The whaling people

By Amy Reiswig, February 2012

Coastal first peoples lived a life rich in technology, trade and ritual.

For cultures lacking the promise (or threat) of Valentine’s Day to keep hearts fluttering, February can have quite different connotations. To the Northern and Central Whaling People, for instance, this month is either ?Axhami?, bad weather, or ?Ita·mi?, false spawning, and to the Southern Whaling People it is the more specifically inauspicious Pa·kwischis saba?—canoe drifting up sideways. This is just one of the many eye- and mind-opening lessons in coastal First Nations life presented in the Royal BC Museum’s latest publication, The Whaling People of the West Coast of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery (November 2011).

Co-written by Victoria’s Alan Hoover and Ottawa’s Eugene Arima, The Whaling People is an updated expansion of Arima’s 1983 book The West Coast (Nootka) People and is not all about whaling. Rather, it’s an ethnographic study of the Nuu-chah-nulth, Ditidaht, Pacheedaht and Makah peoples, for whom whaling played an important economic, cultural and spiritual role. In fact, only two short sections are specific to whaling activities; other chapters chronicle how communities made a living generally, their social structures, myths, rituals, medicinal practices, arts, spirit power and more.

It’s a comprehensive tome, written by two men with long careers in history, anthropology and ethnology. Arima recently retired as ethnohistorian for National Historic Parks and Sites, Parks Canada, and has written or contributed to several books on Northern and Northwest coast peoples. Co-writer and Victoria resident Hoover spent 33 years working in and eventually managing the Royal BC Museum’s anthropology collections. He is now retired but still restless, and in his dark plaid shirt and multi-pocketed khaki vest, looked ready for a coastal adventure rather than a kitchen interview over Christmas shortbread and tea.

Hoover grew up in the north Okanagan, and his passion for history and anthropology—the lives of others—began, one might say, in response to the story he was living himself. “When I was a kid,” he tells me, “I worked in a sawmill. I knew I didn’t want to pile lumber for the rest of my life, so the way out of that was to go to school.” The mill, he recalls, was on reserve land, and so First Nations people, their culture and history, were part of his life from a young age.

Hoover’s flight from sawmillville led him to a Master’s at SFU and in 1968 to what was then the BC Provincial Museum. Most of his work has focused on artifacts (his thesis on Northwest coast harpoons and Arima’s interest in canoes made them a perfect match for a book on whaling peoples). Hoover has been involved with researching and helping organize major exhibits, such as “Out of the Mist: HuupuKwanum/Tupaat, Treasures of the Nuu-chah-nulth Chiefs,” and has also been involved in what he calls “writing the storyline” of other exhibits. 

He’s also been writing books. Previous publications include The Magic Leaves: A History of Haida Argilite Carving, with Peter L. Macnair (1984, republished in 2002); The Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Northwest Coast Indian Art (2007), with Kevin Neary and again Macnair; and Nuu-chah-nulth Voices, Histories, Objects & Journeys (2000), an anthology edited by Hoover in which Arima has an essay.

“I’ve known Eugene a long time,” Hoover says. “When he said he wanted to do a new edition of the book, I foolishly said, ‘I’m here in Victoria; I can help it along.’ Five years later…” 

But based on how he talks about the book, it’s clear Hoover’s not actually sorry to have been involved. “Did you read the last story?” he asks, referring to “The Whale Sweetheart,” from the village of P’omp’oma?a. “Wow,” he says with a big smile and hands outstretched. “I mean, wow!” 

“The book is important because it brings together a lot of hard-to-find sources—things it would be damn hard to find otherwise,” Hoover explains. Indeed, the book is dense with detail covering centuries of coastal life, drawing on a huge and surprising variety of material and living resources. 

Some sections are plain and informational in style, often incorporating the First Nations words and perspective. For example, “many kinds of shellfish, like the Black Chiton, are at their best just after winter. The Black Turban Shell (t?’achkwin) was eaten raw only in spring, by the Manhousat at least, because of an interesting belief that the creature grew legs each summer.” And discussions of spirit beliefs are also recounted in a style of factual reportage: “Under the sea, not far offshore, was a great house with the Salmon People in one half and the Herring People in the other, representing the major food sources...Also in undersea houses were Whales and Hair Seals. Killer Whales could come out onto the land and become Wolves—both were more likely to be friendly than dangerous.”

This somewhat academic reporting is balanced with engaging and often entertaining First Nations stories as well as sections addressing more emotionally-charged issues, such as wars between nations, colonialism, residential schools and the modern treaty process. Here again, the First Nations’ perspective is privileged through the authors’ use of First Nations sources, such as a Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council publication dealing with the sentencing of a dorm supervisor at the Alberni Indian Residential School: “As far as victims of the accused are concerned, the Indian Residential School system was nothing but a form of Institutionalized Pedophilia, and the accused, as far as they are concerned, being children at the time, a sexual terrorist.”

Hoover was specifically tasked with researching and writing/expanding the sections on treaties and residential schools. These sections stand out as having a more narrative and personally-involved tone, though Hoover says, “I tried to disappear in the book.” When I ask whether he’s struggled with “Oh, another white guy telling First Nations history,” he admits with humility: “I’m waiting for the dreaded review which is going to say just that.” In fact, Hoover highlights that while being personally engaged, he and Arima try specifically not to assume any kind of “authority” voice.

To that end, this new edition adds five First Nations narratives (for a total of 20) and more illustrations by Hesquiaht artist Tim Paul. As Hoover says, these elements allow “the First Nations voice—voices—to become much more present,” which he believes is really what the book is all about. 

Claiming that “retirement’s boring,” Hoover remains a research associate at the Museum, writes articles and is working with Arima on another book. He may well have taken to heart Tom Sa·ya·ch’apis’s advice to his grandson in one of the stories quoted in The Whaling People: “Do not lose account of your mind as long as you are a person. Sit against the wall of your house working your mind, handling it in such a way as to not forget even one thing.” It might just help you steer if your canoe starts to drift sideways.

Amy Reiswig, a writer, editor, musician and traveller, once stood on a whaling beach in the Faroe Islands, and with this book was reminded again of the difficulty in making judgements on a controversial practice that pits conservation against culture.