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By Shawn Blore

By Shawn Blore

The whaling harpoon is a 16-foot shaft of yew wood, bound up with cedar twine and tipped with a blade of razor-sharp clamshell. The man who bears it has no more-prized possession. He hoists it over his head, whispers a secret prayer, and waits for the signal. Behind him in the 9-metre cedar dugout sit seven men from his household. Each has his assigned task, one that he has learned from his father and practiced since boyhood.

Back at the stern, the steersman lays a course that will bring the canoe alongside the whale. The six other clew members paddle in unison, moving the heavy craft forward. The whale surfaces, expels a foul-smelling breath, then inhales to begin another dive. Its back dips below the surface, the signal-man calls, and the harpooner thrusts downward, driving the clamshell blade deep into the dark-grey hide.

The whale writhes in pain. Four of the crew back-paddle furiously to escape the thrashing tail, and two more attach sealskin floats to the sinew cord now streaking out after the fleeing whale. The floats slow the whale and show its wounded progress through the water.

The canoe follows, the men chanting songs to coax the whale toward land. Exhausted, weak from loss of blood, it slows. The harpooner takes up a lance of antler bone and leaping onto the whale's broad head, stabs downwards repeatedly, killing the animal. The second man back dives overboard and runs a length of cedar twine up through the whale's lower jaw, forcing its mouth closed so the cold ocean water doesn't fill its belly and weigh it down.

The long tow back to shore begins. For at least 500 years, this hunt was a regular occurrence on the Pacific Coast. Every fall, the grey whale, Eschritius robustus, would pass by the Juan de Fuca Strait on its way south from the Arctic. Every fall, hunters from the Makah tribe would be ready with their harpoons. But for most of the 20th century, neither hunter nor prey have been in any condition to take part. By 1900, several decades of commercial whaling had reduced the grey whale population to only a few thousand. Smallpox had reduced the Makah population from about 2,000 to fewer then 500. Hunter and prey both hovered on the edge of extinction.

By 1995, however, the Makah tribe had grown to more then 2,000 members. Grey whale numbers had rebounded to about 20,000, close to or greater than its historic population. It was time to resume the hunt, or so the Makah felt. In a May 5,1995, letter to the U.S. secretary of commerce, the Makah tribal council formally advised the U.S. government of their plans to take five grey whales for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. The hunt was planned for the fall of 1996, after the anticipated formal approval was obtained from the International Whaling Commission.

In the year since the last commercial hunt, however, public perception of the grey whale had changed. It was no longer seen as a source of lamp oil but as a symbol of a fragile natural world in need of protection. Environmental groups like Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Conservation Society immediately announced their opposition to the Makah's proposed hunt. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran stories describing an impending confrontation in the waters off the Washington state coast, and television stations in Seattle sent out camera crews for reaction on and off the Makah's Neah Bay reserve.

As always, the media barrage did an excellent job of highlighting a central conflict: in this corner, a tribe of whale-killing Indians; in the far corner, environmentalists pledged to stop the hunt at any cost. Unanswered so far, though, has been the question, "Why?". After so long, why do the Makah feel the need to hunt and kill whales? Is it, as they claim, for subsistence? Is it a commercial kill tarted up in cultural clothing? Or is it something else entirely?

The Makah Indian Reserve lies at the very northwest tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, more than 200 winding kilometres west of Seattle. The reserve's only town, Neah Bay, is a tiny place, two parallel streets sandwiched between the court and the clearcut hills. Commercial establishments are few. There are three motels, two gas pumps, one general store, and a café. Despite its size, however, the essentials of life are readily available. The general store sells rice, flour, Pepsi, pop-tarts and frozen orange juice, and the Bay Cafe does a roaring business in French fries and Makah-style chowder.

So whatever else the whale hunt is about, it isn't about staving off starvation. But then the Makah have never claimed that subsistence had anything to do with nutrition. In the tribe's letter to the secretary of commerce, subsistence seems to mean cultural survival, keeping tradition alive. On the reserve itself, however, cultural aspects of whaling are little talked about. What are mentioned are treaty rights.

The Makah regard the Treaty of Neah Bay, signed in 1855, with the same semi-fanatical devotion other Americans reserve for their constitution. Just as every American knows that the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech, so every Makah-the waitress at the café, the gas jockey, the guy selling postcards at the museum gift shop -seems to know that Article 4 of the Treaty of Neah Bay guarantees "the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds".

As Makah tribal councillor Marcy Parker put it in April, two months before the Makah would argue its case before the IWC, when asked why the Makah want to resume whaling: "It's our right. Like the right to bear arms or the right to fee speech. How'd you like it if someone said you couldn't write what you wanted?"

Dan Greene, the Makah director of fisheries management, has been at the forefront of the fight for whaling rights. In the abandoned air-force barracks that now serves as the tribal fisheries centre, Greene explained that the furor over whaling is just another skirmish in a drawn-out struggle. "Trying to sustain our treaty rights has been an ongoing battle," said Greene. The whaling was just another one of those issues hanging out there."

The problem, according to Greene, is that the Makah's treaty right to kill whales, seals and sea lions runs counter to federal laws designed to protect these same species, laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. For the past 10 years, at least, the Makah and the feds have been engaged in what looks to an outsider like a long game of rock-paper-scissors, with each trying constantly to redefine what beats what.

Up until the early 198Os, federal law beat Makah treaty. Natives caught killing seals or sea lions were changed just like any other American citizen. Even possessing parts from a marine mammal was against the law. According to Greene, agents from the National Marine Fisheries Service raided the home of a Makah hunter in 1982 and his entire stock of seal and sea lion meat.

"That's when the tribe first confronted NMFS," said Greene. "We said, 'Look, I guess we're gonna go to court' ". Faced with a real possibility of an unfavourable court ruling, the federal government backed down. Seal and sea lion hunts were unofficially tolerated. In 1994, a clause exempting treaty Natives was added to the Marine Mammal Protection Art. Treaty beat law.

Seats and sea lions secured, the tribe moved on to bigger game. "In 1987, two elders went to the council and said, 'We want you to get back our harvest of whales,' " explained Greene. The council was willing, bet the feds weren't weak, at least not this time. Grey whales were listed as an endangered species. If the Makah tried to harpoon one, they could expect to be charged under the Endangered Species Act. They could fight it in court if they wanted, but there's be no exemptions. At least as far as whales were concerned, law still smothered treaty.

The Makah decided to switch tactics. Rather than try and force the courts to declare them exempt from the ESA, they opted to work around the system by having the grey whale removed from the endangered species list. David Sones, the assistant director of fisheries management, lead the Makah push for delisting. "The Endangered Species Act did what it was intended to do, " said Sones, "It protected that species, got it back up to historic populations. But it has to be a two-way street." Sones argued that the grey whale had made such a successful recovery that it no longer required protection. Government biologists agreed, and in 1994 the grey whale was officially taken off the list.

But before the Makah could so much as scrape the rust off their harpoons, their treaty rights ran up against another legal shoal, in the form of the International Whaling Commission. The IWC has a mandate from its member countries to regulate whaling worldwide, and in 1986 its members voted to ban all commercial whaling. Bona fide aboriginal groups were exempted from the ban, but only if they were whaling for subsistence purposes and only if the IWC allocated them a quota at its annual meeting.

The Makah began preparing a proposal for the IWC's June 1996 meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland. Alerted to the Makah plan, the many opponents of the plan began to mobilize. The Makah's chief ally was the U.S. government, which believed it had an obligation under the treaty to secure a whaling quota for the Makah. In fact, because the Makah Nation is not a member of the IWC, it was the U.S. government that submitted the whaling proposal - and lobbied heavily - on the Makah's behalf.

Pro-whaling nations such as Japan and Norway also came out in favor of the Makah plan, mostly because they hoped a whaling quota for the Makah would help ease the passage of their own whaling proposals. For nearly a decade, Japan has been pushing a proposal called "small-scale coastal whaling", which would allow coastal communities with a long tradition of whaling to take a limited number of non-endangered whales. Japan argues that whaling has been the cultural and economic mainstay of these communities since the 15th century.

The Norwegian whaling tradition gets back even farther. Artifacts from the time of the Vikings show men in small boats with long lances chasing after whales. Norway's leading whaling lobbyist, George Blichfeldt, has pointed out repeatedly that it's hypocritical for the U.S. government to be pushing for a whaling quota for one group of (dark-skinned) traditional whalers while threatening sanctions against another group of (light-skinned) whalers simply for practicing their age-old craft. If it's okay for the Makah, Blichfeldt argues, it must be okay for the Norwegians.

Believing that this logic is both correct and inescapable, and that the Makah thus represent the thin edge of the harpoon, Britain, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand -the so-called like-minded nations -came out against a quota far the Makah.

Even more vocal opposition, however, came from animal rights activists such as Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson and others like him believe that each individual whale has the right to the fullest life possible, free from the fear of Indian harpoons, Norwegian whaleboats, or aquarium curators. In a March telephone interview from Sea Shepherd's Marina del Rey, California, headquarters, Watson explained his opposition to the hunt. "These are incredibly intelligent creature," said Watson. "One day I believe we will develop the ability to communicate with them. They're incredibly sensitive creatures; they've get strong family bonds. Who are human beings to go interfering with these bond ?"

David Sones finds this line of reasoning a little puzzling. "If it was based on good scientific environmental-resource protection, then I could see it," he said, "but the way it's getting pushed out there to the world is that whales shouldn't be killed because they're almost human."

Between environmentalists and Makah there has been little dialogue; Sones fisheries-manager vocabulary seems to cause distaste. "People get offended in the environmental community when I refer to whales as a resource," said Sones, adding in a voice heavy with contempt: "They say, 'They're not a resource; they're a spiritual thing.' He clearly finds the idea a little ridiculous.

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