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TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Protecting Tsuu'xiit

For eight days in june 2004, determined members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation in traditional canoes faced off against canadian department of fisheries and oceans (dfo) officials in high powered motorboats. The conflict was over a male orca that had left his pod and taken up residence in the waters of hannah channel, mooyah bay, and muchalaht inlet from july 2001, when dfo officials formally recorded his presence there. The dfo officials decided in 2004 that this orca, nicknamed "Luna" in a seattle-based contest (it's well worth reading the text of the winning entry, which is available on-line), should be captured, moved by truck, and released in the waters his pod was frequenting at the time. After all, dfo officials are bound to know better than an orca what is good for an orca, apparently. The Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation strongly opposed this on spiritual, traditional, and ecological grounds.

The Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation is part of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nation, and they have lived at the northwest entrance of what non-Indigenous settlers know as nootka sound for millennia. Like the Kwakwkakw'wakw who live on and around vancouver island, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth have an active feasting and giveaway tradition, and continue to carve and use the sea-going canoes they have used for travel, fishing, and whaling for time immemorial. The Mowachaht/Muchalaht were also famous whalers before europeans began to arrive in the late 1700s. Since they were hunting from canoes rather than large ships, whale hunting was an exceedingly dangerous pursuit, demanding broad knowledge of whale behaviour and careful performance of spiritual duties. In addition, no part of any whale taken could be wasted, otherwise the hunters would lose the ability to hunt successfully, and their community could suffer overall famine for the lack of respect such waste implies. The spiritual connections between the Mowachaht/Muchalaht and whales aren't just from hunting, however: they also believe that after death, a person may return in an animal form, such as that of a whale.

Logo from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation website. Logo from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation website.
Logo from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation website, may 2018.

In 2001, Chief Ambrose Maquinna, descendant of the same Chief Maquinna who hosted the British in 1778, passed away. Before his death, he declared that he would return in the form of an orca in order to help protect nootka sound from the construction of fishfarms and other practices considered environmentally unsound by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht. Four days after his death, "Luna" appeared in nootka sound for the first time. The number four is deeply sacred to many Indigenous peoples all over the americas, not least because it is associated with the four directions, and therefore wholeness. For the Mowachaht/Muchalaht there is no doubt: this orca carries the spirit of Chief Ambrose Maquinna, who has returned just as he promised. They call this orca Tsuu'xiit.

To date, western scientists have not recorded any instances of an orca being driven from their pod permanently, or leaving their pod permanently on their own. The western scientific records cover less than three hundred years. Male orcas are more likely to go off on their own, and have been known to do so before, at least for short periods. In some cases, an orca has become separated from their pod because they are sick or become lost, and in fact the last instance of an orca capture for reunification with their pod involved an ailing female orca who was lost. In the case of Tsuu'xiit however, he is not sick or lost, is eating properly, and has had multiple opportunities to rejoin his pod on his own which have been uninterfered with by the dfo or Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation members. Furthermore, the dfo left Tsuu'xiit to his own devices for nearly three years.

What caused dfo officials to suddenly decide to attempt to capture Tsuu'xiit and return him to his pod remains debatable, although various reasons have been suggested. The annual japanese whale hunt held in mid-summer tends to lead to increased pressure on the dfo to protect whales in a more visible fashion at that time of year. Over the past three years angry boaters have complained that Tsuu'xiit inconveniences them, at times going so far as to destroy their sonar beacons which they believe they need in order to boat and fish safely. Since all whales use sonar to communicate, sonar beacons are considered probable sources of significant discomfort for them. In all likelihood, Tsuu'xiit was taking action against what he considered an intolerable racket. Unfortunately, on most boats sonar beacons are mounted behind the rudder. Understandably boaters get angry when an orca disables their boat while breaking their sonar beacons, but they seem incapable of sympathizing with any whale finally driven beyond endurance by the racket of their sonar beacons. In 2003 Tsuu'xiit interfered with workers who were attempting to install fish farming pens on nootka sound, as Mowachaht/Muchalaht community members would expect. Some commentators have been tempted to blame Tsuu'xiit for dropping local fish stocks, although they were dropping before his arrival and orcas eat a wide range of foods.

For their part, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation has long called for boaters to turn off their sonar beacons when travelling through nootka sound, and to avoid the waters that Tsuu'xiit frequents. To them it seems obvious that people should show respect for Tsuu'xiit by cutting down the motor and sonar noise they produce in his current home waters. While they don't deny the good intentions of the dfo, they feel that the plan to capture and move Tsuu'xiit is no less than an attempt to force him to rejoin his pod, a course the Mowachaht/Muchalaht see as uncalled for and potentially harmful. So far, Tsuu'xiit has chosen to stay in nootka sound, and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht feel he will return to his pod when he is ready.

On 24 june 2004 the dfo finally gave up its efforts to capture Tsuu'xiit, not a little embarrassed at having been out-stubborned by a few First Nation members in canoes, and the significant coverage of the struggle in the media. The whole incident opened up questions the dfo had never intended to deal with, for example: respect for Indigenous religious beliefs and deep knowledge, and whether it was ethical for humans to attempt to "correct" the behaviour of animals they have incomplete knowledge of. Since then, the dfo and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht have come to an understanding, and are negotiating a formal program to protect Tsuu'xiit and educate the general public about him. Just this summer, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation formally established the Kahawin Guardians. The members of this group will continue to protect Tsuu'xiit, and provide information about him to anyone who is interested as well as boaters. They also provide assistance to any boaters who find themselves in difficulties because of an encounter with him.

The Kahawin Guardians take to the water only in traditional canoes, without motors of any kind apart from the paddlers. They don't charge for their time or assistance, and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation has requested dfo funding for the them. To date no money has been forthcoming, and the Guardians continue their work. Meanwhile, several websites have been established by various environmental groups demanding Tsuu'xiit be captured and removed to his pod, insisting that he doesn't understand that boats are not toys and that it is unhealthy for him to be separated from it, whatever the evidence of his actual health and behaviour suggests. These environmental groups seem quite sure about what orcas and other whales can or cannot understand.

POSTSCRIPT: By mid-2005, it looked like the Kahawin Guardians were finally going to get some funding for their work, and the Nuu-chah-nulth Council was active in monitoring Tsuu'xiit. Unfortunately, this particular part of the story doesn't have a happy ending. On 10 March 2006 Tsuu'xiit was killed by a tugboat propeller when the boat moved into nootka sound to wait out a storm. Tsuu'xiit was given a great send off by Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, who fully expect to see Chief Ambrose Maquinna again, this time in the form of a wolf.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:40