The Real Makah

(Up again. Just because. – promoted by Turkana)

Disclaimer: My only relationship with the Makah tribe consists of having enjoyed their hospitality on numerous occasions.

(map, right, courtesy of the Makah Nation – click to enlarge)

“. . . we are not going to sanction illegal activities. We are not that kind of tribe.”

–Ed Claplanhoo, Makah tribal elder, member of the tribal whaling commission

The statement above is from a Seattle Times article which does a pretty good job of presenting several of the differing viewpoints on the incident of September 8, when five members of the Makah tribe fatally injured a California grey whale in a criminal act that has been loudly condemned by the group angered the most:

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.
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.

That hope is vain, as the Makah know well. Hence the immediate dispatch of a delegation to DC in an attempt to repair the damage.

Included in the first article above is the following:

The Makah need to follow the laws of the U.S., said Cacace, who lives near Tacoma. “It’s been a long time since those treaties were signed.

“If they did it the way they used to do it, with the harpoon and canoe, it’d probably be fine with me,” he said.

Such statements, remarkably ignorant and confused in more ways than one, are entirely representative of sentiments that can be heard at any coffee shop in the state as well as around the web and even in print. They are considered reasonable, and for that reason are as pernicious as the outright racism that the incident has inspired on the message boards and in the gutter press.

“The Makah need to follow the laws of the U.S.”

The first, the one not directly quoted, is a truism with which no one is arguing and certainly not the Makah tribe, which is cooperating fully with state and local officials and trying the miscreants in tribal court as well, where they face in addition to other penalties possible suspension of their tribal rights. Ironically, among the privileges that the tribe could take away – and only the tribe, because it is the tribe that grants them, not the US – is that of participating in any future whale hunt authorized by the tribe, assuming that such ever happen.

“It’s been a long time since those treaties were signed.”

The second implies that binding treaties can be disregarded if they are found inconvenient. Does that work both ways? If the Treaty of Neah Bay, which uniquely among treaties with native peoples granted the Makah whaling rights in its Article 4, is no longer a binding document, the Makah are presumably free to reassert claims to traditional land given up in that treaty. Or is it only the stronger power that can repudiate treaties? Do we want might makes right to be the only rule that matters? Here, and elsewhere?

The Constitution was signed even longer ago. Yet it is nominally still in effect.

Article 4 contains about all they got out of the deal. The promised assistance didn’t materialize, at least not in the form the Makah expected. What they had in mind was leveling the playing field with a few more modern boats so they could join in the capitalist game. And while they did quite well with sealing, which for years made them more money than whaling ever did, and then with halibut, they did it mostly on their own.

The great white dads prescribed the usual: English, Christian habits, and agrarianism, which would lessen the competition in the ocean fisheries and sealing.

Never mind that the possibilities for farming are severely limited by the region’s climate and geography,1 or that their dress, custom, and economy had served them well for several thousand years. So well that they were known by surrounding tribes as “makah,” a term that translates as “generous with food.”

We call ourselves “Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx” or “people who live by the rocks and seagulls”.2

“If they did it the way they used to do it, with the harpoon and canoe, it’d probably be fine with me.”

Probably, but maybe not. There is a lot wrong with this. Up front, it demonstrates the common public ignorance of the fact that any tribally sanctioned hunt is done with harpoon and canoe. The 50-caliber rifle is used only after the whale is secured by harpoons, a measure meant to insure that death is as quick and painless as possible. Its use is an attempt to comply with modern practice and sentiment, not a quick and dirty shortcut. This protocol was established by the tribe’s own whaling commission in consultation with the International Whaling Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

More objectionable still is the implicit assumption that it is up to the speaker to decide how the Makah conduct their affairs, that there is an outside arbiter that gets to decide what is the real Makah and what is not. We hear it all the time in the argument that the Makah shouldn’t be allowed to hunt whales because they don’t live in a traditional society any more, that they drive cars and use microwave ovens. They are just like us, the argument goes, and shouldn’t be granted any special privileges.

This is the last gasp of the assimilationist argument. Try arguing that Scotland has no identity of its own because few Scots paint their faces blue any more, or that the Japanese aren’t Japanese because they flock to McDonalds.

Leave it to Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to get it wrong as usual:

I think what the Makah are trying to do is test the resolve of the U.S. government to enforce the law.

This is every bit as bad as the first headlines, like Tribal Hunters Kill Migrating Whale. We have seen that it was not a tribal hunt. To me, this headline is troubling. Imagine a story on Michael Vick that began Negro Tortures Dog.

For Watson, there are no individuals, only the Makah as a group. By turns over the years Watson’s ideas on this have been wrongheaded, false, or irrelevant. He simply cannot understand that the right to the hunt is considered by most Makah as central to cultural identity and that asking them to give it up on someone else’s terms is tantamount to asking them to un-be Makah.

Nor can he comprehend the position of many in the tribe who oppose whaling on some of the same grounds as he, and yet insist on the right to decide for themselves. His remarks this time around only weaken his case.

Watson and the animal rights groups see a tree but not the forest. Firmly focussed on one animal’s death instead of the collapse of the global environment, they have convinced a huge section of the public that the Makah are awful people, utterly lacking in environmental awareness. So it might seem, given the selective amnesia of the outside world and its media.

We never hear much about the tribe’s vital role in helping to manage and protect the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and its three National Wildlife Refuges (click to enlarge map, right). Or about its painstaking monitoring of fresh and ocean water quality.

Or its response to the Tenyo Maru disaster,3 both the immediate cleanup and the long term remediation effort. (What if the tribe had played some part in the oil spill? It would be held against them forever as evidence of their irresponsibility. But the Japanese fishing ship and the Chinese freighter that rammed it? Oh well, accidents happen you know.)

It is forgotten that the tribe chooses to build and maintain hiking trails across its own land so that visitors from around the world can more easily enjoy the remoter parts of the coast.

No one complains when the Makah spend tribal funds to research the decline in deer populations or on how to best manage the Roosevelt elk herds of the Olympic peninsula. Or when they pioneer in removing unnecessary dams to restore salmon runs that benefit not just themselves but also the commercial fishery at large.

Nor is there much coverage of the Makah’s forward thinking on renewable energy, as exhibited by their participation in the Makah Bay AquaBuOY Wave Energy Pilot Project.

Makah Tribal Council Chairman Ben Johnson Jr.:

The Makah Tribe has interest in using energy derived from renewable resources. The Makah Nation chose to partner in this project due to the environmental integrity and low impact of AquaEnergy’s offshore buoy technology.

This is not a group unaware of or disinterested in the larger environment. Without resorting to romantic nonsense it is fair to say they live in a state of closer integration with the world than most.

One of the Makah myths relates that Thunderbird brought Whale to the people, showing them the new resource that would feed them. The story is central enough that it serves as the tribal logo and flag. As stories go, it makes as much sense as the dust and spare ribs and apples on offer elsewhere.

Whatever we feel about whaling, we have no right to tell these people how to live, or to ask them to un-be what they know they are. It might be better to listen.

For your viewing pleasure: Aerial photos of the Washington coast


  1. Nonetheless, and undermining the view that they were simply too lazy or stupid to farm, the Makah had the wit to adopt crops suitable for cultivation in their environment when they ran across any. A 1792 encounter with the Spanish resulted in a tradition of potato cultivation which continues to this day. The unique variety was finally recognized as the Makah Potato, sometimes called the Ozette.
  2. The story of the name, while true, itself plays into a noble savage myth that the Makah are happy to exploit for public relations purposes. Prior to European contact, they were successful players in the great coastal trading network. You can bet many of those gifts of food were what we would call product samples, loss leaders.
  3. It is estimated that this one spill 25 miles northwest of Cape Flattery wiped out more than ten percent of Washington’s marbled murrelets, sensitive because they spend their time at sea just beyond the surf. The coast of the Makah reservation was hit hardest of all.


Skip to comment form

    • melvin on September 16, 2007 at 20:53

    I offended the html gods this time.

    • Armando on September 16, 2007 at 20:53


    Why isn’t it?

  1. Thank you.

    Okay, why can’t I recommend it?

  2. n/t

  3. thnx melvin.

  4. powers that be who are responsible for this essay being bumped to the FP, kudos and sincerest thanks.

  5. and how you presented this is fascinating.  thanks, melvin!  I’ve learned quite a bit, and I imagine that this is just scratching the surface….

  6. your eye for detail and capacity to weave the threads together coherently and movingly really impress the hell outta me, time and again.

    • 3card on September 16, 2007 at 22:53

    I fished out of Neah Bay for many years between 1986 and 2000, and I still stop in to visit whenever I can.  The Makah are truly a gracious and generous people.  They have been far more patient with the massive amount of BS that they have had to put up with from the feds and especially from Sea Shepherd etc. over their whaling rights than I would have been.  I can even summon sympathy for those who became so frustrated with the interference and delays that they made the “unauthorized” hunt. IMO the tribal council should have been granted a permanent exemption to the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) years ago. They have gone beyond demonstrating that they are capable of managing their lands and waters as responsible stewards. They should be free to manage their whaling (and sealing if they wish) as they see fit, without outside interference.

    I was kind of caught up in the “circus” that surrounded the ’99 hunt.  Whenever I would come in to offload my salmon durring that time my friends and I would do a lot of eye rolling and head shaking about all the TV trucks and protesters that had converged upon this remote and beutiful corner of the world.  The Makah handled themselves with grace and dignity throughout.  Not so the protesters.

    My only regret was that I missed the party.  I came in the morning after the landing.  My buddy at the fish dock told me that the party on the beach for the butchering had finally ended just before dawn. I could see the fires on the beach were still smoldering.  I would loved to have sampled the meat.  A photographer friend of mine showed me the pictures of the celebration that she had taken.  (Anyone familiar with Chinook’s at the terminal in Seattle has seen Jana’s work on every wall.) The meat was a rich dark red and marbled with fat.  It looked perfect for carving off a 2″ steak and slapping it on the grill. I’ve regretted my bad timing ever since. Made my mouth water just from the pictures.

    It is almost impossible to overstate how important this event was to these good people.  Paul Watson needs to find something useful to do. He is a waste of air. 


  7. But I saw it so late that I can’t even read it fully yet.

    I’m anxious to return in the (so-called) morning, but that morning will start with work, some of which, sometimes, is related to whales in the Pacific Northwest, so it might be later in the day, if this comment ends up inviting response.

    Unrelated: I was a volunteer 12 or so years ago, helping to clean the bodies and feathers of, and forcibly feed, and therefore save the lives of, hundreds of marbled murrelets and other birds after a major oil spill off the Olympic Coast. Disgusting, in that most died anyway, because it turned out that the type of oil was so toxic that it contagiously destroyed their respiratory systems even after they’d recovered.

    For now just a placeholder saying how much I care about this, and might be able to add something to the conversation about the topic of research of and hunting of whales, and the health of birds, in the Pacific NW. These topics are far from simple.

    For now, just putting a toe in the water on a couple of serious subjects here in the Northwest (as “indicator species” and otherwise)– hotly contested, widely misunderstood, and passionately defended from different quarters.

    Sorry I’m not awake enough to read all of what I’m responding to yet, but can’t stand not jumping in…

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