PAWS Magazine

Issue 39, Fall 1998

Gray Whales in Peril

Sometime this winter, if everything goes as planned, eight native Makah Indians will board a hollowed-cedar canoe and slip quietly into the icy cold waters off Neah Bay. They will be armed with a harpoon and several sealskin floats attached to the harpoon’s float line. Following the canoe will be two motorized chase boats. On one of the boats will be a Makah armed with a .50 caliber rifle.

The Makah’s mission is clear: to land a 40-ton gray whale. Killing a whale, say the Makah, is the key to rescuing their tribe from the debilitating effects of European culture. Unemployment, crime, alcohol abuse, drug addiction and other problems of the twentieth century have been hard on the Makah, many of their elders say. "We believe that maintaining and strengthening our traditional culture is the key to fighting these problems and to preserving our identity as a tribe," writes Hubert Markishtum, Chairman of the Makah Tribal Council.

These arguments have held great resonance among an American nation ashamed of its 500-year cultural war on First Nation life. The same motivation that directed millions into movie theaters several years ago to see the Kevin Costner epic Dances with Wolves appears to be the same motivation that is leading many non-natives to put aside their concerns about the inherent brutality of hunting whales and support the whale hunt. For these non-native supporters the equation is simple and comforting: kill a whale, rescue Makah culture.

But the equation is missing a critical variable: commercial whaling. For the five years or so after the Makah first proposed a resumption of whaling, they would tell anyone who listened that the Makah believed the path to rescuing their culture was going to be through the financial exploitation of a resumption in whaling, not through the act of whaling itself. But the Makah’s public attitude changed markedly two years ago after they retained the services of the high-powered Washington D.C. lobbying firm Denny Miller & Associates. The Makah stopped talking in terms of economic salvation and began focusing their arguments on spiritual salvation. The Makah are asking us to ignore years worth of their previous statements, and accept their new argument that they are only seeking to hunt whales for cultural healing. Taking the Makah at their new word—that they plan no resumption of their ancient whale meat trade-they certainly must be aware of the profound implications of their proposed actions. The Earth’s whale population has been swimming in a bubble since 1986, a bubble in the form of a world moratorium on commercial whaling. Japan, Norway, Iceland and other interests who seek a return to commercial whaling have been poking and prodding the bubble for years; though thin, the bubble’s surface has proven resilient.

But not resilient enough to be able to withstand the explosive shock of a .50 caliber bullet. Originally developed to stop tanks in the First World War, .50 caliber rifles are the most powerful small arms weapon in the world. "Small arms" is a bit of a misnomer for the weapon, which shoots carrot stick-sized bullet, and has a range of several miles. One .50 caliber bullet has the power to cut a human clean in half, to maim a 40-ton gray whale, and to destroy the tenuous bubble protecting the world’s whales.

No one knows how long the Makah hunted whales. Archaeological evidence points back at least 2,000 years; Makah elders say that they have hunted whales "forever." During times in Makah history, whales may have provided up to 80% of the subsistence needs for the five traditional family tribes that comprise the modern Makah.

Hunting whales was no easy task. It was made all the more difficult by the complicated rituals that the Makah hunters would observe in preparation for their hunts. Prior to the hunt, Makah tribesman would ritually bathe themselves in the icy waters of the Pacific. They would rub their skin raw on sharp mussels and barnacles. A few days before their hunt they would often dig up a fresh grave and dismember a corpse. During the hunt the they would secure the torso of the corpse on their backs-a gesture indicating their respect for their dead brethren.

On the hunt a Makah whaling crew would silently intercept a migrating whale, usually either a humpback or gray, and plunge a massive harpoon into its back. Attached to the harpoon would be a long line; attached to the line were several air bladders made of gutted seals. The hope was that the inflated seal skins would prevent the whale from diving. After the whale died, a diver would plunge into the icy water and sew the giant’s mouth shut, preventing air from escaping during the tow back to the village. When the whale arrived on the beach, the whole village clamored towards the dead beast. The wives of the hunters were certainly relieved; during the entirety of the hunt they had been instructed to remain motionless in their beds, not eating, sleeping or talking.

The whale meat and blubber would be divided up among the villagers according to a strict tribal hierarchy. If it was a humpback, most of the whale would be eaten. If it was a less tasty gray whale, much of the carcass would be rendered for oil. The Makah would often potlatch much of their whale meat and oil with other Nootka tribes on the western side of Vancouver Island. This active trade of whale meat, as well as fish, seal, and other sea-derived products, naturally allowed the Makah to become savvy traders when the first Europeans began arriving in the 1700s. The Makah aggressively traded whale meat and oil through the mid 1800s. In 1855, the Makah signed a treaty with Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens. The Treaty of Neah Bay is the only Native American treaty that explicitly granted a tribe the right to hunt whales (though it also forbade them from trading whale meat internationally).

Despite their treaty right, the Makah voluntarily abandoned whale hunting for most of the next thirty years. Makah hunters were busy plying the lucrative commercial fur seal trade. By the end of the 19th century, the fur seal population had been almost completely decimated, and the U.S. government moved to stop the trade. Many Makah hunters returned to hunting whales on a limited basis. Large scale commercial whaling operations through much of the first half of this decade had so severely depleted the North Pacific whale populations that it certainly contributed to the Makah’s dwindling whaling efforts in the early 1900s. Makah sporadically hunted and traded whale until 1915, and then held a few final hunts in the mid-1920s.

That much of ancient Makah whaling culture was so clearly tied to the trade of whale meat is a fact that was not lost on Makah elders at the end of the 1980s. The twentieth century had been tough on the Makah: seasonal unemployment as high as 50%, crime, drug and alcohol abuse had all taken their toll on Makah youth.

The Makah Tribal Council began looking for a way out of their financial doldrums. Across the country many tribes had found economic salvation in casinos. Those lucky tribes who, by historical happenstance, found their reservations bisected by major interstate freeways, reaped considerable gambling profits.

But there would be no gambling profits for the Makah. Occupying the most northwestern patch of land in the continental United States, the Makah reservation is painfully remote. Despite a new multimillion dollar marina, which brings in revenue during the fishing season, few people visit the reservation.

The key to Makah economic prosperity had always been the whale trade, and the Tribal Council began to realize that a return to this trade may just prove to be the economic savior that the tribe had been waiting for. Japanese market prices pegged the value of one gray whale at anywhere from $500,000 to 1 million dollars, and since the Makah were the only Americans with a legal treaty right to hunt gray whales, they would have no competition for these dollars. According to a April 1995 memo written by Mike Tillman, Deputy Commissioner of the U.S. Delegation on Whaling Issues, both Japan and Norway had contacted the Makah about buying any potential whale meat, and the Makah were contemplating building a processing plant. But the Makah had two obstacles in their way. They were prevented from hunting whales by both the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which protected both humpback and gray whales, and the International Whaling Commission, which had instituted a moratorium banning all world commercial whaling in 1986. These obstacles were formidable, but not insurmountable. The Makah went after the Endangered Species listing first. Humpback whale populations remain almost as perilously low as when they were first placed on the list back in 1972. But gray whales had mounted a remarkable comeback. From a low of 4,000 to 5,000 in the sixties, the world gray whale population had grown to as many as 22,000 whales, close to the historic high. David Sones, assistant Makah Fisheries Director, appealed to the U.S. Government to have the gray whale removed from the Endangered Species list. And in 1994 the U.S. Government did just that.

Obstacle number two would prove to be a tougher hurdle. The Makah believed that they had an unassailable right to resume whale hunting. But if they were to return to hunting without the support of the U.S. Government, they risked putting the U.S. in jeopardy with its international partners in the International Whaling Commission. Clearly the Makah wanted the U.S. Government in their corner.

On May 5, 1995, Hubert Markishtum, Chairman of the Makah Tribal Council, sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seeking their support in obtaining an International Whaling Commission quota for gray whales. NOAA is part of the Clinton Administration’s Commerce department.

In the letter, Markishtum quite clearly stated the Makah’s position regarding the commercial prospects of whaling: "It should be emphasized, however, that we continue to strongly believe that we have a right under the Treaty of Neah Bay to harvest whales not only for ceremonial and subsistence but also for commercial purposes. At treaty times, whale products clearly were the most important items for Makah trade and commerce."

Shortly after the letter was sent, Makah representatives met with NOAA officials in Washington D.C. NOAA then agreed to help the Makah seek a gray whale quota from the International Whaling Commission, but with a proviso: for the purposes of this limited quota, the Makah must indicate that they will not commercially trade their meat. The Makah agreed, and signed a pact with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sanctioning the hunt. The next battleground for the Makah was the annual International Whaling Commission meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland. The IWC was founded by whaling nations in 1946 in an attempt to regulate the hunting of the world’s dwindling whale stocks. They were spectacularly unsuccessful in their mission to the point that by the late sixties many of the world’s whale species were on the verge of extinction. Many of the members of the IWC, including the U.S., began to question commercial whaling altogether. By the early 1980s world anti-whaling sentiment had reached such a peak that the anti-whaling nations of the IWC were able to pass a historic moratorium banning all commercial hunting of whales, to begin in 1986. Traditional whale hunting nations like Iceland, Norway, and Japan were not pleased, but they had been outvoted.

The moratorium did have two large loopholes, however, which allowed for limited hunting. The first loophole allowed for "scientific" hunting of non-threatened whale species. Japan has taken full advantage of this clause by killing hundreds of whales for "scientific" research (540 in 1997 alone), and then selling the meat in Japanese fish markets. (Despite the ban on hunting threatened species, DNA tests of meat in the Japanese markets has revealed that much of it was from fin, blue, and humpback whales-all protected species.)

The other loophole allowed for limited hunting by aboriginal people who have a cultural and subsistence need for whale meat and an unbroken history of whaling. It was this loophole that the Makah hoped to utilize at the Aberdeen IWC convention. Unfortunately for the Makah, PAWS and its Wildlife Advocate Will Anderson had been following their efforts for several years, and PAWS was planning its own trip to Aberdeen.

The PAWS boat, the Plaiedes, is on duty in Neah Bay, ready to document any possible killing of whales. PAWS helped raise funds from other organizations for the travel expenses of two tribal elders, Alberta Thompson and Dottie Chamblin. In Aberdeen, testimony by Thompson and Chamblin effectively refuted Makah claims of a need to return to hunting. They pointed out the real reason behind the hunt was not subsistence-Makah had survived without whale meat for 70 years-it was money. A bipartisan unanimous vote by the powerful U.S. House Resources Committee condemning both the hunt and the Clinton Administration for supporting it didn’t help things much either. The U.S. delegation, led by NOAA head D. James Baker, withdrew its proposal and returned to the U.S. to regroup. Back in the U.S. the Clinton Administration, through the NMFS, granted the Makah $200,000. The Makah would use the money to, among other things, create their Whaling Commission, fly Makah around the world to argue their cause, and hire the powerful Washington D.C. public relations firm Denny Miller & Associates.

Denny Miller & Associates is nothing if not canny, and they knew that Makah statements supporting a return to commercial hunting were not helping their cause. After the hiring of Denny Miller, all public indications of a commercial motivation for the hunt virtually ceased. "We have no plans to sell whale meat in the future," Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission would write the following year in the Seattle Times. "Though it may be difficult for some people to accept, we are acting out of purely ethical motives."

Unmentioned by Johnson was the reason why his statement was "difficult for some people to accept": dozens of previous statements by Makah officials indicating that the hunt was to be centrally commercial in nature (see the timeline on pages 8 and 9).

While the Makah were publicly distancing themselves from commercial whaling, powerful international forces were quietly working to reinforce the connection between cultural and commercial whaling. Japan and Norway, both still bristling from the 1986 IWC moratorium, quietly provided start-up capital towards the creation of "The World Council of Whalers (WCW)," an international pro-commercial whaling organization based in Port Alberni, BC. The organization is led by representatives of the 14 Nootka tribes that inhabit western Vancouver Island-all relatives of the Makah, who are Nootka Indians. The organization is comprised of 20 international aboriginal and non-aboriginal whaling interests.

Reflecting their new found noncommercial stance, the Makah pointedly did not join their Nootka brothers in the WCW. But this did not stop the Makah from hosting 60 representatives from the WCW in March of 1998 on the Makah Reservation for a weekend of stories and rifle shooting. In October of 1997 the Makah returned to the IWC convention, this time wiser from their experiences in Aberdeen. At the 1997 Monaco convention, they planned to aggressively pursue a new tactic. Since the Makah had no hope of meeting either the IWC’s cultural and subsistence need for whale meat provision or the unbroken history of whale hunting provision, the U.S. delegation planned to take a different tack, so subtle that it only involved changing a single word. The U.S. delegation asked the IWC to change its first provision to allow hunting for those groups that had a cultural or subsistence need for hunting.

That slight one-word modification—from and to or—changed everything.

Japan and Norway were quite pleased by the proposed change. It was, after all, an entirely new category that clearly would encompass their own whaling fleets. Norwegian fisherman have been whaling for 500 years and Japanese have been whaling for at least 1,000 years; certainly they could demonstrate a cultural need for whaling.

Other convention delegates recognized the new Makah argument for what it was: a first step towards the resumption of the world commercial whaling industry.

Apparently sensing this reticence, D. James Baker and the U.S. delegation, wary of a repeat of the previous year’s fiasco grabbed some cigars, filled a backroom with smoke, and hammered out a secret deal with the Russians. The U.S. would give Russian natives, who have an IWC subsistence quota for gray whales, 25 of the U.S. Inuit bowhead whale quota over the next five years in exchange for the 20 of the Russian gray whale quota, which would be given to the Makah (the Inuit did not oppose the proposal because they were not planning to utilize their bowhead quota). Though the deal clearly violated the IWC’s own rules stipulating that they alone decide which groups are to receive a whale quota, the IWC chose to not fight the backroom deal. To this day most newspapers falsely report that the Makah received an IWC quota.

The Makah now had all the permission they felt they needed to resume hunting. Whale activists worldwide were stunned. Initially activist groups weren’t quite sure how to respond to this clearly illegal move by the U.S.. The Makah knew how to respond: reports of joyous celebrations on the Makah Reservation could be found in all of the local newspapers. But perhaps the Japanese and Norwegians were celebrating the most. The U.S., with its easy-way-out backroom deal, had accomplished in one week what they had been trying to accomplish for twelve long years: provide a justification for a return to commercial whaling for their own moribund whaling fleets.

So now as PAWS Wildlife Advocate Will Anderson and a crew of volunteers man the PAWS vessel Pleaides, bobbing up and down in the rough winter seas off Neah Bay, they are fully aware that their efforts to stop the Makah hunt have much greater implications than a few whales off a tiny windswept patch of sea off the Washington Coast. They aren’t just trying to save one whale. They’re trying to save all whales.

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