Where the whales come in

By Aaren Madden, July/August 2015

Marika Swan finds personal guidance and artistic inspiration in her people’s spiritual connection to whales.

Marika Echachis Swan is a writer, curator, community organizer, collaborator, activist, art workshop facilitator, and, by no means least, mother to a young daughter. That she is also an artist is what makes it possible for her to be everything else that she is. 

She learned that this is so by going back to her beginning—specifically, the beach where she was born in 1982 on the island from which she received her middle name. Echachis Island is located close to Wickaninnish Island in Clayoquot Sound, about 3.5 km as the crow flies offshore from Tofino. This is Nuu Chah Nulth territory, where Swan’s Tla-o-qui-aht ancestors hunted for whales and were blessed by the multitude of gifts—food, oil, bone and sinew—they brought to the people. 

On Echachis Island, “there is a place where all the rocks are pushed aside, where they used to bring the whales in,” Swan says. For her, the place hums with “the energy of that rich tradition. Our people don’t whale now, but I go to that place and I think about what was happening there. Our relationship with animals and creatures and the way we eat [now] is totally different from the way we lived. Those agreements with other beings: how much you killed, what you left, what was offered, what you took—it was about balance and respect and long, long established relationships, really honouring the intelligence of all the creatures inhabiting that space.” 

It’s sacred to her, this place where the rocks are pushed aside, where the whales were brought in. She returns most summers, and during one of those visits, she would become an artist.

Of course, it would be a journey. Swan grew and attended school on Salt Spring Island immersed in creativity. Her father is acclaimed First Nations master carver Joe David, and her mother, Paula Swan, is a photographer and painter originally from New Zealand. “Both my parents have absolutely supported me that way my whole life,” Swan says. “[Art] is the way we communicate and honour things and celebrate milestones, and let go of sadness; it’s something I grew up doing.” 

Her father modelled a trust in his own artistic process and connectedness to culture as well, and when Swan left the cocoon of Salt Spring to live in Vancouver and engage with the First Nations youth activist scene, she was struck by the larger picture of the impacts of colonization on a wide range of folks who came to Vancouver from across the country. She witnessed homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues. And she learned from all of it. “If something is uncomfortable, I go straight towards it,” Swan relates. 

For about seven of the ten years Swan spent in Vancouver, she worked with Redwire Native Youth Media Society. Now focusing on podcasting, film and radio, when Swan was there Redwire published a quarterly uncensored magazine. “It was radical in the sense that we wanted to encourage all voices—and not all First Nations voices are widely celebrated or easy to swallow,” she says. “It was a very deliberate choice to stake out that space and allow people to relax into that space and see what happened.” From this experience Swan found a love for providing creative spaces and reaffirmation of “the healing power of expression” that she had learned from her father.

As gratifying as it was to help others find their voice, however, Swan’s own was languishing amid the intensity of her milieu. Emotionally and spiritually drained, in the summer of 2007 she returned to where the whales came in. 

As if aware of her need, respite and clarity came in the form of torrential rain, which began to fall just as she finished setting up her camp. “I didn’t even realize I was so tired, but I slept for three days. I would wake up and it would still be raining. I would eat a little and read my book, and I would fall back to sleep, just dreaming,” she shares. “I could hear the rain pouring over me like a river.” 

It was like an incubation, during which she remembered what her parents had taught her: “Sit quietly in the evening, paint, and just enjoy the peace of expressiveness.” She “set an intention” to create a body of artwork that would honour her own expressive voice while, she says, “exploring our people and our relationship to whales, inspired by where I came from.”

Some of the fruits of that intention can be seen in a series of vibrantly coloured woodblock prints that celebrate the natural and cultural richness of the home territory to which she returned permanently in 2010. 

“Following the Sacred Heartbeats” evokes the Tla-o-qui-aht peoples’ “spiritual relationship with whales,” Swan explains, adding that it was used for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival poster in 2013. A young man embraces a drum on which whales, overpainted to bring them to prominence, swim toward a canoe and harpoon in the form of a lightning snake. The drum references songs of the people and celebrates the songs of the whales. 

More layers become apparent when she continues: “I chose a young two-spirited man holding the drum because I wanted to talk about the role of two-spirited people in our community.” Two-spirited, she explains, is a term for people who embody both masculine and feminine energies; they had important community roles in providing balance in gender relationships. Swan is pleased by the resurgence of interest in these teachings.

“Deep In Our Bones” (on Focus’ cover) is a print that celebrates the contribution of all creatures to the continuing cycle of life. “It’s about understanding that the passing of something allows the space for the coming of something else,” Swan remarks. The cedar tree stands central while the bones of bears, salmon, whales and humans suggest each has a role to play in death, or rather the renewal process of transformation. 

The notion of transformation is more personal in “Becoming Worthy.” Swan relates the whale hunt to her personal journey: “Everyone had their proper place and role to make sure the hunt was successful, that the whale was taken with the least pain and harm to everybody involved,” she says, lest one end up like the drowned whaler Pukmis, who lies in warning along the bottom of the image. Contrast Pukmis to the woman swimming amidst a forest of bull kelp. The whale follows, offering itself to her. “It’s a gift she is ready for,” Swan explains. The print is “about this whole journey to ground myself in who I want to be personally, with an understanding that I am growing and learning, so I can achieve the things that I want in this life,” she says. “Not just for me, but for my community. For all of us.”


Swan’s woodblock prints are part of the group show “A Gathering of Spirits,” June 27-August 30 at Alcheringa Gallery, celebrating their new location and 30 years of support for aboriginal artists from the Northwest Coast and all along the Pacific Rim to Papua New Guinea. 621 Fort St, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com. Marika Swan is online at www.marikaswan.com.

Ten years ago, when she worked at Alcheringa Gallery, Aaren Madden would show clients the serigraph print of a drum design by Joe David depicting an elegant swan and full moon. It is titled “Marika Swan.”