PAWS Magazine

Issue 42, Summer 1999

Death in Neah Bay

May 17, 1999, 6:55am, Neah Bay, Washington

Early on the morning of May 17, tribal members of the Makah Nation hunted and killed a young gray whale off the northwest coast of Washington. It was a frustrating day for the PAWS members and supporters who had worked hard over the past several years to prevent any hunt from taking place.

The hunt was especially hard on PAWS Wildlife advocate (and newly appointed Advocacy Director) Will Anderson. Anderson has led the PAWS campaign against the proposed hunt since first learning of the Makah intentions five years ago. Since the hunt, everything that Anderson had predicted and feared has come true. Delegations from Norway and Japan have used the hunt to press their own claims to the International Whaling Commission to resume commercial whaling. Native tribes on Vancouver Island have begun using the hunt as fodder for their own proposed attempts to hunt gray whales.

Misinformation continues to swirl around the whale hunt. On the following pages Anderson answers many of the most common questions.

What gives the Makah tribe the right to go whaling?

A: An 1855 Treaty signed by representatives of the Makah and territorial Governor Stevens, who was representing the US government, specifically states that the tribe has the right to whale. US court decisions have affirmed the treaty rights. PAWS and most other whale protection organizations acknowledge the treaty language but hold that exercising these rights is inappropriate.

Are there other tribes who have this right?

A: Yes. Though the treaties of the Quileute, Klallam, Hoh, Quinault and possibly others do not specifically mention whaling, there is broad language stating that they have the right to hunt and fish in their accustomed manner and places much as their ancestors did in pre-treaty times. This sweeping language has been liberally and consistently interpreted by the courts.

Tribes located in Washington state have been given broad authority over increasing access and use to all flora and fauna. Under the Judge Boldt court decision, treaty tribes were allocated approximately half of the salmon quota. More recently, vast stretches of shellfish beds were returned to tribal control. Additionally, the Makah have been allocated quotas of species not taken historically, such as whiting (a.k.a. hake, surimi). Since other tribes had hunted whales before the treaty was signed, PAWS believes that these tribes could whale if they chose. Fortunately, they have not. In fact, in 1988, the Quileute proclaimed their tribal waters a sanctuary for whales. Though they state they have a right to go whaling should they choose, the Quileute are instead seeking to conduct eco-tourism and whale watching.

Did the US government get a quota from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on behalf of the Makah tribe?

A: No. When the US government first presented the Makah case to the IWC in 1996, they had to withdraw it because of certain defeat. Under IWC criteria, the Makah, like other aboriginal proposals, had to demonstrate an uninterrupted history of whaling, a cultural need and a subsistence need.

Uninterrupted history There were a number of reasons the Makah stopped whaling in the early 20th century: the whales were decimated by non-Makah commercial whalers, there were other lucrative, cash-paying jobs in the commercial sealing industry, and the US government and the colonizing European cultures did an effective job of trying to destroy the Makah culture. So, one could accept that the Makah did not have a choice but to stop whaling, given that the effort resulted in fewer and fewer whales landed.

Cultural need The Makah can certainly demonstrate they have a rich cultural history and social organization based on a strict hierarchy wherein the whaling chiefs of each village were the leaders. Lower classes included the sealers and slaves. The Makah have established a world-class cultural museum in Neah Bay.

Subsistence It is also just as obvious that the Makah, after a lapse of seventy years, do not have a true subsistence need. That is the key reason the IWC was set to deny the Makah request in 1996. In 1997, facing certain defeat at the IWC for the same reason, the US made a deal with the Russians, whose Inuit people had a history of qualifying for a quota of gray whales. The US successfully offered Russia five highly endangered bowhead whales from the US Inuit quota. The Inuit had successfully demonstrated a subsistence need, but their quota is more than they need. This resulted in ‘extra’ bowhead whales, which were traded for the Makah gray whales from Russia. Those endangered bowhead whales would not have been otherwise killed.

While many countries objected to the US move, environmentalists successfully lobbied to attach to the proposed gray whale quota the phrase, ‘whose cultural and subsistence needs have been recognized.’ We felt we had headed off the Makah request with this language since the Makah had not specifically been given a quota. Within minutes, the US government issued a press release and said they had obtained a quota for the Makah and ignored the added language. The Makah never were specifically certified as having met the IWC criteria. With the Russian side-deal, the US government self-allocated a quota and destroyed all pretense at abiding by the true intent and purpose of the IWC process.

That should not be a surprise. In 1996, the US made many changes in domestic law regulating aboriginal whaling. Despite opposition from PAWS, the US unilaterally changed the domestic criteria from ‘cultural AND subsistence’ to ‘cultural OR subsistence.’ A new category of whaling was born, parented by the Clinton/Gore administration: cultural whaling. Japan, Norway and many other nations also have cultural whaling traditions spanning a thousand years. They see cultural whaling as the path to resuming commercial whaling.

For more information on the IWC and the Makah proposal, go to the web site of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society at, as well as the PAWS website.

Isn’t it racist to oppose indigenous treaty rights?

A: There are three parts to our answer. First, some people hold that any opposition to a treaty right is inherently racist given the history of Native Americans and treaties in the United States. While we acknowledge the cultural and physical genocide of America’s native peoples, we nonetheless oppose whaling regardless of who is doing it. Second, racism is alive in cultures around the world. We have seen it raise its ugly head here in the Northwest. It existed before the Makah whaling issue. We have a duty to eliminate any racism related to our campaign. To that end, we have drawn up a ten point ethical guideline for PAWS Makah whaling campaign activities (see side-bar) Third, laws, constitutions, treaties and even court decisions are open to debate, opposition and protest. Each of these is a sacred document. But the Makah treaty, like all the other categorical examples, does not live in a vacuum. All laws, treaties and international agreements interact dynamically.

Why does PAWS oppose whaling?

A: For any number of reasons, but the most commonly cited reasons are the lack of necessity, the inhumane nature of the killing, and the belief that whales are highly evolved both socially and in intelligence. PAWS does not believe it is necessary for any species to have these qualities before we speak against their suffering and abuse. Commercial whalers are unable, by their own admission, to kill whales instantaneously. The young gray whale the Makah killed reportedly took at least eight minutes to die, struggling to escape the pain all the while.

For six billion people, the human ecology, our relationship with a living earth, must change. We are now forging that relationship with the environment and the life therein. If we cannot stop the senseless, inhumane killing of whales, what can we ever hope to do?

Why not oppose commercial whaling and leave aboriginal whaling alone?

A: The effort by the Makah to resume whaling does not stand alone, isolated from others wishing to kill whales. In fact, it has furthered the commercial whalers’ agenda. The Makah and the US government have created cultural whaling without subsistence needs, a new category and the chosen path to commercial whaling by Japan, Norway, Iceland, the Nuu Cha Nulth of Canada (direct relatives of the Makah) and many others. The Makah have written that they reserve the right to resume commercial whaling. Though the current agreement between the Makah and the US government prohibits the commercial selling of the whale (artwork is excepted), that agreement will expire in 2002.

Most aboriginal whalers have joined the commercial whaling countries to support the resumption of commercial whaling and to oppose whale sanctuaries where whaling would be prohibited. Aboriginal whalers and commercial whalers have formed alliances such as the World Council of Whalers (located in British Columbia, Canada) and the High North Alliance. Again, please refer to the PAWS website for further discussion.

If I oppose whaling, including Makah whaling, what can I do?

A: Join and support PAWS and other organizations of your choice. Read more, understand more and pledge to be active now. Follow the ethical guidelines listed in the side-bar. The need to win environmental and animal welfare issues is essential. It cannot be done without you.

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