Also take a look at our special section on the Makah whale hunt.
An Open Letter To The Public From The President Of The Makah Whaling Commission
August 6th, 1998
NOTE: An edited version of this letter was published on the Seattle Times Op-Ed page on August 23, 1998.
My name is Keith Johnson. I am a Makah Indian and President of the Makah Whaling Commission, made up of representatives from 23 traditional whaling families of our Tribe. For the past three years we have been reading the attacks made on us by animal rights organizations, aimed at stopping our whale hunt. These attacks contain distortions, exaggerations and outright falsehoods. Reading these things has sickened and angered me and I feel I must speak out.
What We Plan to Do
We plan to conduct a whale hunt this year, sometime in October or November. While we are legally authorized to take up to five whales per year, our management plan limits the number of landed whales over a five year period to 20, or an average of four per year. But I want to point out that our Whaling Commission will issue a permit only if there is an unmet need in the community, so it is possible that as little as one whale per year will be taken if that will suffice to meet our needs.
Why Does the Tribe Want to Do This?
Whaling has been part of our tradition for over 2,000 years. Although we had to stop in the 1920s because of the scarcity of gray whales, their abundance now makes it possible to resume our ancient practice of whale hunting. Many of our Tribal members feel that our health problems result from the loss of our traditional sea food and sea mammal diet. We would like to restore the meat of the whale to that diet. We also believe that the problems which are troubling our young people stem from lack of discipline and pride and we hope that the restoration of whaling will help to restore that discipline and pride. But we also want to fulfill the legacy of our forefathers and restore a part of our culture which was taken from us.
How Did the Makahs Get a Legal Right to Hunt Whales?
Before entering into negotiations with the Makah for cessions of our extensive lands on the Olympic Peninsula in 1855, the United States government was fully aware that our people lived primarily on whale, seal and fish. They knew that we hunted several species of whales and had a substantial commerce in whale oil which had brought us prosperity.
When the United States Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens, arrived at Neah Bay in December of 1855 to enter into negotiations with our leaders, he was met with strong declarations from them that in exchange for ceding our lands to the United States they demanded guarantees of their rights on the ocean and specifically, of the right to take whale. The treaty minutes show Governor Stevens saying to the Makahs:
The Great Father knows what whalers you arehow you go far to sea to take whale.
He went on to promise U.S. assistance in promoting our whaling commerce. He then presented a Treaty containing the specific guaranty of the United States securing the right of the Makahs to continue whaling. The Treaty was accepted by us. It is the only treaty ever made by the United States that contained such a guaranty. The Treaty was ratified by the Congress in 1855 and has since been upheld by all the Courts and the Supreme Court. To us it is as powerful and meaningful a document as the U.S. Constitution is to you, because it is what our forefathers bequeathed to us. In fact, one of our whalers has said that when he is in the canoe whaling, he will be reaching back in time and holding hands with his great grandfathers, who wanted us to be able to whale.
Will the Makahs Sell Any of the Whale Meat?
Absolutely not! Yet animal rights groups like Sea Shepherd continue to insist that we secretly plan to sell whale meat to Japan. That claim has been repeated endlessly by other animal rights groups. It is utterly false.
Although our Treaty guaranteed a commercial right, we have agreed to limit ourselves to non-commercial whaling. We are bound by Federal Law and our own Tribal Law not to sell any whale meat. We have no plan to sell whale meat in the future. We also believe that Sea Shepherd is well aware of this but chooses to continue to accuse us of planning to sell whale meat in order to generate continued financial contributions.
Though it may be difficult for some people to accept, we are acting out of purely cultural motives. In fact, it is costing our Tribe an enormous amount of money to carry on the whale hunting program. It is conducted solely because that is our Treaty right and because it fulfills a deep cultural need in our members. It is, if you please, part of our religion, because for us, culture means religion.
Is There Any Conservation Issue if We Take Whales?
Absolutely not. The Eastern Pacific or California gray whale has been studied by scientists around the world and it is established that the gray whale population is currently at an all-time high of around 22,000. The population continues to increase at 2½% per year, despite an annual harvest which has gone as high as 165 by Russian aborigines, called Chukotki.
The gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994 and the population is now considered to be at its maximum level. In fact some biologists have raised the question of whether the number of gray whales may be nearing the carrying capacity of their range, that is, the number that can be supported by the food resources in that range. No reputable biologist or whale scientist has suggested that our taking five whales a year will present any conservation threat whatsoever to the gray whale stock.
The fact that no one can legitimately argue that this is a conservation threat is one of the main reasons why two of Americas leading conservation organizations have refused to join in the attack on our whaling: The Sierra Club and Greenpeace. There are animal rights activists within those organizations who are trying to get them to come out against our whaling, but they have steadfastly refused because they do not see this as a conservation issue, they refuse to be drawn into the animal rights issue and they will not oppose indigenous peoples rights.
The Wishes of the Tribe
Our attackers continue to claim that we are disregarding the views of the majority of our members. They repeatedly publicize in the media and elsewhere the views of two women who are members of the Tribe and are outspoken opponents of whaling. While we respect the right of all of our members to hold and to express their views on any subject, I must respectfully point out that these two women do not speak for anywhere near the majority of the Tribe and there are other Elders who strongly support whaling.
In the last opinion poll we held on the issue, 85% of those voting favored whaling. There is a faction within our Tribe which is opposed to whaling, but they are a distinct minority.
I can say proudly that the Makah Tribal Council and the Makah Whaling Commission represents the strongly held views of the vast majority of our members that we should go back to whaling as our ancestors did before us and as they wished us to do when they negotiated the treaty right which we have.
We were the premier whalers on the American continent and were able to enjoy a prosperous life because of our whaling trade. Our forefathers bequeathed our right to whale to us in our Treaty and we feel that a treaty right which cannot be exercised is no right. I can tell you that our Tribe is not prepared to abandon our treaty right.
How We Plan to Conduct the Hunt
We will hunt the whale from one or two sea going canoes, each carved from a single cedar log by Indian carvers. Each canoe will be manned by a crew of eight whalers and will include a harpooner and rifleman. Both these men will be stationed in the bow. The harpooner will use a stainless steel harpoon mounted on a wooden shaft. It will be connected to the canoe by a rope with floats attached. The harpooner will throw the harpoon at the whale. Immediately afterwards, or simultaneously, the rifleman will fire a special high powered rifle using a .50 caliber round. We are using this specially designed rifle and this ammunition on the specific recommendation of Dr. Allen Ingling, a Veterinarian. Dr. Ingling is also a specialist in arms and the humane killing of animals. This weapon has been tested by Dr. Ingling, who has worked with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Dr. Ingling has instructed us on the target area to be hit so as to bring about almost instantaneous loss of consciousness and death of the whale.
The use of the special rifle has been attacked by many animal rights groups as brutal and non-traditional. I believe these attacks are dishonest. In the 19th century, we didnt use such a weapon; we used harpoons and spears. The whale often died after a prolonged and agonizing period of time from internal bleeding. That was not humane.
Groups such as Sea Shepherd will not be deterred by our showing that we are using a humane method. I wonder what they would say if we could dispatch the whale by using a hypodermic needle that would bring about swift and instantaneous death? I think they would condemn that because a hypodermic needle was not a traditional weapon of the Makahs.
I dont hear any of these animal rights groups attacking us for conducting the hunt with a canoe. The lives of at least eight people will be at risk on the dangerous waters of the Pacific in October and November to hunt the whale. That is our traditional method. If we wanted to abandon all cultural tradition, we would simply use a deck mounted cannon firing a harpoon into the whale. No, our canoe has been carved by traditional carvers and will be paddled by eight whalers who have sanctified themselves by rituals that are ancient and holy to us. The hunt is being conducted in a manner which is both traditional and modern.
The Dire Prediction That Our Whale Hunt Will Threaten the Whale Watching Industry
The Sea Shepherd organization has been making sweeping claims that if we hunt a whale, whales will begin attacking humans throughout the waters of the State of Washington and devastate the whale watching industry throughout the state. This is complete nonsense.
First of all, most of the whale watching in Washington State is focused on orcas, not gray whales, and takes place in Puget Sound and the eastern area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As for gray whales, whale watching on this species is primarily concentrated in Westport, far from any area where we will be hunting whales.
The idea that whales will somehow begin to act aggressively against humans in boats or change their migratory path to avoid boats is false. The whales passing through the waters of Washington State have come here after being hunted and attacked in the Bering sea by Russian indigenous people called Chukotki. The Chukotki have been hunting the gray whale for over 40 years and there is no evidence that gray whales have attacked other boats after having been struck by Chukotki whalers. Nor is there any evidence that whales communicate with each other and spread the message that humans are the enemy, to be attacked or avoided. This is a fantasy promoted by animal rights activists to advance their argument that our activities will harm the whale watching business. The charge that our whaling somehow presents a threat to marine activities on the waters of the State of Washington is a gigantic fiction dreamed up by imaginative animal rights activists who will go to any lengths to stop our whaling.
What is Our Cultural Need for Whaling?
It is hard for us to explain to outsiders our cultural attitudes about whaling. Some of us find it repugnant to even have to explain this to anyone else. But let me tell you about my own case.
I have a Bachelors Degree in Education from Central Washington University. I was the first Makah teacher in the Neah Bay School System from 1972 through 1976. I received my principals credentials from Western Washington University in 1975 and served as Vice Principal of the Neah Bay Schools in 1976 and between 1990 and 1997.
Have I lost my culture? No. I come from a whaling family. My great grandfather, Andrew Johnson, was a whaler. He landed his last whale in 1907. My grandfather, Sam Johnson, was present when the whale was landed and told me he played on the whales tail. I lived with my grandfather for 16 years and heard his stories about our whaling tradition and the stories of family whaling told by my father Percy and my uncle Clifford. When I was a teenager I was initiated into Makah whaling rituals by my uncle Clifford. While I cannot divulge the details of these rituals, which are sacred, they involve isolation, bathing in icy waters and other forms of ritual cleansing. These rituals are still practiced today and I have been undergoing rituals to prepare me for the whaling which is to come this year. Other families are using their own rituals.
When the idea of resuming whaling first spread through our village, I was intensely excited, and so was my whole family. In fact, I can say I was ecstatic about the idea of resuming the hunt; something my grandfather was never able to do. I am proud to carry on my family legacy and my father is overjoyed because he is going to see this in his lifetime.
I can tell you that all of the Makah whalers are deeply stirred by the prospect of whaling. We are undergoing a process of mental and physical toughening now. I feel the cultural connection to whaling in my blood. I feel it is honoring my blood to go whaling. We are committed to this because it is our connection to our Tribal culture and because it is a treaty rightnot because we see the prospect of money. We are willing to risk our lives for no money at all. The only reward we will receive will be the spiritual satisfaction of hunting and dispatching the whale and bringing it back to our people to be distributed as food and exercising our treaty right.
Recently the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) distributed a brochure in which they implied we have lost our cultural need for whaling because we have adapted to modern life. They cite our ...lighted tennis courts...Federal Express...and other amenities... Well, excuse me! I want to tell PAWS that the two tennis courts on our high school grounds have no lights. How about the fact that Federal Express makes deliveries to our reservation? Does that mean that we have lost our culture?
These attacks on our culture and our status are foolish. No one can seriously question who we are; we are a small Native American Tribe who were the whalers of the American continent. We retain our whaling traditions today. It resonates through all of our people from the youngest to the oldest, and we dont take kindly to other people trying to tell us what our culture is or should be.
The Domino Effect
Animal rights groups have been scaring each other and pumping up the claim that if we whale, it will mean the collapse of all restrictions against commercial whaling and whaling will be resumed everywhere. This is nonsense. If there are other indigenous peoples who have a legitimate whaling culture and whaling tradition, then they should be allowed to whale just as we do. The rest is all hype promoted by anti-whaling organizations to try to stop us from killing a single whale.
The leader of the pack attacking us is The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. They have been responsible for a steady stream of propaganda aimed at inflaming the public against us, some of which has been repeated by other anti-whaling groups, who have assumed it was factual.
Who is Sea Shepherd? They are a California based organization which has for years operated on the fringe of mainstream conservation groups. They have built a flourishing organization supported by contributions from around the world. They portray themselves as the swashbucklers of the ocean because they have sunk whaling ships. This action has earned them the label of a terrorist organization and they have been barred from attending the deliberations of the International Whaling Commission even as observers since 1987. They applied for readmission in 1995 and the IWC again denied them admission. They threatened to sink our boats if we whaled without IWC sanction, smug in the assumption (wrong as turned out) that we would never get approval from the IWC. They have since churned out reams of material attacking us.
We cant hope to keep up with this barrage by Sea Shepherd and others. These groups are well financed. Sea Shepherd, for example, is sufficiently well financed to operate two ocean going vessels, a submarine, an airplane, a helicopter and other water borne craft. It seems to me that Sea Shepherd is actually in the commercial whaling business themselves and were their best ticket now.
The Ethical Issue
The arguments and claims put out by Sea Shepherd and the other anti-whaling groups are designed to inflame the public against us and to attack the honesty of our motives. They mask the real aim of these groups: to prevent the killing of a single whale.
Some people honestly believe that it is wrong to kill one of these animals. Maybe their minds are made up, but I want to say to them that we Makahs know the whales, probably better than most people. We are out on the waters of the ocean constantly and we have lived with and among whales for over 2,000 years. We are not a cruel people. Some of us have even gone into the water to free whales who became entangled in netsa dangerous undertaking. But we have an understanding of the relationship between people and the mammals of the sea and land. We are a part of each of each others life. We are all part of the natural world and predation is also part of life on this planet. So orca whales attack and eat whales and whale calves as well as seals and fish. Those who regard the orcas simply as cute may prefer to ignore this side of their nature. But there is a reason they are called killer whales. In fact, they were originally called whale killers.
I want to deal with the claims of those who would romanticize the whale and ascribe almost human characteristics to it. To attribute to gray whales near human intelligence is romantic nonsenseas any professional whale biologist can tell you. The photographs of gray whales surfacing to be petted by people are all taken in the calving lagoons of Baja, California and Mexico. This behavior is not exhibited by gray whales anywhere else, particularly by migrating whales passing through our waters.
The whales we will hunt are migrating whales and we will not hunt any mother whale with a calf.
Whales have captured the publics fascination. Whales are definitely in. Does that mean that Indians are out? The world has had a similar fascination with us and our cultures, but whenever we had something you wanted or did something you didnt like, you tried to impose your values on us. The Federal government even tried to stamp out our potlatch tradition because they thought it was backward and impoverishing. Too often white society has demonstrated this kind of cultural arrogance. We dont take well to Sea Shepherd or PAWS telling us we should rise to a higher level of culture by not whaling. To us the implication that our culture is inferior if we believe in whaling is demeaning and racist.
We feel that the whaling issue has been exploited by extremists who have taken liberties with the facts in order to advance their agenda. We understand that there are many people who legitimately believe that it is wrong to kill a whale. But we feel that the zealousness and self-righteousness which emanates from the animal rights community has led to dishonesty and extremism. To them I would say that we may have deeper feelings for the whale than you or your forebears. We ask that you show some respect for Indian culture and that you stop the lies and distortions. The Makah people have been hurt by these attacks, but nevertheless we are committed to continuing in what we feel is the right path.
We Makahs hope that the general public will try to understand and respect our culture and ignore the attacks of extremists.
President, Makah Whaling Commission