Tribal Whaling Poses New Threat

by Will Anderson

There are few symbols as powerful as the sight of a whale in her death throes, thrashing in agony from a whaler's explosive harpoon. Now, despite the efforts of whale advocates, the long and arduous campaign to end the killing of all whales is nearing catastrophe.

The source of this imminent disaster is the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay (the Treaty) that in Article IV states, "The right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the United States." The Makah (who call themselves Ko-ditch-ee-ot, which means People of the Cape) are part of the Nuu-cha-nulth culture that extends north to Vancouver Island, Canada, and were regarded as the best indigenous whalers on the West Coast. Whale hunting was central to the Makah cultural identity. The blubber, bones and by products from the whales enabled the Makah to prosper. Extensive spiritual rituals, lasting several months, included fasting, sexual abstinence, self-flagellation and prayers. These preparations were considered essential before the select few whalers went to sea. In a tight tribal hierarchy, it was the whaling families who had the greatest power to rule as chiefs. Now, after a 70 year lapse in which the Makah have not whaled, and at time when there is zero nutritional subsistence need for whales, they wish to reassert their Treaty right to kill gray whales, protected internationally since 1946. Though there is no obvious way in which it could be done legally at the present time, many in the Makah community believe there will be a way to make money from the renewed whaling.

On May 5, 1995, the Makah Tribal Council (MTC) Chair, Hubert Markishtum, wrote to the US government asking it to represent the Makah before the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the international body that passed a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. The Makah requested the US Departments of Commerce and State "... to represent the Tribe in seeking International Whaling Commission ("IWC") approval of an annual interim ceremonial and subsistence harvest of up to five (5) gray whales." The letter also stresses, "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."

Though the Makah feel that the IWC does not have ultimate authority over their treaty rights, they attended the 1996 IWC meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland, traveling from their ancestral home of Neah Bay located in the extreme northwest corner of Washington State (see map). The US apparently felt obligated, under the Treaty, to represent the Makah at the IWC. What surprised the opponents to whaling was the ferocity of the US delegation, headed by Dr. James Baker, as he proceeded to make the Makah proposal the overriding issue.

Neither Endangered, Nor Safe

On June 16, 1994, at the request of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was removed from the endangered species list. It was the Makah, members of NWIFC, who initiated the de-listing. Twice, the forty to fifty foot gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) has been driven to near extinction by non-native commercial hunters. Gray whales inhabit near-shore coastal waters and therefore are vulnerable to human activity. During the summer, they feed in shallow waters off of North America and Russia and, after making the longest known migration of any mammal (up to 12,500 miles from Mexico to the Bering Sea), return to the warm waters of Mexican lagoons in winter to mate and give birth to the next generation. However, pollution, loss of habitat, increasing boat traffic and pressures caused by a rising human population are threats to the mere 23,000 gray whales living today. Several gray whales are "residents" in Washington State for part of the year, often staying at Neah Bay and Makah Bay, within a harpoon's throw of a Makah whaler.

Over the past few decades, whale behavior has changed in response to the cessation of whaling. Friendly encounters between trusting whales and humans are becoming common.

If renewed whaling occurs, gray whale feeding, mating and resting activities could be easily disturbed because the whales may begin to fear all passing boats, even those with no harmful intent. Once they learn to avoid vessels, the countless interactions between whales and boats will likely result in more flee responses, interruptions in feeding behaviors, disruptions of mother-calf interactions and fewer opportunities for whales to rest.

Global Implications

IWC approval of Makah whaling would have a profound effect on other whales (there are also thirteen tribal Indian bands in Canada and an Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission that have stated their intent to kill gray whales). Whale protectionists familiar with the IWC know that the biggest beneficiaries of a Makah IWC victory would be the Japanese, Norwegian and other commercial whalers.

For years, Japan and Norway have supported culturally based Small Type Coastal Whaling as a way to the re-enter commercial killing of whales. The Makah have lived 70 years without whale meat, so they cannot argue a need for subsistence, an IWC requirement up to now. If the IWC approves the Makah request on a purely cultural basis, the change in IWC criteria could open the door for the commercial whalers in many smaller towns with a cultural whaling history. That could effectively end the IWC moratorium on the commercial killing of whales.

Save The Whales

The Makah Tribal Council nearly won this year. Were it not for the cooperative efforts of environmental and animal welfare advocates, the Makah could have been whaling as early as this fall. What the US IWC delegation did not count on were several Makah Elders who wrote and signed a half-page letter of opposition that was published (again, with funds from several environmental and animal welfare organizations) in the local Peninsula Daily News.

In the public letter, the Elders stated, "...there is no spiritual training going on. We believe they, the Council, will just shoot the Whale, and we think the word `subsistence' is the wrong thing to say when our people haven't used or had Whale meat/blubber since the early 1900's." They continue, stating, "For these reasons we believe the hunt is only for the money." Other parts of the letter take issue with the Makah Tribal Council's failure to properly put the whaling proposal to the full tribal membership.

Soon afterwards, two Makah, Alberta Thompson, an elder, and Dottie Chamblin, who has a background in traditional medicine and oral whaling history, volunteered to go to the IWC meeting in Scotland and lobby against their own corporate form of government (disagreements between traditional elders and their formal tribal governments are not uncommon. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1935 forced all US tribes to take on a corporate form of government, replacing the various forms of traditional tribal governments that inherently gave Elders a great influence).

At the IWC meeting, Alberta and Dottie destroyed the legitimacy of the US position and the delegation sent by the corporate Makah Tribal Council. At the same time Republican Jack Metcalf, of Washington State, and Democrat Jack Miller, of California, introduced a resolution condemning the Makah proposal in the House Committee on Resources. The resolution passed unanimously. With phenomenal teamwork by many people lobbying and representing their organizations, the US delegation was forced to withdraw the proposal. The MTC, for its part, has vowed to return next year for one more try, stating they will go whaling regardless of the IWC's next decision. That would make the US government an outlaw pirate whaling nation if it does not enforce the moratorium with the Makah.

Modern Life

Neah Bay, the center of Makah cultural and economic life, is a town emerging from a recession, but retaining modern conveniences and services. A new 7.8 million dollar marina will open next year. The town boasts a new head start school, a modern K-12 school campus with night-lit athletic fields, Federal Express deliveries, a super market, subsidized bus service to the city of Port Angeles, tennis courts and according to MTC meeting minutes, the largest tribal budget ever. Batelle Institute estimates that thousands of jobs will be created with new ventures into aquaculture. Tourism related to natural and cultural attractions has tripled in the past three years.

Neah Bay is not without its problems, but killing whales will not solve them. Efforts to instill cultural identity in their youth faces competition from television and the distractions of modern life. Killing whales is supposed to end the same social ills that plague many cities and towns: drug abuse, crime and disintigrating families. Like many non-native communities in Washington dependent on timber and fisheries, there have been difficult economic times. Quotas for salmon and timber are a fraction of the previous decade. Seasonally high unemployment creates conditions for substance abuse and places strain on the community. Some housing needs upgrading. The Tribal Council is always looking for more money, and has not denied that somehow whaling will bring additional, substantial revenues. Several tribal members have stated this belief. Whaling opponents do not readily see how this will happen as it appears to be legally impossible for a profit to be made. Whether the Makah believe that commercial whaling will eventually be legal in the US, or that they feel there is a loophole in current law, is unknown. Certainly other tribes in Washington State feel they can legally enter into commercial sealing, since they have stated their intent to do so "as soon as a market is found."

But whaling opponents feel that Makah efforts will not result in a stronger Makah position. Quite the opposite; the social and political firestorm that will erupt if the Makah actually begin killing whales could erode or destroy the Treaty of Neah Bay itself. Public furor in opposition to whaling will translate into political demands that Congress at the least re-negotiate the Treaty so that whales are not killed.

Must We Start Over?

Gray whales are born in Mexico, then live out their long lives internationally. Our understanding and relationship with them has changed drastically since the Treaty was signed in 1855. Not surprisingly, it is the Elders who know how whale protectors feel, and what many of us have experienced in the presence of cetaceans. Whale advocates are still hopeful that the traditional Elders will prevail over the corporate MTC, to the benefit of the tribe and the whales. Meanwhile, non-Makah must instill in Congress the will to resist whaling at all costs. We also must convince the Clinton Administration that whaling is an inhumane, environmentally unsound policy. If we lose this struggle, the whales will feel the agony in oceans around the world.

What You Can Do

It is essential that all environmental and animal welfare organizations work together on this issue. There are a number of organizations working for the whales. For further information call where you are enrolled as a member, or contact:

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