After 25 years of legal maneuvering, the Makah are now one year away from resuming a tradition central to their culture and identity, the hunting of gray whales. On April 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration submitted a proposal to the federal government that would allow the Makah to harvest an average of two gray whales per year for the next 10 years.
If the proposal survives review by a federal judge this summer and a subsequent final decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the tribe will resume their treaty-protected right to hunt gray whales as soon as spring 2020. The long, public battle involving hearings and lawsuits, false starts and conflicts that regularly appeared in headlines since 1994, will finally be over. But what most people won’t see is how it began decades before with a winter storm.
The discovery of Ozette, an ancient Makah whaling village
In February 1970, a fierce storm pummeled the northwestern tip of Washington state. Wind and rain scoured a small coastal area about ten miles south of Neah Bay near Ozette Lake. Six Makah longhouses previously buried for hundreds of years appeared on the surface.
Ed Claplanhoo, a Makah tribal elder, contacted an archeologist from Washington State University named Richard Daugherty, who had previously surveyed the site. Daugherty came and examined the remains of the longhouses and realized that although collapsed, they were almost perfectly preserved. A massive mudslide hundreds of years before had covered them, preventing deterioration. The longhouses and the artifacts they contained became known as “the Pompeii of America.”
For the next 11 years, Daugherty and other archeologists, as well as students from the Makah tribe, painstakingly excavated the site, carefully unearthing and cataloging 55,000 artifacts. Many were made of whalebone or were in some way related to whaling. This verified what anthropologists long suspected and what the tribe knew for a certainty. The Makah were primarily whaling people.
The Ozette site brings about a cultural renaissance
Micah McCarty is a former chairman of the Makah tribe, a current member of the Makah Whaling Commission, and a Makah hereditary whaler. His grandfather and great-grandfather were among the Makah’s last active whalers. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, McCarty described how the excavation of the Ozette site inspired the Makah students.
“It brought a lot of people together. It inspired a lot of new artists. A lot of new songs were composed. It fueled a cultural renaissance in the sense that it changed lives. People made better choices and placed more focus on wellness and well-being, cultural integrity, cultural survival, and revitalization,” he said.
According to McCarty, the enthusiasm of the Makah students who worked on the excavation fueled a rejuvenation of their whaling culture.
“And then that generation of teenagers that went through the Ozette digs, a lot of them became educated and became teachers and cultural leaders and cultural teachers, language teachers, art teachers, carving teachers, basket weavers,” McCarty explained. “It also created a stronger bond between generations with the existing elders of the time.”
In 1979, the Makah opened the Makah Cultural and Research Center, which includes a museum containing many of the thousands of artifacts from the Ozette site. But back then actual whaling was not possible. Gray whales were put on the endangered species list in 1970, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 made it illegal to hunt them.
After 24 years, the population returned to healthy levels. The eastern North Pacific gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994. A year later the Makah began negotiations with the federal government and the International Whaling Commission to resume hunting gray whales. Only one thing stood in their way.
The cult of animal rights
Many cult-like groups of animal rights extremists oppose Makah whaling. Will Anderson of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society and Paul Watson (“Whale Wars”) of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are the most vocal. Representatives from these groups sued the federal government in 1997 to stop the Makah from hunting whales but lost. In the spring of 1999, the Makah successfully hunted a 30-foot gray whale, their first in over 70 years.
Robert Free, a Pueblo and a veteran of many pivotal acts of Native resistance such as the takeover of Alcatraz and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, was at Neah Bay in 1999 when the Makah gathered on the beach and hauled the whale ashore. He remembers how the tribe prayed and sang and celebrated as they butchered the whale, which they honored as a relative, sharing its meat among the tribe.
“Paul Watson sat offshore in his Sea Shepherd boat blasting his horn,” Free recalls. “He was trying to disrupt the celebration.”
Then, in 2002, animal rights activists filed another lawsuit to stop the Makah. The groups included such organizations as the Humane Society, Cetacean Society International, West Coast Anti-Whaling Society, and Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales. They eventually forced the courts to commission a complete environmental impact statement on Makah whaling, which took ten years.
“These like-minded animal rights organizations really became what I call, driven with pious dogma,” McCarty said. “Like there’s a piety, like it’s a whole new sort of religion and human value context for what they’re doing.”
McCarty believes the primary reason for their opposition to Makah whaling is money. “They’re able to make a lot of money and get a lot of private donations to support their campaigns and their efforts. At the same time, they’re building some kind of credibility with undereducated and ignorant American people, non-tribal, to support their efforts and join memberships of various organizations.”
Makah whaling: an ancient form of conservation
Ironically, the animal rights campaigns may have actually hurt gray whale populations. There are currently over 27,000 eastern North Pacific gray whales. As whale populations grow, less food is available to go around and recently whale carcasses have been turning up with greater than normal frequency.
The Makah have always practiced conservation. They voluntarily gave up hunting gray whales in the 1920s after large-scale commercial whaling nearly destroyed the population. This must have been a major decision for the tribe since the tradition is over 2,000 years old.
But the tradition did not end in the 1920s. It was merely absorbed into the hearts of tribal members. There it was kept alive in the form of art, song and story, only to reemerge 70 years later after a fierce winter storm came and blew the mud off the tribe’s whaling past.
Makah whaling is not a form of resource extraction like Japanese commercial whaling. It is a part of the cycle of life for the Makah and their relatives, the gray whales. The Makah believe the spirits of the whales they hunt enter them and through them enter the human world. The power and strength of these spirits heal intergenerational trauma, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and suicide.
Those with traditional beliefs feel Makah whaling benefits everyone, bringing the spirits of those whales out into our world where we can share their courage and strength. Then they return to the sea, appearing as new whales in an unending cycle that’s been going on for thousands of years and that will hopefully last for thousands more.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.