The killer whale (also known as Orca or Blackfish) is an important medicine animal to the Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast. Killer whales are considered a particular symbol of power and strength, and catching sight of one is considered a momentous omen. Some tribes, such as the Tlingit, view the killer whale as a special protector of humankind and never hunted killer whales (although they were accomplished whale hunters of other species.) The Kwakiutl tribes believed that the souls of marine hunters turned into killer whales upon their death, just as the souls of forest hunters turned into wolves. For this reason, there were a number of special rituals regarding the killing of a killer whale, so that its spirit could be reborn as a human once again.
Native American Legends Natsilane
A Tlingit Legend
In a time before there were any killer whales there lived a very able sea lion hunter and a highly skilled carver named Natsilane. He was from Kake and when he took as his wife the daughter of a chief on Duke Island, he decided to live among her people. He was accepted into her family and because he tried hard to prove himself, he soon had a place of honor as an accomplished hunter and spear carver.
His desire to please won him the admiration of the youngest of his brothers- in-law but the oldest ones misunderstood his intentions and became jealous and so began to plot against him. The men decided to get even with Natsilane on the day of the big seal hunt.
After much preparation, the day of the big hunt arrived and Natsilane along with his four new brothers paddled their canoe toward West Devil Rock, out in the open straits. The wind was blowing fiercely and the waves were high but Natsilane was determined that the hunt would be successful. When the canoe neared the rocks, he leaped toward shore and plunged his spear into the nearest sea lion before it could escape. Unfortunately, the point broke off and the lion slipped into the water. Worse yet, Natsilane saw that his brothers, over the fierce objections of the youngest, were paddling away- abandoning him on the deserted island with no food or weapons. Their betrayal stung him deeply and after a time, he pulled his cloak up over his head and fell asleep.
Natsilane awoke the next morning to the sound of his name. He saw a sea lion that looked like a man beckoning to him to go with him down beneath the waves into the Sea Lion's House. At the great house he met the chief of the sea lions who asked him if he could help his injured son. Natsilane saw that the young lion had his spear point embedded in his body and with some effort was able to remove it and the son was healed. The chief was very grateful and after granting Natsilane even greater skills, arranged for his safe return to the village.
Natsilane met with his wife and after telling her his story, he made her promise to keep his return a secret. He took with him his carving tools and went into the woods to carry out a plan of revenge on the older brothers-in- law who had betrayed him.
Remembering the Sea-Lion Chief's promise, he asked him for help and began carving a large black fish, a killer whale of spruce the likes of which had never been seen before. After three tries and much improvement in his carving skills, he fashioned a whale of yellow cedar and when launched, came to life and swam out to sea.
He called the black fish to him and ordered it to find his brothers-in-law when they returned from their hunting, destroy them and their boat but spare the youngest boy. The black fish set out and found them late that afternoon. The black fish capsized the boat breaking it in two and drowned the older three brothers by keeping them from shore. The youngest made it back safely along with his story of the great black fish and his brothers' treachery.
The villagers now came to wonder if Natsilane had carved the great black fish and given it life. Not long afterward, a strange black fish with teeth was seen near the shore and at times would leave a freshly killed seal or halibut there for the villagers.
Natsilane had instructed it never again to harm humans but instead, to help them.
As he continued to help the villagers, they realized that the "Killer Whale" was a gift from Natsilane and so they took it for their crest. Natsilane became a legend to their village and some have claimed to have seen him riding the seas on the backs of two great black fish.