MMFN Chief Mike Maquinna and editor of Ha-Shilth-Sa Newspaper stated, "DFO hadn't consulted Mowachaht/Muchalaht at all about their plans for Tsux'iit."

"For DFO just to go in and enforce their views on residents of Gold River and Mowachaht/Muchalaht who have been there since time immemorial seemed like the wrong thing to do."

MMFN people believe in the right of the whale to rejoin L-pod. However, added James, "We object to the techniques of the DFO to move Tsux'iit back down: throw him into a pen, then the back of a truck, with no certainty of whether he will rejoin his pod or not."

MMFN had qualms about the planned move; the outcome was confrontation. When DFO and the Vancouver Aquarium -- of ignominious history vis-à-vis killer whales -- attempted to capture Tsux'iit, MMFN and Hesquiaht First Nation people in canoes coaxed the whale away toward Yuquot, the coastal portal for Nuu-Chah-Nulth people's first contact with people from the Old World.

Wiwchar quoted MMFN Chief Mike Maquinna last summer, during the height of the confrontation with DFO: "All we are doing is the same thing we've been doing here for thousands of years; paddling our canoes and singing songs. We have a very special connection with Tsux'iit and we're paddling in support of him. . We're trying to stay out of harm's way, but DFO seems committed to turn this into a battle, even though we've made it clear we don't want that. They have bulletproof vests, guns and high-powered vessels. We're just paddlers in traditional canoes."

The DFO eventually relented in its pursuit of Tsux'iit and in mid-September a joint stewardship was set up between the DFO and MMFN. Funding for the stewardship is still being negotiated.

A Settler Perspective on First Nations Spirituality

In one example indicative of responses in the settler media, The Christian Science Monitor expressed dismay that "a native group would be given such power" concerning Tsux'iit. Not atypically, the Monitor's position implies that despite having lived on the land for millennia and never having ceded their land to the Canadian state, the MMFN has no grounds for "special" rights or claims to knowledge of the world they live in.

The Monitor continues: "Killer whales may well be important in native mythology. And there are more things in heaven and earth, and all that. But Tsux'iit is not a mythological whale, he's a real one. Perhaps a simple, 'We're sorry we stole your land, but the whale needs its pod' is in order."

While conceding -- albeit by quoting Shakespeare -- that there might be more to the world than the reality of the western worldview, the Monitor immediately reasserts their privilege to determine what is "real" and what is "mythological". Meanwhile, the reader's understanding of the situation remains impoverished.

Native American Studies professor Arlene Hirschfelder and White Earth Chippewa writer Paulette Molin noted in the preface to The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions: "The public knows or understands little about native religions in North America despite all the Native American issues which frequently make the news. ... Yet despite all this news, the North American public remains ignorant about Native American religions, and this despite the fact that hundreds of books and articles have been published by anthropologists, religionists and others about native beliefs ."

DFO claims to "understand the cultural and spiritual significance" of Tsux' iit to the MMFN. But for the MMFN, it is much deeper. Speaking of his people, James said, "We all have a spiritual connection to nature and the land around us."

James advocated a simple, non-confrontational course of action: "Let nature take its course; that's what we stand by as Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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