Harjo: Whale-killing incident revives anti-Indian racism

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Five Makah citizens harpooned and shot a gray whale Sept. 8 in tribal waters in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the northern boundary of the Makah Reservation. Within hours, hundreds of bloggers, posters and reporters let out a stream of invective against the Makah hunters, but their most hateful rhetoric targeted the entire Makah Tribe and all Native peoples.

The Associated Press and others erroneously reported that the 30-foot-long mammal was killed with a machine gun, which both ignited and fueled the firestorm as reports were cycled and recycled on broadcasts, in newspapers and on the Internet.

The following set of five comments was carried at aol.com as news of the whale hunt broke:

''So much honor these indians have. So close to the earth and oh so spiritual. It's no wonder they were given the name of savages.'' (patricksqueri1)

''Remember this bit of BS the next time you drop a quarter in a slot machine on an Indian reservation.'' (handofgloom)

''What COWARDS these people are. The claim to be killing whales as part of their heritage. I guess machine guns are part of that heritage. They should stick to drinking booze and falling down.'' (simonbacat)

''I agree Patrick. Savages is a well given name for these cowards.'' (kevinb2005420)

''The tribe will do nothing because they feel they are above the law.'' (twinzfanz96)

The Coast Guard detained the Makah hunters, confiscated their gear and turned them over to Makah authorities. The traditional whalers - Frank Gonzales Jr., Wayne Johnson, Andy Noel, Theron Parker and Bill Secor Sr. - will stand trial in tribal court and may face federal charges and fines of $20,000 each. Noel is a Makah whaling commissioner.

Makah Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson said that while the impatience of the five men was understandable, they had hurt the tribe's chances of obtaining a federal waiver to allow legal subsistence whaling.

When subsistence whaling quotas were set in May, the International Whaling Commission announced that the Makah Tribe would be permitted to take 20 whales over five years, at no more than five per year, pending a court-required waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The waiver requirement came about in this way. In 1999, Makah hunters had legally killed a gray whale, their first in 70 years. The hunters' red cedar canoe was charged and nearly swamped by people trying to stop the hunt. An anti-treaty/anti-Indian frenzy quickly reached the intensity of the fish wars of the 1960s and 1970s, complete with death threats against Native peoples throughout the Pacific Northwest.

After that whale catch, animal rights groups and individuals sued everyone in sight in federal court to stop future Makah whale takings. The court case resulted in a 2004 decision that held that the MMPA applies to Makah whaling. At present, NOAA is considering the Makah Tribal Council's request for the MMPA waiver.

On Sept. 9, the Makah Tribal Council issued this prepared statement: ''The Makah Tribal Council denounces the actions of those who took it upon themselves to hunt a whale without the authority from the Makah Tribal Council or the Makah Whaling Commission. Their action was a blatant violation of our law and they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We are cooperating with the National Marine Fisheries Service in their investigation of this incident and will continue to do so.

''The individuals who took part in this act were arrested by Makah enforcement officers and booked in our detention facility. They were released only after meeting the bail requirements set by the court. They will stand trial in our court at a future date.

''We had a meeting of the general council of the Makah Tribe to discuss this incident and the membership of the tribe supports our action. The tribe has demonstrated extraordinary patience in waiting for the legal process to be completed in order to receive our permit to conduct a whale hunt. We are a law-abiding people and we will not tolerate lawless conduct by any of our members. We hope the public does not permit the actions of five irresponsible persons to be used to harm the image of the entire Makah Tribe.''

Commenters on aol.com blamed everyone. Another set of posts on Sept. 10 went this way:

''Execute them to the fullest extent....'' (hollyboc)

''These so called native Americans have been free loading of the USA tax payers for over one hundred and fifty years. Rights, they have more rights than any of us, plus no taxes. Give me a break, they lost, ango saxon's rule!!! Maybe they need the whale bones to make dice for their casino's.'' (macungiee8)

''Get your food at Safeway you Barbarians.'' (hornbillfilms)

There might not be any Safeways or states or reservation border towns if it weren't for Native nations' treaties with the United States. The Makah Tribe ceded hundreds of thousands of acres of the Olympic Peninsula to the United States in the Treaty of 1855 in exchange for recognition of Makah whaling and ocean rights. It is the only treaty the United States made with an Indian nation that carries a whaling guarantee.

Article 4 of the 1855 Treaty states: ''The right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the United States, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing, together with the privilege of hunting and gathering roots and berries on open and unclaimed lands: Provided, however, That they shall not take shellfish from any beds staked or cultivated by citizens.''

Minutes of the Treaty of 1855 recount that Washington Territory Gov. Isaac Stevens said to the Makah negotiators: ''The Great Father knows what whalers you are - how you go far to sea to take whale. Far from wanting to stop you, he will help you - sending implements and barrels to try the oil.''

An estimated 22,000 gray whales swim in the North Pacific Ocean today. Europeans, Asians and Americans hunted the North Atlantic gray whales to extinction long ago. The Pacific mammals had been considered an endangered species, but were taken off the endangered list in the 1990s. A new study released on Sept. 10, however, finds that the gray whale population in the Pacific may be declining because of the effect of climate warming on the Arctic feeding grounds.

There are an estimated 1,000 Makah citizens living today on the Makah Reservation, which is the most northwesterly point of the contiguous United States. In 2004, the federal court found that the Makahs ''abandoned'' whaling in the first quarter of the 1900s. The U.S. ''Civilization Regulations'' outlawed Indian ceremonies, including potlatches and first-catch ceremonies from the 1880s to the 1930s, and discouraged traditional religious fishing and whaling practices by starving and imprisoning ''hostiles.''

It is a legal fiction to claim that the Makah people ''abandoned'' whaling and the ceremonies. On that point alone, a federal judge should re-examine practices, rights and requirements of the U.S.-Makah treaty and the concerted federal interference of more than half a century with the tribal and individual Makah rights under it.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.