Date: Tue, 2 Nov, 1999
Next hunt won't be as easy for Makahs
by Lynda V. Mapes - Seattle Times staff reporter
NEAH BAY, Clallam County - Talk about the Makahs' first whale hunt in more than 70 years is still big in this windswept reservation town, but another hunt is not expected soon.
The weather, a lack of money, and a hunt that is expected to involve individual families rather than the community as a whole are some of the reasons why.
Last May, the Makah tribe defied the world to reclaim its whaling tradition, killing a 3-year-old female gray whale with a harpoon and high-powered rifle shot to the brain.
Months later, tribal members are sporting shirts emblazoned with the date and time of the kill.
The whale's bones are soaking in an ammonia solution to get the last of the meat off so schoolchildren can reassemble the skeleton for display in the tribal museum.
And four families are training for another hunt, sharing two traditional cedar whaling canoes carved from a single log.
But both boats are still new enough to be fragile. They need to be rubbed down more with seal oil and spend more time in the water before they're properly seasoned. Both are now out of the water for repairs.
Meanwhile, the weather is turning stormy. Though the whaling season began in earnest yesterday, and though hunters-in-training have been in close pursuit of whales off the coast, there are many preparations to be made before another kill can be attempted.
"Everyone wants to be next, but they are starting to realize how dangerous it is, and how much planning is involved," said Wayne Johnson, captain of the first hunt.
The 23-member tribal whaling commission has yet to determine whether there is a need for more whale meat in Neah Bay, home to about 1,500 Makah tribal members. And no request for a tribal whaling permit has been made.
Johnson has yet to find support boats for a hunt. One of the boats used in the last hunt needs repair and the other is in use in the winter whiting fishery, probably for weeks.
Money is another factor. The tribe paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal fees and two huge parties connected with the last hunt, attended by tribes nationwide.
The tribal commission has run out of federal-grant money to pay its full-time executive director; volunteers now take calls and handle some administrative matters, such as rounding up equipment.
The canoes, high-powered rifles, floats, lines, radios and other equipment paid for by the tribe are community property. But families will have to shoulder all other costs of a hunt, including any potlatch to celebrate the killing of a whale.
Indeed, the switch from a tribal hunt to private hunts is expected to give the next hunt a very different texture.
Some tribal members said family hunts will be easier than a community hunt because tribal members with their own family songs, dances, and traditions won't have differences to work out.
In other ways, a family hunt will be harder, and more dangerous: Assembling an eight-man crew from one family will mean a wholesale disaster to a single family if the canoe is lost.
Family hunts also are expected to be more low-key.
Last fall the tribe hosted a dinner and hours of traditional songs and dances for media gathered from around the country to introduce the tribe to the world. Tribal leaders offered daily press briefings.
Family hunts would be private, except for federal observers who must be present for any whale hunt. The observers monitor the kill to determine if it is humane, and to count every time a whale is struck or lost instead of killed.
The tribe also has signed a management agreement with the federal government promising to kill whales with a high-powered rifle, to ensure they die quickly. Hunters also are required to spear the whale with a harpoon thrown by hand from a traditional whaling canoe.
And the tribe requires every crew member to pass random drug and alcohol tests conducted by tribal police officers. That policy sparked one of the most immediate benefits of the hunt for some crew members, some tribal members say.
"Now that they (crew members) are totally clean that will help them with their own families," said Helma Swan, 81, a tribal elder related to most of the whalers in the first hunt. "Some of them have learned how to pray who didn't know how to pray. They have gotten their own songs.
"In the future, I don't know what the whale will do for us. But at least the kids will understand, they were out there to see it."
Keith Johnson, president of the whaling commission [tribal council -ed.], doubts the community will use its quota of five whales a year. "We could go get them. That's not a problem. But we couldn't handle five a year."
He said the hunt has united some families that had been feuding, and helped even his own family reconnect with relatives not heard from in decades.
The first hunt also helped build the tribe's sense of community and identity, Keith Johnson said.
"Our kids don't have to be whalers, but they know who they are. They can go anywhere in the world and they won't get lost."
Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company
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