First Nations Stories about the Sea

By Jennifer Selgrath

At the International Marine Conservation Congress a couple of weeks ago, I met Charles W. Elliott, the First Nations artist who created the gorgeous print on the right that was used as the conference logo. I'm fascinated by the way stories connect people to their marine environment, so I was excited to talk to him about Coast Salish stories from British Columbia.

Here are the two that Charles shared with me:

Salmon lived in longhouses, similar to people in Saanich communities. In one community, there was a salmon who loved to complain. He annoyed the gods. To stop him, the gods sent a bald eagle down who picked up the salmon and carried him far up in the sky. From that great height the eagle dropped the salmon. When he hit the ground he landed so hard that his body was flattened. He became the fish now known as flounder.

I love this story because it gives personality to fish from the ocean. It tells about their creation in a way that gives them personality and character.

The other story was about the time when the Saanich people set out to travel across the deep ocean. By beating on their drums, they called the orcas (killer whales) to join them. The whales travelled with the boats, making the ocean safer by breaking the large waves in front of the boats and guarding the boats on both sides. It's an incredibly visual story! I love the idea of orcas as shepherds of seafaring people — guiding and guarding them.

Maybe we can draw upon the magic and wonder of such ideas when we are working to connect people to the ocean. All around the world, the ocean takes on different forms, from wild, pounding wave on open coasts, to calm, clear water in island archipelagos. Inside these different parts of the ocean, there are diverse neighborhoods of creatures and landscapes. Finding and sharing stories about them seem like a powerful way to inspire people about conservation.

Jenny Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.