Once a feared and maligned creature of the sea, the killer whale – or Orca – is now loved by millions of people around the world, and is one of the favoured subjects for artists of the Pacific Northwest. The largest member of the dolphin family, the killer whale is synonymous with the waters of the Northwest coast of North America. The Tlingit, Nootka, and Haida tribes in particular honour the orca as one of their ancestral spirits, and see it as a symbol of strength and speed.
Legends of the killer whale abound, including those that portray it as a prolific destroyer of sea life, robbing the people of their food source. One Haida legend concerns a supernatural wolf who was so skilful at hunting the whale that much of its catch remained uneaten and spoiled. The Great Spirit created a fog to hinder its hunt, after which the wolf remained in the ocean, where it was believed to have manifested as the killer whale. Mother Earth painted markings on its side as a reminder that it used to be a member of the wolf family. Like wolves in their packs, killer whales stay with their extended family and travel in large pods. They came to be regarded as the ruler and guardian of the oceans, and sometimes the reincarnation of the clan’s chief.
Another Orca legend relates how it was snatched from the ocean by Thunderbird and from a great height dropped back into the sea, causing a tremendous roar. From then on, the Orca came to be associated with thunder. For many of the coastal peoples, the whale was synonymous with spiritual rebirth and cultural survival. Because the killer whale mates for life, it has become associated with romance and the power of the family unit. Qualities of harmony, beauty and power are attributed to the Orca for its hunting skills and the way it cares for its young.
Orca motifs appear on many native American objects from clothes to shamanic drums, as well as items of South American origin. Like the river dolphins of the Amazon, however, native American mythology sometimes casts the orca as a dangerous being, who can take people to their realm under the sea and transform them into whales. It is said that if a fisherman should injure a killer whale, it will capsize the canoe and take the fisherman to the underwater Village of the Whales, where the man will be transformed into a whale, himself. Orcas near the shore are believed to be humans thusly transformed, and now trying to communicate with their former human families ashore. Others believe that killer whales are reincarnations of deceased native chiefs.
The killer whale’s song is believed to be so beautiful that all creation will stop to listen to it. It is also said that to be splashed by a killer whale is to ensure great luckand happiness.
Get inspired by some really great images and photos in our Killer Whale Tattoo Gallery