PAWS Magazine

Issue 39, Fall 1998

Makah Culture and Tradition

Wilson Parker dons the traditional whaling garb of his grandfathers for this famous posed photograph by Edward Curtis.

In a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hubert Markishtum, former Chairman of the Makah Tribal Council, spelled out what European culture has done to the Makah: "[o]ur people are not immune from the pernicious influences of the modern world. Unemployment is high on the Reservation with seasonal unemployment ranging as high as 50 percent. Many of our young people have become victims of crime and drug or alcohol addiction.... "Reestablishing a ceremonial and subsistence whale hunt would be a catalyst which would allow us to instill in our young people the traditional values which have held our people together over the centuries." But was ancient Makah culture as uncomplicated as that? From media reports, one would be tempted to conclude that whaling was the only "glue" that held together the ancient proud Makah. To argue that a return to whaling is the only way for the Makah to regain their lost culture, one must have an accurate understanding of the culture that was lost.

Much of what we know of ancient Makah culture we learn from Edward Curtis’ mammoth 20-volume 1916 work The North American Indian, and James G. Swan’s 1870 work, The Indians of Cape Flattery. Curtis, a Seattle photographer, spent several decades documenting the vanishing cultures of North American Indians. Curtis was particularly drawn to Northwest Indians, and his notes on the Nootka band, which the Makah are part of, offer an invaluable record of Makah cultural practices before the European culture virtually eliminated them. The picture that Curtis and Swan paint of the Makah is of a proud, diverse people whose traditions date back hundreds of years. Curtis and Swan detail several ancient Makah cultural practices that the modern Makah have pointedly not chosen to resume in their effort to restore their heritage. Most of these traditions are associated historically with many othercultures as well—including recent European cultures.

Slavery Prior to their 1855 treaty with territorial governor Issac Stevens, the Makah practiced slavery. Slaves were traded among tribal members and performed the menial and demanding tasks relegated to slaves.

Human sacrifice Upon the death of a chief, it was often the practice to sacrifice a slave. Polygamy Swan notes that the Makah practiced limited polygamy, with some men having two wives. Warfare The ancient Makah conducted warfare with other tribes on the modern Olympic Peninsula. Among the war practices were cutting off the heads of enemies and impaling the heads on poles for display back in the Makah village.

The Makah whaling practices of ancient times were also quite complicated and involved. According to Curtis, at times the Makah would make use of a human corpse during their whaling rituals. "The body must be that of a male not more than four days dead, and it is said that sometimes a small boy was killed for the purpose. Occasionally the whaler flayed the body after removing the forearms and the lower legs, cutting the skin down the median line from the forehead and along the inside of the legs. After being dried in the sun with as little handling as possible, the skin was hung over the back-piece of the whaler’s head dress." Curtis goes on to describe how the whaler would then tie the corpse—sans arms and legs—onto his back and wear it during the hunt. The actual hunt involved repeatedly spearing the whale, while trying to avoid its dangerous thrashing body. After the whale died, a Makah would jump in the sea, and sew the whale’s mouth shut to prevent it from sinking. Then the whale crew would begin the slow and laborious process of paddling the whale back to shore. (The current Makah plan to lunge one ceremonial harpoon into their whale, and then kill the whale with a .50 caliber rifle bullet. After the whale is dead, several power boats will tow it to shore.)

The ancient Makah were a proud, resourceful people who hunted whales for subsistence needs. To adequately honor the Makah past it is important to understand ancient Makah society in its entirety, especially when people perceive that they are proposing a whole-scale return to the traditions of that era.

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