What Impacts the Orcas Will Impact Us All

During the summer of 2018, a stunned world watched in sorrow as a mother orca, Tahlequah, carried her dead newborn for at least 17 days for over 1,000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast in an unprecedented display of grief. Tahlequah is a member of the J Pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales. The orcas are endangered, along with their extended family—K and L pods. These orca families have made home of a large swath of ocean territory that covers the waters off Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, British Columbia. 

These brilliant, social, sentient beings face extinction because of the impacts of corporate greed and settler violence. The whales are dependent upon Chinook salmon as their primary food source; chinook are also endangered due to logging, damaged watersheds, fish farms and warming waters. Aside from imperilling their food source, noise pollution from oil tankers and marine traffic harms the orcas as well. 

The Trans Mountain pipeline would triple the amount of oil pumped from Northern Alberta, through British Columbia to oil refineries in California. This would increase tanker traffic in narrow inlets by more than 600%, with 36 expected spills in a 50-year lifetime, according to Greenpeace. Oil tankers would cross the Salish Sea from British Columbia’s south coast to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northern coast of Washington State. These waterways are home to endangered whales who are impervious to political borders.

For RAVEN’s “In Conversation” series via Instagram, we were joined by Nikki Sanchez. She discussed her new book, “Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in Science, Art and History.” The anthology brings together artists, elders, scientists, poets and renowned community organizers to weave together a story of the coast. This book creates space for the stories, histories, and testimonials of those who have been in relationship with the orcas and these waters since time immemorial.

Sanchez is a Pipil/Maya and Irish/Scottish academic, Indigenous media maker and environmental educator. She holds a masters degree in Indigenous Governance and is completing her Ph.D. with a research focus on emerging visual media technology as it relates to Indigenous ontology. As an Indigenous media maker, hermost recent project is the 8-part documentary VICELAND series “RISE” focused on global Indigenous resurgence. 

Watch the conversation with Nikki here:

RAVEN: This book is the first to be published by the Royal BC Museum that is edited by an Indigenous woman. There is such a diverse myriad of voices, art and expression in this book. Why does that representation matter?

The general canon of scientific knowledge since colonization has erased any form of knowledge outside of its own empirical science. Most institutions, universities, governments and museums alike have invalidated alternative forms of knowledge and science. The representation of Indigenous knowledge has been largely non-existent. There has been huge movement in museum spaces recently, because museum spaces are basically giant caches of theft; the majority of what is held inside was gained without consent, stolen, primarily from Indigenous communities.

RAVEN: How can people fall in love with this coast and orcas even if they might not see one in their lifetime? 

The way people talk about their experiences with orcas are so heart-centric. Orcas have a different physiology than us; they have grey matter in their brains which is more sentient. That validates that even these people who are biologists and are so cerebral couldn’t engage with the orcas without being touched from a heart place – on a spirit level. 

RAVEN: How is Indigenous sovereignty connected to orcas and the coast?

Those two things are absolutely interconnected. Orcas, like us, are an apex predator. So: as we see them in the same ecosystems we are in, beginning to go extinct, it is a very high indicator for what lies ahead for our own species. Ultimately, as much as we can delude ourselves in one way or another that we aren’t part of our ecosystems, we exist in the same myriad of interconnectedness with every other life form in our ecosystems. If our coastal neighbor species can’t survive, can’t find food, then our ecosystem is toxic. 

Seeing the TMX pipeline go through would be taking an incredibly vulnerable population to the  brink of extinction. You know, we watched Tahlequah two years ago carry her dead baby for two weeks. That mother’s act of grief and rage, her refusal to allow the death of her baby to go unnoticed is one of the most bold actions any life form has held up to colonization. Between further endangerment of the chinook and noise pollution, the likelihood of the capacity for these coastal resident orcas to survive is very slim, especially outside of a captivity existence -which is psychological torture for orcas because of how intelligent they are. 

These animals are a reflection of this coast. They belong here just as much as our mountains and tidal patterns. This is an indicator of how our value system is so dangerous in terms of sacrificing that which gives life on behalf of fundamentally flawed economic projections that are mostly around toxic masculinity and grief.

RAVEN: How is the endangerment of orcas an extension of settler colonial violence?

One of the things I was not aware of at all before this book was that there is a harbor in the Coast Salish territories where almost every orca who has ever been put into captivity originally came from. They came from the coastal resident pod and it’s their descendants who remain in captivity. The middle section of the book recognizes that colonization didn’t just impact human relationships, but also animals and their ecosystems. The notion of orcas was that they were giant killer fish with no sentient or intelligent ability, so they were harvested in mass amounts and shipped around the world for people to spend money to get to see them. The struggle that the resident orcas face with access to food sources – it  is intergenerational.  As a matriarchal species, the knowledge, language, and hunting traditions that would have been passed down have been massively undermined by greedy harvesting of generation after generation of whales. Because they have such solid structures in their family and kinship groups, removing whatever orca you want has huge implications –  similar to removing children from their homes for residential schools. That will take many generations to recover.

RAVEN: What can folks do who want to get involved?

I grew up on the frontlines of the Clayoquot Sound protest all up and down this island. For a long time my attitude was about urgency and putting your body in front of machinery to do whatever you can to protect the land.  But this book allowed me to spend time with art, poetry and non linguistic communication. This book reminds me that there are so many ways to stand up for the land that doesn’t have to just look like frontline activism. Whatever your passion is there is a way to give that forward in what you wish to care for and protect. Thanks to COVID and the slowing down of marine traffic, Talhequa gave birth to a new baby! So we have seen that it is possible for species to recover in a sovereign way, in their own self determining way. 

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