On May 16th and 17th, 1999, the Makah Indian tribe of Neah Bay, Washington, sent eighteen men and two thirty-six foot dugout
canoes onto the open Pacific to hunt a grey whale. The hunt was successful.
The hunters shot the whale with a specially designed 50-caliber rifle, and a young tribesman swam underwater to sew the mouth of the great creature closed so it would not sink while they towed it back to shore. Upon returning home, the tribe members pulled the carcass up onto the beach at Neah Bay, and a tribal celebration ensued.
This was the first whale hunt for the Makah in seventy years, and its legality was sanctioned by both the US government and the International Commission on Whaling. The right to hunt whales was given to the tribe by treaty in 1855, and the grey whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994. The Makah first expressed their desire to conduct this modern hunt in 1995, and controversy soon arose, both inside the tribe and outside. What brought the tribe to this decision, and what did they hope to accomplish?
Unlike some other indigenous peoples, such as the Inuits of Alaska and the Siberian Indians of the Arctic Circle, the Makah did not hunt the whale for the subsistence of their tribe. Instead, many of the Makah saw the hunt as necessary for the subsistence of traditional Makah culture.
For thousands of years this remote section of Washington state has been home to the Makah. Here, in a land of cedar trees, rain forests, crashing surf, and leaping salmon, they were know for their prowess at hunting the whale. They were famous for their ability to render whale blubber into oil, and they used the oil for trading with other Indian tribes far into the interior. This trade made the Makah a wealthy people.
They were also a spiritual people. Tribesman Greig Arnold says, "Do you know what kind of a man you have to be to kill the biggest animal on Earth? You have to be of the right mind, the right heart, the right spirit to be able to ask that animal for its life." The spiritual aspect was part of the whaler's training. Being a harpoonist or a diver carried a certain prestige, and tribal members even now have pride of their ancestors' accomplishments.
These Makah, of course, live in modern times. They have cars and boats and personal computers and a tribal web site. The world is so much with them that many of the tribal elders are afraid that in the clash and press of greater American culture from satellite television, the Internet, and other pervasive technology, their own unique venerable culture will dissipate.
The Federal Government has acknowledged the tribe’s treaty right to hunt whales, but the tribe’s rights conflict directly with the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. They would be required to obtain a waiver. The tribe’s whaling website says, “Currently, the US government is reviewing the Tribe’s request in an Environmental Impact Statement and will begin a formal rule-making process."
To further complicate matters and cause consternation (in the tribe) and outrage (for environmentalists), five Makah men on October 8, 2007, without sanction and without tribal management knowledge of their plan, harpooned and repeatedly shot at a grey whale. The Coast Guard responded, intercepting the men’s boat and cutting the whale free. The whale, heading out to sea, died within twelve hours. The men were turned over to the tribal police.
A requirement of the permit was that the whale would be hunted and harpooned using the traditional method from a traditional canoe. After that, a more humane method of ending the creature’s life and ensuring that the whale could be taken to the tribe was allowed.
The men who did the unsanctioned hunt did not follow this requirement.
The Seattle Times reported, “On Saturday, tribal officials appeared in disarray over the event and declined to speak publicly on the advice of their attorneys. A closed community meeting was called Saturday night to talk about what had happened."
From the FAQ section at the Makah Whaling Website:
Perhaps what is lost in all of their rhetoric [opposing whaling] is an appreciation of the value of preserving the culture of an American Indian Tribe—a culture which has always had to struggle against the assumption by some non-Indians that their values are superior to ours. There is no denying that this kind of animosity has been extremely upsetting to our people. But our opponents would have us abandon this part of our culture and restrict it to a museum. To us this means a dead culture. We are trying to maintain a living culture. We can only hope that those whose opposition is most vicious will be able to recognize their ethnocentrism—subordinating our culture to theirs.
Many Makah think resuming whaling will help them avoid diabetes, restore tribal pride, and improve their physical condition. They believe that they have evolved to need the whale fats in their diets. Their renewal of this cultural tradition may help young members of the tribe find an identity that does not include the 'white man's' excesses, and helps promote exercise and activity.
Now, as in 1999, the hopes of the participants are evident. Many environmentalists want to turn the clock back so that the Makah can no longer hunt the whales. But the Makah celebrate whale hunting as integral to their culture, including the ceremonies and rituals they embrace. The whale hunt of 1999 marked a turning point for them.