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Whale Magic in the 21st Century: Study Brings the Makah Closer to Whaling

The Makah Tribe in Washington State continues to fight for their right to hunt whales, as their ancestors did. A new study by the NOAA may help them.
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Gray whales are big. Really big. Eight men in a canoe hardly seem a match for one. So in ancient times when the Makah people hunted gray whales they called upon the spirits of their ancestors to help face a beast that could easily crush them with one flick of its tail. Their ancestors knew the secret. You don’t just kill the whale; you become the whale.

But how do you communicate that to outsiders? The roots of a tree can’t be seen, but without them the tree dies. Because their whaling roots are invisible, and thus not easily understood, the Makah have endured intense criticism and opposition regarding their efforts to resume this tradition. But on March 6, they overcame one more obstacle to lifting the 15-year-old whaling ban imposed on them by the federal government. On that day NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, released a draft environmental study proposing several options that would allow the Makah to resume whaling.

Courtesy Micah McCarty

Mirror etching of a traditional Makah whaling party pursuing a humpback whale. The thunderclouds above represent the spirits of past hunters and also of past hunted animals who will welcome the spirit of the whale into their realm. By Makah artist and former Tribal Council Chairman Micah McCarty.

I remember on May 17, 1999 watching the Today Show when the local news broke in with images of men paddling a large wooden canoe in the ocean. News anchors explained members of the Makah Tribe were about to harpoon an Eastern North Pacific gray whale despite protest from animal rights groups. Looking down from a helicopter, the scene was reminiscent of O.J. Simpson being chased down the freeway. The anchors warned viewers they may want to look away from what the station obviously considered a gruesome sight. What the reporters and anchors didn’t know was the connection those men had with the whale.

For thousands of years the Makah and their predecessors along the northwest coast of what is now Washington State regularly prepared for hunts by purifying themselves with fasting, ritual bathing and prayer. For months the whaling chief, the haw’ilth, made offerings at secret shrines in the forest where ancient carvings and the bones of old chiefs became doorways from the spirit world through which Cheesum, or Whale Magic, flowed.

“It was understood that whalers’ ancestors were instructed by spirits on the proper rituals to be performed in these secret locations. This sacred knowledge and the methods used in preparation were then passed down and closely followed by the next generation of whalers,” Charlotte Coté writes in her book, Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors (University of Washington Press, 2010).

Cover of Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions by Charlotte Coté (University of Washington Press, 2010).

Once the whale was killed it was towed to shore where the entire tribe welcomed its spirit with songs. Even the children were encouraged to help haul the whale ashore where it was butchered and its meat distributed at a grand potlatch. Rituals were performed that released the whale’s spirit, and the dorsal fin was kept by the haw’ilth as a source of power.

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But then white men came. They knew nothing of the Makah spirit world. They saw the gray whales as money. As oil, bone and meat to sell. Before long they’d slaughtered thousands, reducing the population to just a few hundred. The Makah feared they would soon be gone. In the 1920s they voluntarily stopped hunting them, even though the government had granted the tribe that right by treaty in 1855.

Then, in 1994, the Eastern North Pacific gray whale was removed from the Federal List of Endangered Wildlife. In 1998, a federal court granted summary judgment on an anti-whaling lawsuit, ruling the Makah could resume whaling. In the spring of 1999, the Makah engaged in their first hunt in over 70 years.

“The U.S. government did not have the right to give us what we already own,” former Makah Tribal Council Chairman Micah McCarty explained in response to a question about the effect of anti-whaling groups on tribal rights. “Makah ownership of treaty rights stands on its own. The U.S. trust responsibility to uphold these rights has been hijacked.”

Courtesy Micah McCarty

Makah artist and former Tribal Chairman Micah McCarty in front of the transformational whaling mask he carved, which is on display at The Legacy Ltd. gallery in Seattle.

After that first hunt the Makah enjoyed a resurgence of interest in their culture. Young people of the tribe began learning the old ways, the traditions and legends, absorbing the medicine of their heritage and healing from over 200 years of cultural disruption. The dormant roots of their whaling tradition resumed feeding them. This is arguably the most important benefit of modern Makah whaling. Without roots the tree of their culture would die, and the power with which the whale once blessed the Makah would be lost.

Date and photographer unknown/University of Washington Digital Collections

Makah whale hunter, Lit-Te-Sub, called “hatch-que” or Crazy in the Head) with a harpoon kneels beside a canoe with an inflated seal skin float inside.

In 2000, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the 1998 ruling, saying it violated environmental law. Since then the Makah’s ability to hunt gray whales has been stuck in the court system. Opponents argue allowing whaling for cultural purposes opens a door for other nations to use the same reason. Some even accuse the Makah of using cultural rejuvenation as an excuse to begin commercial whale hunting. The study by NOAA, however, outlines options that would limit the number of gray whales the Makah could harvest each year.

Cheesum, whale magic, is not money. It is a powerful medicine for the wounds of colonization. And after 200 years of cultural damage, smallpox, loss of land, fragmentation and broken promises, only the strength of a majestic animal like the gray whale can pull the Makah culture back from the abyss.