The Dorsal Spin: Enduring Spirits
Island Voices

The Dorsal Spin: Enduring Spirits

By Orca Annie Stateler

In the grip of the pandemic, Tlingit artist Odin Lonning painted four square panels for the Open Space Arts and Community’s public outdoor mural project. From “Attention! Artists at Work” is a jobs program led by Open Space in partnership with local nonprofit organizations. The goal of the program is to hire artists who have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Inspired by large public art murals, as well as the AIDS quilt, “The Mural Project” is a quilt of paintings, each as one-of-a-kind as our community. In summer 2020, 21 local artists were commissioned to create 45 panels with the theme “Backyard Universe.”

The Open Space Mural Project is stunning. If you have not yet seen it, go immediately to behold the diversity of art styles. Odin and I are truly grateful that Open Space compensated us for work during a financially stressful time. Due to COVID restrictions, most islanders missed their chance to meet the artists and experience the grandeur of this beautiful and consequential project. We invite Open Space to consider a second public unveiling of this project.

Odin’s panels are C7, E1, E7, and E8. We embraced the “Backyard Universe” theme, with specific references to surviving a pandemic in the year 2020. Each panel is laden with spiritually, culturally, and politically relevant images. In “Enduring Kéet Spirits” (panel E7, photo), the large central orca symbolizes revered Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) matriarch Granny (J2), est. 1911-2016. The dorsal fin with crescent-shaped nick and gray saddle patch outline are representational and unique to Granny. A stylized Salish salmon fills her belly – salmon sustain Resident orcas. Her saddle patch and tail flukes contain spirit faces. In Northern Coastal formline, spirit faces are typically carved and painted near body joints, signifying movement, life, and thus, spirit.

The juvenile orca beneath Granny embodies an aspirational seven generations of Resident killer whales, as well as young orcas we know who deeply touched our hearts, especially Kéetla/Springer (A73), b. 2002 and Tsu’xiit/Luna (L98), 1999-2006. Three faces in the body signify J, K, and L Pods – the SRKW – and celebrate Northern Resident Kéetla/Springer. At age 22, she is now a matriarch with three offspring: Spirit (A104), b. 2013; Storm (A116), b. 2016; and another cutie on the way! Salish salmon flank the killer whales on the lower left and right.

The upper right quadrant displays the Big Dipper and Comet NEOWISE, which we frequently saw in close proximity when we went comet-watching in 2020. Moreover, the Big Dipper is on the Alaska state flag; Odin grew up in Alaska. The upper left quadrant features an eclipse or blood moon with a grayish-white Transient killer whale, Tl’uk (T46B1B), born in 2018, missing in June 2021, and declared dead by July 2022. Sweet little Tl’uk was famous during his short life for his unusual coloring, which likely resulted from leucism or Chédiak-Higashi Syndrome – an immunosuppressive disease often associated with premature death. His name Tl’uk came from a Halq’eméylem word for “moon.” The Halq’eméylem are Fraser Valley, BC Coast Salish peoples. Tl’uk was one of several white killer whales encountered along the Northwest Coast over at least a century.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is October 10. Odin’s artwork will be on display at Dig Deep Gardens, 19028 Vashon Hwy SW, through the month of October. We are conferring with community members about events for Native American Heritage Month in November. For more information, call 206-463-9041 or email

October 11, 2022

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Orca Annie Stateler