The whaling that wasn't

Environmentalists and Indians clash over whether gray whales matter more than native culture and treaty rights.


The gray whale that was feeding off the outlet of Snow Creek last week, along the northern coast of Washington, probably had no idea it was in peril as it occasionally raised its barnacle-encrusted back to the surface and blew a plume of mist into the morning air. No more than two miles away, the gray whales’ ancient hunters, the Makah Indians, were preparing once again to take to boats with harpoons in hand, for the first time in 76 years, to pursue the creatures that had provided them sustenance, both physical and cultural, for centuries prior to the arrival of white men.

Meanwhile, a crowd of mostly white people, clustered on a nob overlooking the sea pillars near where the gray whale fed, gathered to loudly protest the planned hunt. “Stop the slaughter of gray whales,” shouted a big sign draped on a truck, blood dripping from the words. Just offshore, a couple of large boats manned by even more white people patrolled the harbors, vowing to intervene if the Makahs dared venture out.

The conflict over Makah whaling has become a bizarre cultural war, setting historical allies — environmentalists and Native Americans — at each other’s throats with escalating threats and actual violence. It reached a head two weeks ago when marine-mammal activists from the Sea Shepherd Society tried to land at the harbor amid a gathered mob of tribal members they had worked into a smoldering anger. First they tried to bring a caravan of protesters onto the Makah reservation, but were turned back just outside of town, near the tribal cemetery, hurling epithets — “Savages!” — that bordered on racist. Then they buzzed the harbor with their boats, shouting protests through megaphones.

The Makah responded with a hail of rocks, but the protesters persisted. The confrontation climaxed when Sea Shepherd leader Lisa Distefano came to the dock in a staged “invitation” from a dissenting tribal member. Someone pushed her off the dock and into the water, and in the ensuing melee, Distefano and three of her compatriots were handcuffed and arrested by tribal police. One of them, with a gashed forehead, was led away bleeding.

After pictures of the near-riot played on the evening news for the next few days, though, both sides — perhaps realizing they had gone too far — backed off. The Makah in particular had come off looking bad; the reservation’s yahoo element (including some members of the whale-hunt party) were largely responsible for the violence, enabling the Sea Shepherd provocateurs to play their traditional media role of free-speech martyrs.

But the fierceness of the Makah response gave the environmentalists pause as well. The customary object of Sea Shepherd protests is a corporate whaling venture from Japan or Norway, or one of the pirate operations that circle around those nations’ whaling industries. They’re not used to confronting a tiny, relatively powerless Indian tribe whose members believe they are only trying to revive their sacred heritage — as well as defending their treaty rights, which may be even more sacred in these secular times.

The Makah claims to a cultural connection to whaling cannot be dismissed. A fierce, warlike tribe given to enslaving members of neighboring bands in the centuries before they were nearly wiped out by smallpox and missionaries, the Makah were renowned even among white explorers for their dramatic whale hunts. Moreover, the hunt (and the spirit of the whale) are central to the tribe’s mythical and artistic culture, as a visit to the tribe’s museum in Neah Bay — featuring the striking products of an archaeological dig at the tribe’s traditional village site 15 miles south — will attest.

Consistent with the experience of other tribes on other reservations, the Makah elders’ efforts to revive their heritage has sparked a general resurgence of tribal pride, particularly among young people. The members of the whale-hunting crew are revered like rock stars by teenagers at Neah Bay High, and elementary school kids talk about wanting to learn more about their people’s history and culture.

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But the environmentalists’ concerns are not without substance, either. Since the tribe announced it would revive the hunt, in the wake of the gray whale’s delisting from U.S. endangered-species status, marine-mammal activists have been adamant in opposing their efforts. At every step in the official approval process — from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the final bargain with the International Whaling Commission — environmentalists have tried to block the hunt. The resistance so far has been futile; the tribe’s unique whaling right under its 1855 treaty is largely set in stone.

Indigenous tribes’ rights to hunt (now Canadian tribes are joining in the effort to revive their traditional heritage through whaling, too) provide a nice opportunity to poke a crack in the anti-whaling wall erected effectively over the years by environmentalists. Japanese and Norwegian whaling interests — the deep-pocketed beneficiaries of extraordinarily high market returns for their products — are constantly on the prowl for fresh opportunities to expand their ability to kill whales.

And while the gray whale is no longer endangered in U.S. waters — the population of the community that migrates along the West Coast has reached 22,000 in recent years, which nudges into a biological comfort zone as far as the National Marine Fisheries Service is concerned — it remains an endangered species on a global basis. Killing one nowadays — particularly given the growing cultural soft spot for the great sea creatures that at times is embarrassingly anthropomorphic — is certain to raise hackles, and is probably irresponsible given the fact that the species’ long-term survival remains in doubt.

Yet certain Inuit tribes in Alaska currently harvest about five gray whales from the migrating community annually. The Makah, who claim the tribe will eat any gray whales it harvests, seem to fit the criteria for an indigenous hunt — especially if it is a component of a genuine revival of the tribe’s traditional culture. However, there are some reasons to doubt just how sincere the Makah really are about reviving their heritage — besides the fact that the tribe only started seriously touting its heritage as a reason for the hunt after it hired a public relations firm in 1997.

  • The Makah traditionally hunted the still-endangered humpback whale, which yielded tender and tasty meat, and only occasionally harvested the bottom-feeding grays, whose meat is reputedly stringy and gamy. When a young gray whale was killed in a Makah fisherman’s nets a couple of years ago, its meat was distributed to everyone in the tribe; but few ate it, and most of it gradually migrated from people’s freezers to the local landfill.

  • Traditional Makah whalers — who were chosen braves from a few select families — underwent rigorous preparation for the hunt that included long steam-lodge sessions and enduring nettle treatments. But only a few of the modern Makah hunting group are partaking of such rigors; they were chosen mainly for their strength. Several enjoy party-animal reputations, guys in desperate need of something constructive to do — but hardly the leading young men of the village.

  • There is a reason the old Makah hunters were considered so heroic: The hunts were extraordinarily dangerous, requiring the highest level of skills as canoeists and harpoonists. None of the current group of Makahs has displayed any of these skills. In fact, they are such poor canoeists that they plan to have the traditional cedar canoe towed by powerboat to the whale’s vicinity — at which point they plan to row out to meet the beast, armed with their paddles, harpoons … and, of course, the traditional high-powered rifle that will perform the final dispatch.

Some Makah elders, particularly those from traditional whaling families, have quietly been making these points within their own circles, arguing that the hunt is being done haphazardly, disrespectfully and for all the wrong reasons. They’ve avoided raising their profiles, though, for fear of being mistaken as being opposed to the tribe’s ability to exercise its treaty rights. And they reserve their harshest words for the Sea Shepherd types, whose provocations, they say, have simply backed the tribe into a corner.

But even if the Makah cultural-revival claims are a surface display meant to deflect the criticism the tribe knew the hunt would inspire if it were depicted as a matter of treaty rights, the fact remains the Makah have those rights. And if the Makah whaling right is an economic asset — which it almost certainly is — then it would be malfeasance for the tribe to unilaterally abrogate the right, as the Sea Shepherd types seem to be demanding. Some have tried to paint the Makahs as a stalking horse for Japanese and Norwegian interests, but that claim is based on questionable slippery-slope arguments and very light evidence. If the Makah are going to give up the right to hunt gray whales, then they need to receive something in return.

A few environmentalists have tried reaching out an olive branch to the tribe, including activists with the whale-watching group In the Path of Giants. They’ve offered to help the tribe set up a local whale-watching industry to play off the Makahs’ unique heritage. Jean-Michel Cousteau showed up in town last week and spoke eloquently about the need to respect the tribe’s rights and find a way to help them while avoiding killing gray whales.

Cousteau’s words gained him respect, but the tribe still views such offers with a great deal of skepticism. Perpetuating the standoff is the way the opposition has conducted itself so far, portraying the tribe as “savages” and playing with internal tribal politics. The Sea Shepherds’ tactics might work on a PR-minded corporation, but they sit poorly with a little tribe that never has cared what the world thinks of it.

Pushed into a corner, the Makah seemed obstinately intent on killing a gray whale and butchering it — even though, as some of their elders are trying to warn them, it is probably a bad idea. “It stirred up a can of worms,” one told a Seattle Times reporter. “I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt.”

Not without cause. The gray whale reportedly fights viciously for its life, and the whalers are almost certainly in for a wild ride if they try to lash onto one with a cedar canoe and harpoons. And that’s if the crew happens to get past the Sea Shepherd’s promised intervention.

But last weekend there began to be signs that the needless death of a gray whale isn’t the inevitable outcome of this confrontation. The anti-whaling protesters once again gathered a caravan and drove toward Neah Bay. Once again they were met near the reservation border by police, who turned them away. But none of the yahoos came out — the only Makah spectators watched quietly and peacefully from a distance. The white protesters turned their cars around and headed back to their Snow Creek outpost, where they were content to wave their signs at the passing cars.

The Makah, their defiance notwithstanding, remained curiously inactive. This past week the hunters allowed their 10-day permit to expire despite some beautiful weather, pleading for more time to prepare. There are signs they may just wait to try whaling in the spring. If they stick to that timetable, then there may be time for anti-whaling interests to back off and give the tribe breathing room and a little respect. Eventually, someone with some credibility with the tribe may be able to come up with a settlement that provides some economic recompense to the Makah for abjuring the exercise of their treaty rights.

In the waters nearby, the gray whales were feeding, rising and blowing their strange misty breath into the air, managing to remain at peace. For now.

David Neiwert is an investigative journalist and author based in Seattle, whose most recent book is And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (Nation Books). He has won a National Press Club award for his reportage on domestic terrorism, and is also known for his work as the senior editor of the popular political blog Crooks and Liars.

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