In the Fall of 1999, Gray Whales were making their way down the Pacific Ocean. A typical migration, with the largest numbers since they were taken off the Endangered Species Act 5 years earlier, the majestic beasts worked their way next to the most beautiful scenery in the world. While things were the same as always of shore, a storm of controversy was brewing on land, off in the remote Makah Reservation on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Tucked away in the Rain forest, a place usually more known for rain, wind and Seasonal Affective Disorder, the Olympic Peninsula was in the national lime light.
The Makah Tribe, with a long standing history of fighting to regain their hunting and fishing rights, as proof by the federal cases during the 70s, where “northwest tribes including the Makah won the right to a substantial percentage of salmon, halibut, and other fisheries based on their treaties” (http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5301)
Out at the marina on that September morning, protesters yelled and waved signs, anger was clearly written on their faces, just like the rights to hunt and fish were so clearly written on those original treaties. As they jeered the men participating on the day’s activities, there was nothing that could change one fact; they were going to kill a whale. No amount of protest would change the fact that for the first time in 70 years, the Makah, a once proud whaling tribe, was going to be hunting as they had for 2,000 years.
The protest seemed almost silly. Yes, whales need to be protected and should be. Nobody argued that fact; however, this was just one tribe killing one whale. The protestors felt that the whales were being killed in a savage nature, with the use of a modern, high-tech harpoon that kills the whale much faster than traditional methods.
The Makah felt that they had been hunting whales for 2,000 years and they weren’t responsible for the decline in the numbers. They were right. As one elder in the community claimed, they only stopped hunting whales because they were asked to; just like that, they stopped doing the one thing that brought the entire community and culture together. Granted, the whales were now killed with a high-powered harpoon, not the ways of their ancestors. The ways of their ancestors, according to the Makah Tribe website, was when a harpoon, made with elk antler and smoothed with Spruce pitch, was thrown into the shoulder blade of the whale, limiting its fin ability. The harpoon head would break off, but a 200 foot rope was attached and a seal skin balloon was tied to the other end. This allowed hunters to track the whale as it slowly died from persistent attacks. (http://www.makah.com/whalingtradition.html)
For three years the hunt and protest dance continued, each time shrouding a struggling reservation into the limelight. The cameras weren’t there when the village dealt with an increasing drug and alcohol problem. The media failed to report the high teen pregnancy rates, or the claims of rising levels of sexual abuse, suicides and feeling of despair. The media, including myself at the time, was against the killing of a whale. We weren’t against the continued destruction of a proud tribe that had lived in the area 10 times longer than we had. No, we turned a blind eye on the real problem. We were reactionary and failed to see that the Makah tribe wanted back what made them connect as a people. They wanted to reconnect with some way of their past, in hopes it would shine a better light on the youth of the community and could rebuilding a dying culture. We cared about a whale, when we turned out back on our neighbors.
After three years of successful hunts, the federal government, on the behalf on over 1,000 Animal Rights NGOs, ended the hunt until a proper analysis of the impact of limited whaling. The Makah, sued back, and in 2005 it was decided that whaling would end until a 7 year impact study could be conducted. In March 2012, the federal government ruled they could not decide until new evidence was reviewed, delaying a ruling on the legality of the Makah whale hunt until 2014.
What the Makah were asking for is no different than allowing hunting rights to any individual. All the Makah asked was a chance to hold on to a part of its culture that was stripped away during the movement to protect these large sea creatures. The Makah will never hunt whales in the malicious way Japan hunts (which I wholeheartedly dislike) them, as the Makah have, and always will use as much of the whale as they possibly can, the way it was done for 2,000 years.
In the cozy corner of the Pacific Northwest, the Makah wait for a decision on not just whaling, but on their fate. Neah Bay now has signs, made by an average citizen, pleading for a stop to use of alcohol, meth and violence on the reservation. This is a community that needs help. For us to say we know more about nature than a community that lived, thrived and survived off whaling is naïve, ignorant and once again a way in which we force assimilation.
I hope that someday the Makah will regain their footing and stand proud as ambassadors to the great culture they had. Until then, I encourage you all to travel to the northwestern most point in the contiguous United States. A view of the ocean battered, lush green bluffs along Cape Flattery will take you back to the days when the area was secluded from the world, just the Makah, the salmon and the whales, living together in harmony.
Until next time