By Shawn Blore
The whaling harpoon is a 16-foot shaft of
yew wood, bound up with cedar twine
with a blade of razor-sharp clamshell.
man who bears it has no more-prized
He hoists it over his head, whispers
prayer, and waits for the signal. Behind
him in the 9-metre cedar dugout sit
men from his household. Each has his
task, one that he has learned from
and practiced since boyhood.
Back at the stern, the steersman lays
that will bring the canoe alongside
The six other clew members paddle in
moving the heavy craft forward. The
surfaces, expels a foul-smelling breath,
then inhales to begin another dive.
dips below the surface, the signal-man
and the harpooner thrusts downward,
the clamshell blade deep into the dark-grey
The whale writhes in pain. Four of
back-paddle furiously to escape the
tail, and two more attach sealskin
to the sinew cord now streaking out
the fleeing whale. The floats slow
and show its wounded progress through
The canoe follows, the men chanting
to coax the whale toward land. Exhausted,
weak from loss of blood, it slows.
takes up a lance of antler bone and
onto the whale's broad head, stabs
repeatedly, killing the animal. The
man back dives overboard and runs a
of cedar twine up through the whale's
jaw, forcing its mouth closed so the
ocean water doesn't fill its belly
The long tow back to shore begins.
least 500 years, this hunt was a regular
occurrence on the Pacific Coast. Every
the grey whale, Eschritius robustus,
pass by the Juan de Fuca Strait on
south from the Arctic. Every fall,
from the Makah tribe would be ready
their harpoons. But for most of the
century, neither hunter nor prey have
in any condition to take part. By 1900,
decades of commercial whaling had reduced
the grey whale population to only a
Smallpox had reduced the Makah population
from about 2,000 to fewer then 500.
and prey both hovered on the edge of
By 1995, however, the Makah tribe had
to more then 2,000 members. Grey whale
had rebounded to about 20,000, close
greater than its historic population.
was time to resume the hunt, or so
felt. In a May 5,1995, letter to the
secretary of commerce, the Makah tribal
formally advised the U.S. government
plans to take five grey whales for
and ceremonial purposes. The hunt was
for the fall of 1996, after the anticipated
formal approval was obtained from the
In the year since the last commercial
however, public perception of the grey
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.
groups like Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd
Society immediately announced their
to the Makah's proposed hunt. The New
Times and the Los Angeles Times ran
describing an impending confrontation
the waters off the Washington state
and television stations in Seattle
camera crews for reaction on and off
Makah's Neah Bay reserve.
As always, the media barrage did an
job of highlighting a central conflict:
this corner, a tribe of whale-killing
in the far corner, environmentalists
to stop the hunt at any cost. Unanswered
so far, though, has been the question,
After so long, why do the Makah feel
need to hunt and kill whales? Is it,
claim, for subsistence? Is it a commercial
kill tarted up in cultural clothing?
it something else entirely?
The Makah Indian Reserve lies at the
northwest tip of Washington's Olympic
more than 200 winding kilometres west
Seattle. The reserve's only town, Neah
is a tiny place, two parallel streets
between the court and the clearcut
Commercial establishments are few.
are three motels, two gas pumps, one
store, and a café. Despite its size,
the essentials of life are readily
The general store sells rice, flour,
pop-tarts and frozen orange juice,
Bay Cafe does a roaring business in
fries and Makah-style chowder.
So whatever else the whale hunt is
it isn't about staving off starvation.
then the Makah have never claimed that
had anything to do with nutrition.
tribe's letter to the secretary of
subsistence seems to mean cultural
keeping tradition alive. On the reserve
however, cultural aspects of whaling
little talked about. What are mentioned
The Makah regard the Treaty of Neah
signed in 1855, with the same semi-fanatical
devotion other Americans reserve for
constitution. Just as every American
that the First Amendment guarantees
of free speech, so every Makah-the
at the café, the gas jockey, the guy
postcards at the museum gift shop -seems
to know that Article 4 of the Treaty
Bay guarantees "the right of taking
fish and of whaling or sealing at usual
As Makah tribal councillor Marcy Parker
it in April, two months before the
would argue its case before the IWC,
asked why the Makah want to resume
"It's our right. Like the right
arms or the right to fee speech. How'd
like it if someone said you couldn't
what you wanted?"
Dan Greene, the Makah director of fisheries
management, has been at the forefront
the fight for whaling rights. In the
air-force barracks that now serves
tribal fisheries centre, Greene explained
that the furor over whaling is just
skirmish in a drawn-out struggle. "Trying
to sustain our treaty rights has been
ongoing battle," said Greene.
was just another one of those issues
The problem, according to Greene, is
the Makah's treaty right to kill whales,
seals and sea lions runs counter to
laws designed to protect these same
laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection
Act and the Endangered Species Act.
past 10 years, at least, the Makah
feds have been engaged in what looks
outsider like a long game of rock-paper-scissors,
with each trying constantly to redefine
Up until the early 198Os, federal law
Makah treaty. Natives caught killing
or sea lions were changed just like
American citizen. Even possessing parts
a marine mammal was against the law.
to Greene, agents from the National
Fisheries Service raided the home of
hunter in 1982 and his entire stock
and sea lion meat.
"That's when the tribe first confronted
NMFS," said Greene. "We said,
I guess we're gonna go to court' ".
Faced with a real possibility of an
court ruling, the federal government
down. Seal and sea lion hunts were
tolerated. In 1994, a clause exempting
Natives was added to the Marine Mammal
Art. Treaty beat law.
Seats and sea lions secured, the tribe
on to bigger game. "In 1987, two
went to the council and said, 'We want
to get back our harvest of whales,'
explained Greene. The council was willing,
bet the feds weren't weak, at least
time. Grey whales were listed as an
species. If the Makah tried to harpoon
they could expect to be charged under
Endangered Species Act. They could
it in court if they wanted, but there's
no exemptions. At least as far as whales
were concerned, law still smothered
The Makah decided to switch tactics.
than try and force the courts to declare
them exempt from the ESA, they opted
around the system by having the grey
removed from the endangered species
David Sones, the assistant director
management, lead the Makah push for
"The Endangered Species Act did
it was intended to do, " said
"It protected that species, got
up to historic populations. But it
be a two-way street." Sones argued
the grey whale had made such a successful
recovery that it no longer required
Government biologists agreed, and in
the grey whale was officially taken
But before the Makah could so much
the rust off their harpoons, their
rights ran up against another legal
in the form of the International Whaling
Commission. The IWC has a mandate from
member countries to regulate whaling
and in 1986 its members voted to ban
commercial whaling. Bona fide aboriginal
groups were exempted from the ban,
if they were whaling for subsistence
and only if the IWC allocated them
at its annual meeting.
The Makah began preparing a proposal
the IWC's June 1996 meeting in Aberdeen,
Scotland. Alerted to the Makah plan,
many opponents of the plan began to
The Makah's chief ally was the U.S.
which believed it had an obligation
the treaty to secure a whaling quota
the Makah. In fact, because the Makah
is not a member of the IWC, it was
government that submitted the whaling
- and lobbied heavily - on the Makah's
Pro-whaling nations such as Japan and
also came out in favor of the Makah
mostly because they hoped a whaling
for the Makah would help ease the passage
of their own whaling proposals. For
a decade, Japan has been pushing a
called "small-scale coastal whaling",
which would allow coastal communities
a long tradition of whaling to take
number of non-endangered whales. Japan
that whaling has been the cultural
mainstay of these communities since
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
represent the thin edge of the harpoon,
Holland, Australia, and New Zealand
so-called like-minded nations -came
a quota far the Makah.
Even more vocal opposition, however,
from animal rights activists such as
Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Watson and others like him believe
individual whale has the right to the
life possible, free from the fear of
harpoons, Norwegian whaleboats, or
curators. In a March telephone interview
from Sea Shepherd's Marina del Rey,
headquarters, Watson explained his
to the hunt. "These are incredibly
creature," said Watson. "One
I believe we will develop the ability
communicate with them. They're incredibly
sensitive creatures; they've get strong
bonds. Who are human beings to go interfering
with these bond ?"
David Sones finds this line of reasoning
a little puzzling. "If it was
on good scientific environmental-resource
protection, then I could see it,"
said, "but the way it's getting
out there to the world is that whales
be killed because they're almost human."
Between environmentalists and Makah
has been little dialogue; Sones fisheries-manager
vocabulary seems to cause distaste.
get offended in the environmental community
when I refer to whales as a resource,"
said Sones, adding in a voice heavy
contempt: "They say, 'They're
resource; they're a spiritual thing.'
clearly finds the idea a little ridiculous.
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