The Whaling Indians: Legendary Hunters


430 pages
Contains Photos, Maps
ISBN 0-660-19167-9
DDC 398.2'089'979




Reviewed by Joan A. Lovisek

Joan Lovisek, Ph.D., is a consulting anthropologist and ethnohistorian
in British Columbia.


This collection of 28 accounts from the Nootka in Alberni Inlet and
Barkley Sound region is a continuation in the pioneering work of
ethnologist Edward Sapir and his Nootkan colleagues collected between
1913 and 1916. The accounts or stories are provided in English and
Nootka. Sapir follows the Boas tradition by letting the stories speak
for themselves; there are only hints of analysis or synthesis, and these
few contributions are relegated to endnotes.

The majority of the accounts describe the ritual, prestigious, and
economic importance of whaling to the Nootka. It is evident that for the
Nootka the successful harvesting of whales was never an accident, but
the result of proper ritual treatment. The Nootka distinguished between
rituals used for the hunting of whales and those used for the attraction
of drift (stranded dead) whales. Ritual purification characterizes many
of the stories. It is therefore a somewhat surprising omission that the
most dramatic ritual, which used elaborate shrines and human skulls, is
the least represented in the collection and, when referred to, described
almost negatively. This omission (which is particularly puzzling because
there is some indication from the accounts that more prestige was
associated with those ritualists who were able to attract drift whales
than those who actually harpooned and killed whales) may reflect a lack
of knowledge on part of the informants or a reluctance to speak about
this form of ritual knowledge.

At the time the stories were collected, they were expected to
contribute to the growing body of ethnographic data. However, the
introduction to this book is less concerned with this data than its
value as literature, which may demonstrate the shifting value of
ethnography to literature. As ethnographic data, the accounts contribute
to an aspect of the Aboriginal perspective on Nootka whaling. Despite
the limitations in analysis, when compared to more contemporary
ethnographic studies on the subject of whaling these accounts continue
to provide an important contribution to the subject of whaling.


Sapir, Edward, et al., “The Whaling Indians: Legendary Hunters,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,