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The Orca Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

In First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the orca is represented frequently in visual works, as well as oral traditions. Known to some as the Guardians of the Sea, orcas (killer whales) are associated with compassion, strong family bonds, protection, and community.

Orcas, who are also called sea wolves in some Northwest coast cultures, are revered for their hunting skills and sheer strength. Similar to wolves, killer whales live and hunt in packs. The entire family, or pod, will normally stay together for life and work together to feed and raise their young.

Along the Washington and British Columbia coastline there are four resident communities of killer whales. The Southern Resident Killer Whale Pod is the smallest of the four, and it is listed under the Endangered Species Act. As of the end of 2018, this pod numbered 75 members, which is down significantly from 250 a few decades ago. The reduction in their population size is due to increased marine traffic, environmental damage, and the depletion of their major food source, Chinook Salmon.

Coast Salish artist Joe Wilson has dedicated his serigraph, titled Orca, to the Southern Resident Killer Whale Pod. He feels that the print should serve to celebrate the beauty of this magnificent animal, raise awareness, and help ensure its survival.

There are many legends in the Northwest involving the orca. One legend tells us that when a person drowns, killer whales will take the body to the deep ocean and transform it into one of their own. This is why we can sometimes observe orcas swimming close to shore. They are transformed humans, yearning for their old life.

The orca is the largest predator on earth. Hence, in First Nations art the orca is often depicted as a powerful and intimidating being. This is indicative of the respect First Nations have for the killer whale.

For another example of killer whales in Northwest coast art, see K’aka’win by Patrick Amos.

Limited edition Native art print of a killer whale by Patrick Amos
by Patrick Amos