Art,Orca Whales and the Coastal Salish Community

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In The View from the Studio Door, Ted Orland made the following observation about the classic role of art in human culture:

Most historical artwork played a role in society or religion or both. There’s pretty good evidence that Bach himself understood that to make work that mattered meant addressing art at every level – from the purely technical to the completely profound – simultaneously. He once composed a set of training pieces whose purpose, he said, was “to glorify God, to edify my neighbor, and to develop a cantabile style of playing in both hands.”

In other words, from the earliest times art has had many simultaneous functions that encompassed the spiritual, educational, and practical areas of life – and nowhere more so than among our regional Coastal Salish communities. Art is so interwoven into their lives that there is not a word for ‘art’ in the language, no identifying word that separates the decorative from the practical, the beautiful from the spiritual. It is all one, which is reflected in their reverence for all life and knowledge of how to live in balance with nature. Justin Mah, Associate Staff Contributor for the West Vancouver Museum writes that their closest word is ‘xal’ which “expresses making a mark, of altering, changing, or transforming what merely exists into something of sublime beauty and meaning.”
Of greatest value to the Coastal Salish are their beautifully woven blankets, originally made from whatever fibers they chose to gather, including animal hair, down from waterfowl, and various plant materials. These blankets were time consuming to make and carefully crafted, and were symbolic of wealth, and it is therefore of highest honor to be given a blanket, or even to wear one for ceremonial purposes, to this day.

The Ceremonial Blanket (Photo by Jeanne Hyde)

There is a practicality to this melding of every day life with their craft which is mirrored in their beliefs about orca whales, as I understand it. It seems to me that the Ancestors revered and respected the orcas (as shown by their belief in some instances that they are considered to be tribal members, and also that after death their chiefs manifest themselves as orcas) – yet viewed them as competitors for salmon.
One of their myths tells a story of how Thunderbird came and caught a pesky orca that had been eating all the salmon…and Thunderbird then flew off with and ate the unfortunate whale. End of whale, end of story – except the lesson from that seems to be that there is no need to worry if the whales came to eat in the salmon because the whales would soon move off. Thunderbird or no, that is what the whales do.
Contrast that to the reflexive and often deadly ways people in some other cultures respond to competing species, and the value of weaving these stories into the fabric of their lives becomes apparent.
In the past these stories were recorded on everyday utensils and tools, but contemporary artists are beginning to incorporate modern media, and to define for themselves ‘art’ as a separate concept, yet as they do so they enhance and revitalize both their language and their culture.

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