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 WHALING NATION
By Shawn Blore
 

Paul Watson, on the other hand, doesn't find it ridiculous at all. Though Watson has supported Native causes in the past, he said, in this case his loyalty goes to the whales. "I represent other tribes," said Watson, "including the whale nations, and they have rights too. I will not easily allow the killing to resume."

Should the Makah ever attempt to engage in whaling, Watson said, he plans to outfit a ship with a sympathetic crew of American Natives and have it do escort duty for the grey whales as they migrate past Neah Bay. The prospect of a high-seas confrontation would have TV networks around the world salivating.

It's the kind of publicity Watson normally thrives on. His campaigns are designed to bring the light of international media attention to bear on those who prefer to carry out their deeds unseen. Unfortunately for Watson, the Makah seem to be enjoying the spotlight. Early in the year, Dan Greene went on an extended Euro-junket to explain the Makah position on German TV and radio; German public TV picked up the tab. Sones has done interviews with Japanese TV crews. Hollywood has been pitching the idea of a movie-of-the-week deal to the tribal council. "It's brought us to the forefront of international and national news," said Sones.

Not only have the Makah managed to hold their own in the public-relations battle with Watson and Sea Shepherd, they got a huge boost when Greenpeace declared itself officially neutral in the debate. The organization that established itself by, among other things, buzzing Russian ships no longer concerns itself with the fate of individual grey whales. It's the survival of the species that matters. As a result, Greenpeace sees little to fear from the Makah. "I don't think anyone believes the Making taking five little whales is going to harm the species," said Gerry Leape, the lead anti-whaling campaigner for Greenpeace, from Washington, D.C.

Greenpeace has stopped short of endorsing the Makah's plan, but its lack of protest is about as ringing an endorsement as the tribe could possibly hope for. Nonetheless, even Greenpeace has one nagging qualm. "We have no objection to a subsistence hunt," said Leape, "but I think you'd see our stance change very quickly if the Makah began whaling commercially."

Leape had best be nimble, because the Makah's definition of "subsistence" is more than elastic enough to stretch around a bit of commerce. "People don't understand," said Sones "that historically the resources we harvested, like whale oil, were associated with a huge trade. These were resources of commerce, and not just resources to feed ourselves."

This same argument has been made by Native communities across North America, including B.C.'s lower Fraser River Sto:lo Nation. The idea that Natives hunted or fished or whaled solely for their own consumption, they argue, is a delusion, the product of a falsely idealized view of traditional Native life. Natives always traded, the argument goes, so in demanding a share in a commercial fishery, as the Sto:lo have done, they are just reasserting traditional rights and practices. Certainly, in the case of the of the Sto:lo and the Makah, archeological evidence and historical records show that both peoples traded their surplus catch far and wide.

But the Sto:lo have been frank about their plans. They wanted a commercial salmon fishery; they got one. The Makah have been maddeningly coy. Is this hunt going to be merely a token kill, like the Canadian Inuit's take of two endangered bowhead whales this August. Or is this a commercial whaling station In the making? It's a question the Makah refuse to answer clearly.

Assistant fisheries manager Sones has stated that the five whales expected from the first year's hunt will probably be consumed on the reserve but what happens in subsequent years is anybody's guess. "If things changed In the International Whaling Commission and they reinstated commercial harvest for countries like Norway or Japan, I'm sure our petition may change," said Sones. The fact that whale meat wholesales in Japan for about $80 a kilo, or upwards of one million dollars a grey whale, would give the cash-strapped little band quite an incentive to go into the commercial whaling games.

When asked whether or not the Makah have plans to sell whale meat, fisheries manager Dan Greene was even less circumspect. "Even if we do," he asked rhetorically, "so what?"

So what, Indeed? It wouldn't be the first time an ostensible "subsistence" hunt has grown and acquired a commercial character. In 1993, Greenland aboriginals were awarded a subsistence quota of 105 minke whales a year for three years. In 1995, they were back, asking that the yearly quota be raised to 255 whales. The Greenland fishermen's organization also wanted permission to export the whale meat. Greenlanders, they argued, have the same right to cars, flush toilets, TV sets, and CD players as other nations, as well at the same right to make use of their limited resources to acquire these amenities. And although they have a point, chopping up whales for export is not exactly what comes to most people's mind when they hear the words "subsistence hunt".

Nonetheless, in the weeks leading up to the IWC convention in June, it looked as if Greenpeace's tacit approval and the backing of the U.S. government would be enough to get the Makah their quota. Greene was certainly confident. "The IWC has never denied a subsistence quota. Ours will come through," said Greene. But at the Aberdeen meeting, another voice was raised in opposition, this one from the within the tribe itself.

Alberta Thompson, a 70-year-old Makah elder, was flown to Aberdeen by an ad-hoc coalition of anti-whaling activists. Her message to the delegates was much the same as the one she had for the Straight some weeks before the conference: the Makah subsistence hunt it a sham pure and simple. "Subsistence means you'll die if you don't' get the food," says Thompson, " so how can this be subsistence?"

For an example of real subsistence, Thompson pointed to the example of a woman she met at an aboriginal women's conference in Alaska, an Inuit who depended on caribou for her livelihood. "That woman was living just like her ancestors did 3,000 years ago," said Thompson. "That's subsistence." The Makah hunt, on the other hand, she said, is purely a commercial venture. "The attitude of the people pushing this hunt is 'How much can we get for each whale?' They're in it for the almightily dollar. And you know, to me, killing a whale for money is a crime."

Thompson's opposition dealt the Makah proposal a killing blow. Here was a living, breathing Makah elder giving voice to the same suspicions that many delegates themselves had harboured. "A lot of the delegates were looking for an excuse to vote against the proposal," Greene said after the meeting. "She gave it to them."

Thompson's interference was particularly galling to Greene and tribal counsellor Parker because, despite Thompson's age, neither Greene nor Parker consider her an elder. In fact, the two have nothing but contempt for Thompson and her views. Their reasons are cultural. Two hundred years ago, in the days before European contact, Makah society was a rigid hierarchy of nobles, commoners, and slaves. Social status determined occupation. Nobles hunted whales. Commoners hunted teals, or fished. Slaves did what they were told. They were the only class that could be killed purely on an aristocratic whim.

Greene claims descent from a whaling family. So do Parker and the other members of the governing tribal council. Thompson claims descent from a sealing family, but that claim was met with derision by Greene. There were nobles, said Greene, and there were commoners. Thompson, he claimed, belongs to neither class. That leaves only slaves. Given her social status, Greene believes Thompson's opinions should properly have bean ignored.

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