• Alyssa Barton

The Stuff of Stories: Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors

Updated: May 18, 2019



Charlotte Cote's Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors is an informative, compelling account that skillfully weaves history, sociology, politics, and indigenous mythology together into a tapestry depicting the culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth (and Makah) people and their special relationship with whales. These two peoples live in Washington on the Olympic Peninsula and in British Columbia on the west side of Vancouver Island, and historically subsisted on whales and whale products. This book is a must read for anthropologists, indigenous studies majors, or those simply interested to learn more about the first nations of the U.S. and Canada.

In telling her story of the Nuu-chah-nulth, Cote describes the struggle for tribal self-determination and even the right to existence against the U.S. and Canadian Governments. She also delves into the present-day tension between modern day environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples to harvest and eat traditional foods – foods (namely, whale meat, blubber and oil) which constituted not only a staple of their diet (up to 80%), but the cornerstone of their religion and society.

What really resonated with me and got me thinking, and what I'll discuss below, is the essential role that story-telling and stories play in teaching and passing on knowledge (history, ancestry, cultural practices, the importance of place, etc.), as well as how story-telling builds and nourishes one's sense of self and belonging in a community.

I am not a member of a First Nation; I am not a Native American; I am not the member of a tribe that I was born into. I am a white Anglo-Saxon English-only speaking female cis-gender American of European descent: Italian on my father’s side, and Scotch-Irish and French-Canadian on my mother’s side. My family consists of five separate nuclear units scattered across the United States; the number of all of my living blood relatives – to my knowledge - can be counted on exactly all of the fingers of my two hands. How did we come to live this way? Few. Nuclear. Isolated. Separate. Did we choose this?

Once I reached adulthood I started to “collect” good people. I deliberately cultivated a large and deep social network - friends that became my family (my “framily”). Perhaps subconsciously at first, and now quite intentionally, I seek to surround myself with loving and supportive people who also exhibit traits, behaviors and skills that I admire and wish to learn from. But why did my family as a unit not choose instead to cultivate a collective sense of family history, identity, and social roots?

As I read this beautifully written book – Cote’s Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors - my emotions fluctuated between feelings of connectedness, community, and respect and admiration for the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah people, and for all First Nations/ indigenous people, and a thirst for more information about my own people, my blood relatives, and our collective past. I long to better recall and understand my own past – much of which is forgotten. What events, places, people, and desires formed and shaped the roots of our family tree, and thus me? How deep can we trace those lines?

What about your family? Do you experience a strong sense of self, community, place, and belonging? Why or why not? On a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with these experiences?

My guess is that a lot of Americans share a sense of disconnection from self, community, history and place, though we all struggle to grow and cultivate a sense of belonging. I believe many Americans come from nuclear families, are transient, and that American cultural identity is built around fetishism of concepts such as independence, separateness, otherness, capitalism (valuing money over wisdom and experience), and consumerism (valuing accumulation over sharing).

And yet, as Cote explains: “Survival is bending and swaying but not breaking, adapting and accommodating without compromising what is core to one’s being. Those who are emboldened by challenges and who sacrifice for the truth achieve freedom. Those who fail to find balance, who reject change, or who abandon their heritage altogether abandon themselves. They perish. The people who live on are those who have learned the lesson of survival: cherish your unique identify, protect your freedom, and defend your homeland.”, Quoting Taiaiake Alfred, a leading Kanien ‘kehaka (Mohawk) scholar, in his book Wasase. P. 8.

This “core” of being, this “heritage” and unique identity is a “self” built on culture, community, place(s), and shared history.

Cote is a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth people. She explains that the Nuu-chah-nulth are a collection of village groups that are linked through a common language and similar cultural components, located along the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Like their neighbors to the south, the Makah (located on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State), their history, place-names, and sense of cultural identity is inextricably linked with whaling and the consumption and use of whales.

“The umbilical cord that connects us to our whaling tradition has remained unbroken and continues to nourish and strengthen our communities. The tradition is in our family names, in the names of the land we live on, and in the names of waterways we subsist on. It has continued to live on through the stories contained within our oral traditions, through our ceremonies, songs, and dances, and through our artistic expression. We have always been known as a whaling people; as former Makah Whaling Commission Chairman Keith Johnson maintains, “It’s who we are.”” P. 8.


Cote later describes the roles and importance of place-names: “Traditional names, and their continued usage, serve as constant reminders of how important whales and whaling were to our past and still are to our present-day community. Place-names can be utilized to encode, enrich, and structure accounts of the past. Place-names act as a memory aid to glue history together. These names are key to understanding our history because important historical events can often be recalled by a term of a feature of a particular place or landscape.” P. 9.

Cote also emphasizes the central role of story-telling in passing on oral history and inculcating a sense of shared identity. Story-telling, along with ceremonial song and dance, is used to pass on oral history and traditions. In performing ceremonies and telling stories, tribal members reaffirm their cultural identities, strengthen cultural knowledge, and connect more closely to their community and homeland. Stories are not only used to share historical information, but to impart important life lessons.

Cote’s book sparked a deep curiosity in me regarding story-telling and the purpose and meaning of story-telling, both for me personally and for white Anglo American culture in general.

Ultimately, my goal is to be a great story-teller. I admire those who can rattle off story after story from either memory or imagination. Whether made up fantasies or remembered experiences, the most captivating stories are both entertaining and educational. One of my dearest friends is a story-teller, and of all his many and great talents, I most admire his ability to collect and share incredible stories.

On the flip-side, one of my deepest fears is that I am a lousy storyteller. I feel I have so much to learn, and I fear that my memory is shattered. I have the tendency to be a perfectionist. I’ve learned that perfectionism can be both a control and an avoidance technique, a technique commonly employed (subconsciously or unintentionally) by many Americans and in particular, women.

For a time, perfectionism motivated all of my actions in life to some extent. Perfectionism caused me to engage in two types of avoidance behaviors: escapism and searching. Two sides of the same coin. Both of these can be harmful to memory and can inhibit the ability to tell stories. And, if you think of escapism and searching as literal activities, both of these actions can result in geographical displacement, separateness, aloneness, and lack of a sense of community, knowledge of place, and belonging.

Periodically in my life I would try to escape reality. Unpleasant circumstances and feelings lead me to escape into books, into my own head, into isolation, into harmful relationships, into alcohol, and to even flee from one city or state to another. Periodically in my life I would also search for something more, something better. When I moved from Maryland to Miami Florida it was as much as seeking as it was an escape. Travelling, trying new experiences, hiking different trails, starting up new projects, relationship hopping: all of these actions were attempts to learn, to grow, to improve, to be someone different and better.

Seeking (externally or physically, rather than internal soul searching or self-exploration) is the mirror opposite of escapism. It’s the same action in a different direction. One moves towards, the other away. But both spring from a desire to be somewhere else. To avoid reality, the present, the now. The opposite of stillness, acceptance, and being in the present.

All of this avoidance movement - this escapism (both externally/physically and internally/mentally) and searching (externally only) - can act to cut you off from your past and prevent you from rooting in the present. Avoidance entails an intentional forgetting. But the severing of past "imperfect" experiences from the present moment in which perfection is sought robs you of lessons and insights that could otherwise have been learned from those experiences. It can result in forgetfulness and a dull memory, deny wisdom, and suck dry the ability to tell stories. It can result in disconnection, displacement, and a confusion about one’s identity and place in the world.

And so to me, the art of storytelling seems linked with a sense of self. The ability to tell stories requires that one turn inwards and seek not to avoid or escape, but to learn, understand and accept what lies within, rooting yourself in the present with a sense of identity. It makes sense, then, that indigenous cultures – which, per Cote, often link vocabulary with geographical locations, and oral history and mythology with place, tradition, and culture – have such strong story-telling traditions. And it makes sense, then, that the displaced dominant white culture finds these traits enviable, and might even appropriate the culture – a topic which Cote discusses when she examines the history of the “savage Indian/noble Indian” dichotomy constructed by white Americans.




I have totally digressed from Cote and her story. But these thoughts have me wondering: who are the central characters in your stories, and what do they do? Think about experiences you’ve had and memories you cherish. The characters are your friends, family, and other people that have impacted your life. What do they pursue? What motivates them to act? What character traits, skills, relationships and actions help or hinder them?

The stories and legends that fill your head tell you who you are, they reflect your sense of self and your values. What stories are you telling? Are the characters in your stories rich and complex, or are they simple, straightforward, and down to earth? Are they wise or foolish? What do they stand for? What breaks their hearts? Centuries from now, will they be worth remembering? Why?

Cote’s book describes the history and culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah, and the story of an a grey whale hunt by the Makah in 1999. She documents the significance of the event to the tribe as well as the outraged reactions and political backlash by the dominant culture. These topics alone are worthy of a separate blog and exploration of modern day racism, environmentalism, and cultural oppression.


Stay tuned for blog part 2 of 2 of my thoughts and a review of this rich and impactful book!


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©2019 by Alyssa Barton