Sea Mammals

Look No Further

Look no further than the real--
into a piece of abalone shell that sees
like a turtle's eye, steadfast and green,
set in a dark swirled burl of wood
and old as its bowl home.
See that with him is bear and otter and whale
with their tales like different kinds of wind,
or the sun as it changes leaves
and dragonflies glittering on the water,
or the sea changing
under the seabirds' wings.

(©1996 Carol Snyder Halberstadt)

This artifact has a special poignancy for me. I bought it at an auction as part of a lot of Inuit carvings, not knowing what it was. A gentleman sitting next to me told me it was a Russian whale blubber scraper. He pointed out the Russian letter carved into its handle, and the exceptional smoothness of the stone, coated and worn by years of contact with whales. I am showing it here as an artifact of destruction, for it was largely the combined massive force and scale of the American, Russian, Norwegian, and Japanese whaling trade, and the use of mechanized hunting methods in the 19th and 20th centuries, which has resulted in the near-extinction of most whale species. The Inuit and Aleut peoples who hunted whales for subsistence and survival never carried on a hunt of the scope that endangered species. This slaughter is still going on today, to supply whale meat for markets in Japan and other parts of Asia. Norway is also participating in the hunting of whales, which has no connection today whatsoever with the subsistence or survival of people in these countries.

You may learn more about the condition of oceanic life and efforts to protect it at Earthtrust.

Photos from "Project Delphis," Dolphin Cognition Research, at Earthtrust

They Became Dolphins

Imagine that predog dog
running to the sea, its feet
shortening for millions of years,
its toes closing,
its body fattened, thick
and sleek with fur flattened
for the shedding of water--
then hear the seal pups barking
and the great grey whales
baying through the deep,
like those ancestor dogs
who became dolphins.

Advertisement for "Pure Sperm Oil," from the Daily Atlas, Boston, Monday Morning, February 13, 1837, Vol. 5, Number 198.

"Whale Captured in the Harbor of Charleston, South Carolina--From a Photograph," mid-19th century.

"The Whale Fishery: The Sperm Whale 'in A Flurry'." Lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1850s.

Yup'ik Masks*

Elders talked about the eyes of the hand.
(--Willie Komkoff, Kotlik, Alaska)

When the masks lost their eyes
and were hung on walls unused,
they waited for songs.

Call them--
the eyes of the universe
opening where seals and salmon swim--

Call them--
the owl, loon, the whale
hovering at the sea door--

With your hands shaping a song,
with your hidden face transformed,
through the white stars and the dark

and the dawn gates,
look past
the pretending sky.

With your strong arms
what is real.

*Agayuliyaraput (Our Way of Making Prayer): The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks, National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, New York, NY, 1997.

The sea otter is another mammal hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries by Russian and American fur traders.

Inuit stone carving of a sea otter with fish, by Lukasi Anauta, of Povungnituk, ca. 1960s.

Defending the Whale

At their site, there is a full report by Earthtrust on the 48th Annual International Whaling Commission Conference, held in Aberdeen, Scotland, June 23-28, 1996. One of the important reports deals with the opposition by a group of traditional Makah Indian Elders, of Washington State, to a proposed resumption of grey whale hunting under tribal auspices.

There are a number of other sites that discuss issues of whale and sea mammal hunting, particularly of the bowhead whales in Alaska and Canada. These include:

Grey Whales

I have this
coming down to me
as incomprehensible gifts--
arcs of whales moving slowly,
sleeping, slowly,
upright and silent
in their noisy sea,
and waking
to the curve of their flukes
beckoning, slapping,
on the surface of the deep.



Quinault Basket--Cedar Bark and Bear Grass

This cedar bark pictorial lidded basket, 7" high x 10.5" wide, decorated with two whaleboats, a seabird, and a whale, and a knitted wool collar, had been on my "for sale" baskets page, although I never really wanted to sell it. I'm glad it was out there though, because it was recently seen and identified by Dr. Arnold N. Troeh, a historian and art appraiser of Chinook Indian descent. His website had some wonderful material.

He wrote: The Quilleyute People and the Makahs were highly regarded for their whaling expertise... there was a wonderful rapport between the aboriginal people and the whale people."

"Speaking of Northwest Coast baskets, it appears you may have one woven by a very special lady named Mattie Howeattle, from Taholah, on the Quinault reservation, located on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. When I was in the fifth grade in 1950, I can remember coming home from the one-room school in the village and walking into the house where the Quinault Grandmother weavers were visiting with my Mother, and there on the floor was seated Mattie Howeattle, with a bowl of water in front of her, with coils of bear grass soaking, so these strands would become pliable, so she could use them to weave baskets. It looks a lot like her work, utilizing the whaling canoes and sea birds, and that particular ginger jar shape with a lid. There are other Makah, Quilleyute, Hoh and Queets weavers along the Washington Coast who used similar materials and designs... On our site we have a Jewish Sabbath hat [ceremonial head covering] twined of cedar bark and bear grass, a Yarmulka by Mattie Howeattle, which was made for a Rabbi when he visited Taholah."

"One winter when a large whale washed up on the beach she sent her nephew, Nathan Pickernell, out to dance a song of welcome and respect. We had quite a snowstorm after that, and people said she was using her spiritual help to influence the weather."

"There are many traditional Si Si Wis stories and songs about the sacred cedar trees, and some of our Elders of the Lummi Tribe, Joe Washington and Isadore Tom, now both deceased, sat in defiance of a clear-cutting action to save some very special wisdom trees, old growth cedars that had provided spiritual guidance to the people for hundreds of years."

Basket by Mattie Howeattle, Quinault

Bark from a "grandfather" cedar tree, Washington State, 1996.

Grandfather Trees
There is a way
that grandfathers watch
children, calm and still,
like trees I've heard of--
old-growth, a canopy
of lives in their heads,
green crowns dense
with moss and lichens.
I've seen old men sitting
compact and wholly at ease,
while children ran and shouted and tumbled.
They were like the few tall pines
on my walks
whose gnarled and knotty bark
held branches
bent and turning to the ground
where ants and beetles make their nests.
And they were men sitting like forests, listening.

All poems from Listening to the Stone © 1997 Carol Snyder Halberstadt.

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Copyright © 1996 -1997 Carol Snyder Halberstadt, Migrations. All rights reserved.