The Makah Whaling Conflict:
The Return to Whaling
Makah Whaling Conflict
Table of Contents
When the US removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994, the Makah notified the federal government that they planned to whale again in accordance with their treaty. The Makah received federal support but they were also asked to obtain permission from the IWC. Although the Makah believe the treaty gives them the sufficient right to whale, they agreed and attended the IWC meetings in 1996 and 1997. During the 1996 meetings, whaling opponents contacted the Congressional House of Representatives Resource Committee, and the Committee unanimously passed a resolution condemning the administrationís support for the hunt (there are 52 members on the Committee). The US delegation and the Makah were forced to delay their request until the next year. In 1997, several opponents flew to the meetings in Monaco, including Alberta Thompson, a Makah elder who has worked closely with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and Representative Jack Metcalf, a Washington state Republican who organized a Congressional petition condemning the hunt (signed by 44 of the 535 House Representatives). The IWC did not name the Makah hunt in the IWC Schedule as a subsistence hunt, but the IWC sets quotas for individual species, not user groups. The US brokered a deal with Russia whereby 20 bowhead whales intended for Alaskan Inupiat peoples were exchanged for 20 gray whales intended for Russias Chukotka peoples. The reallocated gray whales were then assigned by the US to the Makah to be taken over the next four years. Other countries (notably Australia) successfully introduced language to specify that such an exchange did not make the Makah hunt an IWC subsistence hunt (however the meaning of this language is controversial, see footnote).
Back at Neah Bay, Makah preparations for the hunt were underway. Gray whales migrate every year from the Bering Sea to winter in the lagoons off the Baja peninsula. Their trip south in winter and north in spring creates two hunting seasons for the Makah at Neah Bay. With the help of a $335,000 federal grant, the Makah established the Makah Whaling Commission (MWC), composed of representatives from 23 traditional whaling families (by October 1998, the hunts cost was being estimated at US $1.3 million). The Commission hired a veterinarian to select a humane killing method for the hunt, and it will eventually monitor the hunt and the Makah peoples use of the whale meat. When the Makah Whaling Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service confirm that the gray whale migration is underway off the coast of Washington, the Makah Tribal Council will issue a ten day whaling permit to the tribes whaling crew.
When a gray whale is spotted, nine men will set out after it in a 32 foot canoe. A high speed chase boat will follow them to pursue an injured whale if it escapes, and a support boat will assist in the event of an emergency. The canoe crew has undergone intense periods of training, collectively by rowing out to sea as far as twenty miles, past sight of land, and individually by undertaking the spiritual preparations known and handed down within each members family (at the annual Makah Days celebration when canoe races are held, the crew outdistanced their rivals by half a mile). The crew will approach the whale from the left and strike it with a harpoon, then immediately shoot it with a retrofitted, Word War I anti-tank rifle. This high-powered weapon (twice the power of an elephant gun) was designed by the Makah Tribe to kill the whale humanely. Gray whales are known to be fierce fighters when wounded (adult grays are forty feet long and weigh forty tons). Once the whale has been killed, a man must dive into the water and sew the whales mouth shut so it does not sink, then the vessels will tow the whale to a place where it can be ritually butchered and distributed to individual families, who will either freeze it or preserve it with smokehouse equipment around the reservation.
If all goes well, the Makah will be able to invite other tribes from the US and Canada to a feast, historically an important means between Northwest Coast nations for welcoming guests and demonstrating the prestige and status of the hosts.