This piece is to accompany Holding Onto Heritage: Native Whale Hunts & Diversity
An excerpt from A Whale Hunt, How a Native-American Village Did What No One Thought It Could by Robert Sullivan
Before there was a whale hunt; before seven members of the Makah -- a small tribe of Native Americans situated at the very northwestern tip of the United States -- climbed into a canoe and paddled out into the ocean that first was calm and then swelled like a man drunk with power, oblivious to the paddlers who were singing and praying and carrying a harpoon and a rifle capable of killing an elephant, much less a whale; before the whale came; before that canoe and the men in the canoe paddled after it and a harpoon was launched and the whale dragged the canoe and a bullet was fired and the whale was killed and then nearly lost but then recovered; before the whale was towed into Neah Bay, the tiny and tired little fishing village that is for all intents and purposes the capital of the Makah reservation; before the town rejoiced because it had been so many years -- and entire generation, in fact -- since a whale had been hunted and killed and because the hunting of the whale is what has for thousands of years made the Makah the Makah, what identified them among the tribes that live along the northwest coast of Canada and the rest of America as the tribe that hunts the whale; before the party that ensued, before hundreds of aboriginal people came from Canada and all over the Western United States to Neah Bay to sing songs and give thanks and eat whale; before all that, there were editorials:
Whaling has been part of our tradition for over 2,000 years. Although we had to stop in the 1920s because of the scarcity of gray whales, their abundance now makes it possible to resume our ancient practice of whale hunting. Many of our tribe members feel that our health problems result from the loss of our traditional sea food and sea mammal diet. We would like to restore the meat of the whale to that diet. We also believe that the problems which are troubling our young people stem from lack of discipline and pride. But we also want to fulfill the legacy of our forefathers and restore part of our culture which has been taken from us. ... In fact, one of our whalers has said that when he is in the canoe whaling, he will be reaching back in time and holding hands with his great-grandfathers, who wanted us to be able to whale.
-- Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission
The Makah Indian tribe's pending whale hunt creates an awkward Catch-22 for Northwesterners: oppose the hunt and deny an undeniable treaty right, or support the Makahs and sanction the slaughter of [a gray whale]. ... Uncertainty about techniques, motivations and repercussions has made The Times' editorial board reluctant to support a gray whale hunt off the Washington coast. Both the Makah tribe and the U.S. government, however, have made a compelling case that the hunt embodies restrained stewardship after a species' triumphant comeback.
-- editorial, The Seattle Times
Officials have given the green light for the hunt. Now the only way to stop the tragic killing of whales is a moment of compassion by the Makah tribe. Their days of hunting precious whales ought to stay in the past. The Makah tribe is troubled in many ways. Over 70 percent unemployment [and] drug and alcohol addiction plague many tribal members living on the North Olympic Peninsula. But there ought to be a better way to heal the Makah's social problems than bringing back the vicious killing of gray whales. ... There are other ways to revive their tribe without hunting innocent whales in the process.
-- editorial, The Everett (Washington) Herald
A society can never evolve by adopting archaic or inhumane rituals. Progress affects everyone living in the new era of the Global Village. No legitimate argument can be made that the Makah, or any other ethnic group, can move their culture forward through ritual killing.
-- Michael Kundu, Pacific Northwest coordinator, Sea Shepard Society, an ocean conservation group
The Makah tribe received various threats of violence in recent weeks as it prepared to resume its traditional whale hunt. One of the ugliest came when the director of the Makah Whaling Commission found 25 messages left on her answering machine. Each recording consisted of a gun being loaded and fired. This is not a new phenomenon. Washington has long harbored a streak of anti-Indian bigotry, much of which focuses on tribal hunting and fishing rights. Historically challenged Washingtonians see these rights as "special privileges." In fact, they are ancestral practices the Indian nations insisted on retaining when they ceded most of the state's territory to the U.S. government in the 1850s. Some Indian-bashers are using the Makah whaling dispute as a politically correct cover for venting genuinely vicious feelings.
-- The Tacoma News Tribune
The real reason for this initiative by the Makah is because they know very well that whale meat goes for $80 per kilo in Japan, and that one of those whales is worth close to one million dollars. So -- what they have their mind set on here is a commercial whaling operation. And that doesn't just mean the five whales they say they want to kill -- which will probably escalate quite rapidly after they get it off the ground -- it will have implications for literally thousands of whales because Norway and Japan and those other nations that want to go whaling, like Russia and Iceland, are looking at this very closely because they know that if the Makah are given permission to take whales that it will undermine any integrity the United States has in the international marine conservation movement.
-- Captain Paul Watson, president and founder of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, MSNBC News Forum: The News with Brian Williams, January 1997
It's not for -- we're not going to hunt the gray whales for commercial purposes, you know, even though we've heard the rumors that we are going to sell them to the Japanese, or you know, different countries like that. Our purpose for the whaling is for ceremonial and subsistence. We've requested five gray whales but that's not to say we'll take them all. You know, after our first hunt, we may find that we'll only need one a year. To resume whaling it would be, you know, like another piece of the puzzle that's been kind of our of place, and by doing this it will help push that piece back into the puzzle to make a complete picture.
-- Marcy Parker, a member of the Makah Tribal Council, MSNBC News Forum: The News with Brian Williams, January 1997
If the Makah whale hunt is allowed to proceed, the whale sight-seeing business is finished -- whales won't come within a mile of any boat, and the owners might just as well put up their boats for sale now.
-- letter to the editor, The New York Times
The Makahs should continue on their path of renewing tradition in the face of fanatical, irrational opposition. Protecting the last vestiges of Native American culture from extinction is as important as protecting a whale species from extinction.
-- William Sommers Quistorf, member, Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin, living in Everett, Washington, in a letter to the editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Neah Bay whale hunt controversy could be resolved if the Makahs would take a page from the fly fisherman's book and adopt a "catch-and-release" policy.
-- letter to the editor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
What is endangered here is an irreplaceable culture, not an appealing sea mammal.
-- letter to the editor, The New York Times
Gray whales are going to be slaughtered in U.S. waters in October. This is wrong!
In the Path of Giants, a sea-kayak-based documentary group, filming the migration of the gray whale
Whale, I have given you what you wish to get -- my good harpoon. Please hold it with your strong hands. ... Whale, tow me to the beach of my village, for when you come ashore there, young men will cover your great body with bluebill duck feathers, and the down of the great eagle.
-- Makah tribal song
Gray whales have lost their fear of humans and their boats in North American waters. In fact, they are well known for approaching people in a curious and friendly manner. When the Makahs move in for the kill, the whales will be unafraid.
-- Pamphlet entitled Gray Whales in Danger , published by the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, a group commonly referred to by its acronym, PAWS
I have come to see how your house is. Is it prepared for large crowds?
Song of the Whale, as sung by Wilson Parker, 1855-1926, quoted in National Geographic, October 1991
This is possibly the most important whale hunt in the past 25 years.
-- Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepard, quoted in The New York Times Magazine
We ought to just go out there and get a whale.
-- Wayne Johnson, captain of the Makah Whaling Crew
Reprinted with permission of the author.