The New York Times on Sept. 19 ran another story of a series on reviving
hunting in America, featuring Washington State’s Makah Tribe in its
struggle to pursue limited ceremonial gray whale hunts under a 150-year
The tribe had voluntarily stopped hunting the whale during an 80-year
hiatus when low numbers threatened its extinction. Despite the animal’s
de-listing as endangered in 1994, a court settlement to hunt 20 whales in a
five-year period and the first hunt in 1999, lawsuits by animal rights
groups (with congressional support) halted all further hunts. The tribe
redirected its strategy by filing for a waiver before the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. Yet public opposition and animal rights
groups argue they are not deserving of such a waiver because even limited
ceremonial hunts serve no “subsistence” function essential to the Makah
diet. Others argue the 150-year-old ceremonial rights are a historical
dinosaur that is anathema to civilized society.
The Times further equates the Makah with its prior comedic hunting story
showing a white 8-year-old girl dressed in camouflage cradling a shotgun,
and letting dogs track a bear up a tree in a “dream hunt” for ego glories.
The patronizing Makah story suggests the tribe fares no better in the
public eye because of the “subsistence” hurdle and mixed public feelings.
But it misses the point to focus on subsistence versus ceremony,
post-colonialist bias or legal maneuvers. The fierce public resistance
against the Makah whale hunts confirms our modern irrationality — a kind
of madness in American attitudes towards nature that lies at the roots of
our global ecological crisis.
The anti-hunters strain to paint a caricature of the Makah as Aboriginal
savages brutally butchering a defenseless pet-animal as if they were the
villain in a “Free Willy” movie. But the tribe’s restrained, ritualized
tribal hunts — a specialized form of ancient foraging — are an authentic
and essential expression of our human nature that integrates the individual
into a healthy and mature community. It is a dialogue between the tribe and
the whale, counter-players in pursuit of meaning and contact in which
prized meat symbolizes a humbling gift of life incarnate, the obtaining and
preparation of which ritualizes the encounter of life and death in a poetic
mystery. The Makah have always understood this intuitively. Their Web site
proclaims the whale “a gift from the sea.”
Amid this dance between predator and prey, “man is immediately faced with
ambiguity, and the quest of all elusive things is experienced as the hunt’s
most emphatic metaphor … the hunter is carried beyond to the inevitable
reflections or meditations that accompany the death of that other.”
Man proceeds through contrarieties to reconciliation — to human dependence
(material and selfhood), cooperation or readiness, and intimate kinship
with animals. These are neither romantic sentiments nor elitist musings on
the “noble savage” engaged in aboriginal hunting; rather, a true insight of
the world and human nature. Understanding by non-Indian academia was long
overdue until 25 years ago with insightful studies in human ecology and
psycho-history. Notables include Jose’ Ortega y Gasset’s “Meditations on
Hunting,” followed by Paul Shepard’s “Nature and Madness” and “The Others:
How Animals Made Us Human.”
These seminal thinkers provided solid intellectual soil for the emerging
and provocative field of eco-psychology. It diagnoses the mounting psychic
stress, mental illness and social disorder plaguing affluent societies as
the consequence of a dysfunctional, immature relationship with nature. They
decipher the psycho-historical trajectory of Western civilization from
hunter-gatherer clans to agricultural societies and the urban megalopolis
as a profound loss of humility and tender sense of earthly limitations once
invoked by a harmonious and reverent liaison with nature. Humanity has
become disconnected and alienated from a non-human world fallen and
debased. Man has become enraptured in a mania of domination and absolute
control to worship a hydra of endless consumption and materialism.
Even the current national shock at the suffering and ruin resulting from
Hurricane Katrina has detoured into a feeding frenzy of blame and guilt.
“Who Screwed Up,” asked the cover of U.S. News and World Report, for not
making the Gulf Coast a tamed and risk-free habitat away from ugly nature?
Perhaps some blame for ill-preparedness lies with an arrogant culture
devoid of the respect and humility due nature’s titanic unpredictability.
Yet President Bush conceptually linked the hurricane and 9/11 responses, as
if lumping together nature and terrorism as twin evils to destroy.
Another negative side effect of this American cultural neurosis is its
irrational and self-destructive attitude towards the natural environment.
Our affluent society seems obsessed with an urge to destroy the planet and
its wild species, as if towards an apocalyptic suicide. Underlying this
madness is a modern denial of man’s “ecological unconsciousness” or
biophilia — a fundamental psychic need or craving of our genome to connect
intimately with wild nature’s diverse other life. If repressed by poor
parenting and culture, an individual’s full emotional maturity becomes
stunted into adulthood as an ecological attachment disorder. Left
untreated, this failed development of self, when aggravated by society,
never moves beyond the pre-adolescent impulse to control early fears in a
frightening environment. Ultimately such societies control their fellow man
with racist, sexist and classist barriers, or by subjugating those
Aboriginals in their way.
Mainstream society shrugs off this analysis as quaint, sentimental rubbish.
Man is Silly Putty or an empty pot, easily molded or filled with any
cultural stew he invents without any psychic or environmental toll.
Whatever problems arise can be fixed with engineers or medication. But a
growing voice — fueled by ecological catastrophes — is emerging to unite
the sciences and humanities in radically rethinking both the arrogance of
our presumed behavioral adaptability and the trampling of ancient tribal
The Aboriginal peoples need no lesson from eco-psychologists who appear to
be the successors to the 19th-century ethnologists who recorded “vanishing
races.” It is the modern, affluent Western cultures that need dissection
before vanishing. For example, the sanctimonious ideology of the
anti-whaling hysteria directed at the Makah. The philosophy behind that
hysteria is the mutant offspring of the same disconnected modern worldview
— a lifeless, disassociative mental state that has psychologically
amputated man from nature. It repackages the animals, the sea and the soil
into a wilderness landscape painting viewed only remotely for subtle,
abstract aesthetics. There is no deep, visceral engagement with our bodily
senses of touch, smell, hearing or taste. Absent is the hunter and
naturalist’s intense, focused attention. There is only squinting through a
myopic haze into an alien world in which our senses once bathed.
There is no reciprocity, no participation in the dynamic counter-play
inside the familiar body that bore us. There is no exploration into the
rich mysteries of the “plural self” as kin to nature.
To the Makah, the ceremonial whale hunts are their subsistence, a diet
centered at the heart of individual being and tribal identity.
John A. Wickham is a part-time attorney and film composer living in