UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

What the whale was : orca cultural histories in British Columbia since 1964 Werner, Mark T.


My thesis argues that indigenous historical narratives demonstrate an understanding of the killer whale subjectivity that settler society is only beginning to comprehend. Set in the late 20th century, a period when human relationships with killer whales were undergoing a fast-paced reconfiguration, my research explores the spaces of orca-human encounter in regards to three killer whales: Moby Doll, the world’s first orca held in captivity; Skana, the first orca showcased at the Vancouver Aquarium; and Luna, the orphaned orca of Nootka Sound. Each example speaks to the common process by which humans project culturally-specific narratives and beliefs onto the lives of the whales. In the case of Moby Doll, I argue that the dominant discourse regarding the whale conformed to a strict gender script that functioned to silence other narratives and realities of Moby’s captivity. In my following chapter, I look at how the close relationship between Paul Spong and Skana inspired the scientist to abandon his most fundamental assumptions about orcas in favor of new affordances for orca subjectivity. Furthermore, I argue that the scientific research of John Lilly, a scientist who had a similar conversion experience with dolphins, inspired whole new literatures and imaginations of intelligent dolphins in New Age culture. Finally, I return to the recent story of the orphaned whale Luna to explore how these changing understandings of killer whales accompany an emergent recognition of the validity of indigenous ways of relating to both animals and the past. I argue that the conflict that arose between the Department of Fisheries and the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation over the relocation of Luna is an instance of the informal negotiation of differing conceptions between settler and indigenous society over what is natural, what is right, what is history and what is the killer whale.

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