It was overcast and drizzling the morning of May 17, 1999 when Theron Parker and the eight-man crew of the canoe, Hummingbird, saw a solitary 30-foot long gray whale in the waters southwest of Father and Son Rocks off the coast of the Makah Reservation. The crew pulled the canoe toward it using traditional hand-made paddles as three media helicopters hovered above them.
The seven-ton leviathan surfaced on their right and moved across the bow. Parker thrust his harpoon into the female’s back. The crew held tight to the harpoon line as the whale submerged. A motorized chase boat maneuvered close enough for Makah member Wayne Johnson to end the whale’s suffering with a shot from a specially designed .577 caliber rifle. Parker then sang a prayer in Makah handed down in his family for generations that released the whale’s spirit to the sea. Total time between the first harpoon strike and the whale’s death was approximately eight minutes.
Many have criticized the Makah’s decision to resume their 1,500-year-old tradition of whaling. They say whale meat is no longer necessary for subsistence and the kill was not done in the “traditional” way. They also point out the 70-year period prior to 1999 in which the tribe stopped hunting whales. Underlying these objections is the inference that Makah culture died long ago, and the modern whalers were only “playing Indian.”
“The Makah received heaps of hate mail, harassments in restaurants and on ferries, and even death threats,” writes Rob van Ginkel in a 2004 paper for the anthropological journal Etnofoor. “Internet forums regularly carried vehement anti-Makah or anti-Indian postings equating the Indians with drunken welfare cheats.” Van Ginkel cites one particularly vicious attack, a poem circulated widely on the Internet, written by Athena McEntyre, commander of Sea Defense Alliance:
I AM NOBLE MAKAH WHALER!
I LOOK UPON THE SEA
FONDLING MYSELF, I WONDER
WHAT THE JAPANESE HAVE FOR ME
I’LL HONOR NOBLE WHALE
BY DOING UP SOME SMACK
AND WHEN I FINISH THAT
I’LL DO A LITTLE CRACK
I’LL SNIFF A LITTLE METH
I’LL DRINK A KEG OF BEER
THIS A GREAT CULTURAL TRADITION
TIL A BABY WHALE GETS HERE
I’LL BEAT UP MY WIFE
LEAVE MY KIDDIES BEREFT
THIS IS MAKAH TRAINING
AND TRADITION MUST NOT BE LEFT!
In 2000, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the original authorization allowing the Makah to hunt up to five whales a year should be revoked until an updated environmental impact statement could be produced. This set the stage for a new round of debate and possibly more protests.
The most vocal opponent to Makah whaling has been Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a founding member of Greenpeace. He is perhaps most well-known as the captain in the Animal Planet reality series, Whale Wars. He recently sent Catherine Pruitt, executive director of Sea Shepherd Legal, to a public meeting in Seattle to register his group’s objections.
At the meeting on April 27, in which the public was invited to make comments on the recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Pruitt listed seven reasons why Makah whaling should not be allowed. They included concerns that certain migrating groups of gray whales are becoming dangerously small and there is no guarantee the Makah won’t accidentally take a whale from one these groups instead of one from the Eastern North Pacific group, whose members are plentiful. She also voiced concern that since whales are no longer needed for Makah subsistence, allowing them to whale constitutes a “cultural” exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, setting a dangerous precedent that might be exploited by other groups.
This objection—that modern Makah whaling is mainly for cultural reasons and not for subsistence—is countered by supporters who argue culture and subsistence for the Makah are intertwined. They cite the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, which granted the Makah fishing and whaling rights in exchange for taking vast areas of Makah land. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens originally offered several things for the land, among them a reservation, farms, a school and a physician.
In his recently published book, The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs, (Yale University Press, 2015) University of Massachusetts professor Joshua Reid (Snohomish) describes the reaction of the Makah chiefs:
“The chiefs cared little for what Stevens offered. Instead, each one emphasized the importance of retaining their marine tenure.” He goes on to describe how Chief “tsuh-kah-wihtl” of Ozette clearly stated all the chiefs’ feelings: “’I want the sea. That is my country.”
Makah culture and the many social and communal activities involved in subsistence are intimately linked to whales. Images of whales and of whaling continued to appear in tribal art, even during the 70-year period when the Makah voluntarily stopped hunting whales for conservation purposes. Songs, stories and dances honoring the whale never stopped being sung, told and performed. The only thing missing was the actual hunt.
The argument that the modern hunt was not “traditional” begs he question, “What is a Tradition?” In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from April 21, 2000, former Tribal Council Chairman Ben Johnson was quoted as saying, “Liberals seem always to want to fit Indians into a safe, acceptable ideal of the noble savage, and are uncomfortable when modern methods can be adopted to achieve ancient aims. Times change and we have to change with the times. They want us to be back in the primitive times. We just want to practice our culture.” In other words, all traditions are dynamic and evolve over time, and anti-whaling groups have no right to dictate to the Makah what their culture and traditions should be.
In 2005, the skeleton of the young female gray whale from the 1999 hunt was mounted and hung in the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay. Students from Neah Bay High School on the Makah reservation learned their tribe’s traditions and cultural values as they cleaned the bones and cataloged them in preparation for mounting, thus showing subsistence is about more than just food to eat. The whale fed the Makah with not only her meat and blubber, but also her spirit.