How the killer whale got its name

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.


First Nation artists from the north-west coast of Canada have been creating totem poles to honour the legends of their sacred animals for generations. A totem pole is a tall wooden pole carved with symbols - these can be animals, plants or patterns - of things that are important to the people who made it.


Telling a story through pictures:
This 1970s cedar-wood souvenir plate decorated with two killer whales is a modern version of a totem pole. 

The back of the plate is covered with the story of how the whales got their name: 

A man was marooned by his wicked brothers on an island. He was able to find his way back home by healing the chief of the seals. 

The seal chief then arranged for him to hitch a ride home on a pair of whales, who then also killed the man’s brothers as punishment for abandoning him, and to honour the healing of the seal. For this act, the whales became known as 'killer whales'.

Discussion ideas:

  • Before reading the story of how the killer whale got its name, what did you know about killer whales?
  • How does the story make you feel?
  • Why do you think people made up this story about the whales?
  • Why do people use animals as symbols or in stories?
  • Can you think of any examples of stories where animals are used to tell us something about the world?

Activity ideas:

  • Can you find the north-west coast of Canada on a map? Do some research to discover in which other regions killer whales live and locate them on the map as well.

  • This story on the plate is told through a picture. Write a story about an animal just using pictures. Thinking about famous fairy tales might help you.

  • Did you know that whales are mammals? Find out about the differences between whales and sharks. The Related Links at the bottom of the page might help.