portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary oregon & cascadia

actions & protests | indigenous issues

Makah Whaling Commission

When five Makah tribal members conducted an unauthorized hunt for a gray whale off the coast of Washington in September, some people jumped to conclusions that just weren't accurate. In no time, misinformation and baseless rumors about the incident were splattered around the world. Some reports even said the hunters used a machine gun to kill the whale. While untrue and later corrected by the media, many people were left with this false impression.
The truth is the Makah have done an outstanding job of managing the tribe's return to whaling, and I, for one, heartily applaud them. September's hunt was not approved by the Makah Tribal Council or the Makah Whaling Commission. The whalers are being held to account in tribal court, and that's as it should be. It's the very definition of sovereignty.

The tribal prosecutor is working with the U.S. attorney's office to share evidence needed for tribal prosecution of the case. The tribe will announce filing of charges against the five in the near future. The tribe, meanwhile, will continue to work closely with the U.S. attorney's office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the case.

Anybody who blames the entire tribe for this infraction by a few should question their own double standards. While tribes are excellent natural resource managers, it is wrong to hold them to different standards than any other nation. Do we blame the entire federal government when a non-Indian hunts out of season?

Maybe those quick to assign blame where it doesn't belong should study history a little more thoroughly. That might help them understand why the Makah Nation and the Whale Nation are long-time comrades in the fulfillment of the ways of nature through mutual sustainability. The Makah are the best human friends whales have.

For thousands of years, the Makah Nation, like other tribal nations, has respected, protected and depended upon fish, wildlife and wild plants for survival and identified with these gifts through their culture and traditions of conservation. Their skillful management was evident when European newcomers found nature in abundance just a few hundred years ago. When the United States and Makah signed the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, opening hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful Olympic Peninsula land to non-tribal settlement, the Makahs retained their right to fish, hunt, seal and whale. The U.S. Constitution defines such treaties as the supreme law of the land.

By the 1920s, non-tribal hunting had brought gray whales to the brink of extinction. The Makah Nation then elected to halt whaling until the whale population could again sustain harvest. It was a time of deep pain and sacrifice for the Makah people, who have never forgotten their ancestry or disconnected from their roots. Over the years, gray whale populations resurged, and the whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. The tribe knew then that it could finally return to whaling on a limited, sustainable basis.

Although the Makah right to whale remains intact, the tribe chose to cooperate with the federal government and the International Whaling Commission in rekindling its whaling tradition. By 1999, the tribe had been allocated five whales per year, from the allocation of Russian indigenous people and, for the first time in more than 70 years, took a whale.

The meat was shared with all members of the tribe and the whale's bones reassembled for an educational exhibit in the Makah tribal museum. It was a time of cultural celebration supported by indigenous people from across the globe.

Self-righteous protesters have tried every trick to stop Makah whaling and have succeeded in causing a temporary delay in court. But neither they, nor anyone else, will ever break the age-old bond between the Makah and the whale. The Makah will whale again.

Some people seem to think that the unauthorized acts of a few render the treaty right invalid. Wrong. Treaty-protected rights are the tribes' Bill of Rights and those rights continue, now and forever.

The Makah are a whaling people, with powerful traditions that precede any customs, rights or spiritual beliefs brought to this continent by non-Indians. The Makah Council is a sovereign, elected government that is taking a slow, but determined and judicious, path to resumption of its whaling tradition.

The Makah Nation has earned, and deserves, your support.

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.


Article published Sep 17, 2007
Makah whaler offers insight into Sept. 8 hunt

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wayne Johnson was the captain of the successful and federally sanctioned Makah whale hunt in 1999 and one of the five tribe members who illegally hunted a gray whale off Neah Bay on Sept. 8, 2007.

With the help and permission of Keith Johnson, the head of the tribe's whaling commission, Wayne Johnson (who is not directly related to Keith) sent the Peninsula Daily News and The Seattle Times a written statement defending his actions and expressing frustration with the system that has held up a new legal whale hunt for the tribe.


By Wayne Johnson

When the U.S. Coast Guard ordered us to drop our whaling weapons last Saturday [Sept. 8], we were just moments away from killing a gray whale that would have fed our Makah people.

The wounded whale was left to drift with our harpoons in it and a second whaling team that would have ended its misery was turned away at gun point.

I probably shouldn't say anything about all this since it looks like I will be prosecuted in tribal court, but I'm proud of what we did.

I'm only mad that we weren't allowed to finish the job and bring this whale to shore for our people.

We've been waiting eight years since our last whale hunt for the United States to hold up its end of our treaty that guarantees our right to hunt whales.

They have yet to carry out the legal procedures they claim to need.

I don't know if I had any faith in the process to begin with, but I certainly don't have any now.

The Makah tribe never conceded that our treaty rights were subject to all these conditions.

We agreed to participate in the process only as a courtesy, not a legality.

But years are going by.

So many of our elders have passed on.

And some of us need this whale meat in our freezers to get through the winter.

The whales we see out there all the time are robust and they are everywhere.

Our tribe manages its natural resources very well.

Our seafood is still healthy, our fish, our clams.

We have an abundance of wildlife and we have good management in place.

Our whale hunting is and will continue to be sustained.

We've had an International Whaling Commission quota of five whales a year in place every year since I helped bring home the whale in 1999.

That's 40 whales we have been denied while the government drags its feet and makes excuses.

Just like the $60 billion courts say the government owes Indians today, the U.S. still does not keep its promises to Native people.

If they don't want to uphold their part of the treaty, then give me back my land.

Some people are calling what I did an act of civil disobedience.

I don't know much about that, but if civil is what the government is, then call my part savage disobedience.

Eskimos did it when their whaling rights were challenged.

Aleuts did it when their sealing rights were challenged.

Talalip, Puyallup, Nisqually, Muckleshoot and many other Indians did it when their fishing rights were challenged.

Many of us whalers have been talking about this privately for a while.

Even though our community didn't know until it happened, many share our frustrations and showed support.

From the inside of the jail we could hear them honking for us as they drove by.

I was willing to go to jail.

I did it for my mom who is approaching 80, and for my nephew who is 5.

Instead of commodity surplus cheese and canned goods this winter, I want them to eat our healthy Native foods.

I want them to eat whale.





by Thomas P. Schlosser


1. Preservation of the fish-based Indian livelihood was guaranteed by treaty.

Although animal pelts were the most important trade item with the earliest European visitors, the coming of the settlers resulted in a substantial increase in the tribes= fishing activities. White residents relied on Indians for fish; the early non-Indian commercial fishing enterprises were rudimentary and largely unsuccessful. In addition to the growing market for fresh fish and the traditional trade with other Indian groups, large quantities of salmon, purchased from the Indians, were salted by the Northwest and Hudson Bay Companies for shipping to markets New York, San Francisco, China, South America, Hawaii, and Great Britain.[15] Thus, an initial effect of the influx of non-Indians into Western Washington was to increase the demand for fish both for local consumption and for export, and this demand relied upon the Indians for supply.

Non-Indians did not engage as fishing competitors on any scale until the late 1870 s. Instead the white man concentrated on agriculture and the exploitation of natural resources of the Pacific Northwest other than the salmon fishery. The white man wanted the right to the land, the Indian the guarantee of his right to the fisheries.[16] Thus, by the time the Stevens= treaties were negotiated Indians were deeply engaged with non-Indians in commerce in fish.[17] It was in this economic milieu that the treaties were consummated.

The U.S. delegation was clearly cognizant of the Indians= domination of the fishery when the treaties were negotiated. A December 30, 1854, letter from Isaac Stevens notes,

The Indians on Puget Sound have been for a considerable time in contact with the whites . . . They form a very considerable proportion of the trade of the Sound . . . They catch most of our fish, supplying not only our people with clams and oysters, but salmon to those who cure and export it.[18]

The U.S. negotiators intended that the Indians should be self-sufficient, able to continue the trade of fish with non-Indians and other tribes.[19] For example, the members of the treaty commission at the treaty with the Makah, (Stevens, Gibbs, Shaw, and Simmons), were aware of the commercial nature and the value of the Makah marine economy and they promised the Makah that the United States would assist them in developing their maritime industry. By his promise of kettles and fishing apparatus to the Makah, Governor Stevens clearly indicated that there was no intent on the part of the treaty commissioners that the Indians be restricted to aboriginal equipment or technique.[20] A few years after the treaties, Indian Agent Simmons reported,

The salmon run up the Qui-nai-elt river, in great numbers, are considered the fattest and best flavored of any taken on this coast, and the Indians should be encouraged to open a trade in them. I think they can be more profitably employed in this way than in agricultural pursuits, as it will be a more congenial employment for them.[21]
While the American signatories to the treaties may have understood the importance of fishing to the Indian communities and economies, language and cultural barriers between the parties likely prevented complete communication. The extent of Indian tenure and ownership rights of fish being asserted by the tribes were foreign or unknown to the whites. This is clearly illustrated in the negotiations with the Makah.[22] Nootkan culture, of which the Makah were a part, recognized in various individual members ownership rights to anything that the tides or waves deposited on the members= section of beach. It also recognized ownership of ocean tracts. In the official record of the treaty proceedings, on entry reads:

Tse-Kaw-Wooth - he wanted the sea - that was his country.

Tse-Kaw-Wooth was the leading man of the Ozette Village and was acting as head chief for the Makah at the time of the treaty. From later reports we know that the Ozette owned important fishing rights on the halibut banks northwest of Tatoosh Island. It seems likely that these were what Tse-Kaw-Wooth was asserting rights to at the treaty.[23] The Nootkans recognized ownership not only rivers and fishing places close at hand, but the waters of the sea for miles off shore were all privately owned property.[24] These notions of off-shore rights, comprising privately owned sections of ocean extending many miles from land, or rights to certain species, were foreign concepts, ones which the whites did not comprehend at the treaty talks.[25]

GP: You want to learn more from the Makah perspective: 14.Oct.2007 12:48


 link to books.google.com

"To great fanfare, and under the protection of the US Coast Guard, eight of the men...(used a rifle which had to be fired four times) at a juvenile gray whale who swam right up to them.

Alberta Thompson, a Makah woman who opposed the hunt, tells me she was harassed and fired form her job by Japan's supporters in the tribe, whom, she believes, also harassed her grandson and killed her dog...

Mrs. Thompson didn't think much of the Makah men, either. A video-tape was taken of the sacred ceremony, which consisted of the men jumping up and down on the slain whale in idiot euphoria, the creature still moving her flippers, before carving her up with chainsaws and then, as night fell, leaving half the carcass to rot. 'For hunters long ago,' she says, 'it was very important that you live a clean life a year before the hunt. Men were dancing on teh whale after the hunt. The men of another time would never have done that. It took a young lady from the tribe to tell them to stop. A young lady, and she was pro-whaler. The men of another time would never have done that. They would have had more reverecnce for the life they had taken.'"