|This article does not cite any references or sources. (January 2012)|
Natsilane is a one of the Tlingit and Haida stories about how the various supernatural animal species from the Tlingit culture of the American Northwest coast were created. These stories follow an almost dreamtime-like description of humans and other animal species living completely harmoniously. The animals are depicted as demi-gods, and are always referred to in the singular (for instance "raccoon", and "raven"). The story of Natsilane follows the creation of arguably the most important creature in Haida culture - the "Blackfish", or killer whale. There are other similar stories including how Raccoon got the rings on his tail and why Puma hides in the forest so much.
Blackfish is revered so highly in Tlingit culture because of his apparent affinity with humans. He represents an extremely powerful force of nature, deadly and terrifying to every creature except man, whom he is said to look after. The story describes why this is so. There are many variations to the tale, some considerably more brutal than others, and the exact story is likely to vary widely in Tlingit culture, but the main theme of the story is always the same.
The tale begins with a young warrior Natsilane who is destined to become chief due to his skills, intelligence and generally pleasant demeanour. His brothers are extremely jealous of this, and plot to depose him. The brothers take Natsilane out to sea fishing, taking him further away from the shore than they have ever been before. As he becomes concerned, the brothers throw Natsilane overboard and row away.
As Natsilane is beginning to drown, he is found and rescued by Sea otter, who floats him to a large island saying it is too far back to the mainland for Sea otter to help him back. Instead, he promises to look after Natsilane and shows him the best hunting and fishing grounds. Once Natsilane is settled on his new island, alone, Sea otter confers one last gift to him, a pouch of seeds, and instructs Natsilane to sow them. Natsilane does so, and over the years the seeds grow into a bewildering array of different types of tree, all of which are now native in the Pacific Northwest. Natsilane uses wood from the trees to carve tools and a boat.
In appreciation of Sea otter, Natsilane then tries to carve a new totem. He tries all the trees, but settles on using a large Yellow Cedar tree and carves a huge fish from it, and leaves it on the shore for Sea otter to find. The next morning when Natsilane goes down to the shore, the fish carving is gone and in the bay is swimming Blackfish, the first killer whale. With a boat and supplies, Natsilane travels back to his home, guided by Blackfish. When he arrives, he finds his brothers out fishing again, squabbling. He orders Blackfish to destroy their boat and drown his brothers which it does immediately. When it returns, Natsilane orders that from this day forward it must never harm a human again, and that when it finds a human in trouble at sea it must help him. He then sends the whale off to sea. Natsilane returns to his village, which had been terrorised by his brothers, and becomes chief.
The story has obvious themes of self-preservation, a reliance on the earth and karma, but it must be interpreted in a Tlingit mindset, where life and animals are equal (if not more worthy) to humans. The Blackfish therefore represents the force of nature that can be achieved when nature and humankind are joined (whilst the carving is created by Natsilane, it is assumed Sea otter brings it to life). The rather brutal ending should not be misinterpreted either - this is the equivalent of a happy ending in a story such as this, where good and the natural world (Natsilane and the Blackfish) has prevailed over man alone (the brothers).