The Truth about the Makah Whale Hunt
Ten years ago, the Makah tribe gained permission from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the government of the United States to kill grey whales as they migrated through the oceans surrounding Makah territory. Animal advocates decried the decision, and fought to end the hunt. Opponents of the hunt were immediately branded as racists for daring to argue against the treaty rights and cultural heritage of the Makah people. Wedges were driven between natural allies as commentators and commercial whalers alike attempted to portray this as a battle between the cultural rights of indigenous peoples, and the "Western imperialism" of those animal advocates who fought for the lives of the whales. But now, a decade later, we are learning that things were not so cut and dried as that. What really happened in Neah Bay?
Before we begin, it is necessary to point out that, indeed, the Makah people practised whaling for many generations, and that they specifically reserved the right to continue to do so by treaty when they ceded part of their land to the United States government. This fact was not always fully acknowledged by those in opposition to the whale hunt, including myself, and should be acknowledged here. In the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, thousands of acres of Makah territory was exchanged for, among other things, the right to continue to hunt, fish, and whale. For various reasons, the Makah came to lose interest in the tradition of whaling over the next five decades, probably in part due to the dwindling population of whales -- hundreds of thousands of whales had been systematically exterminated by commercial whaling, so that it became more difficult to find, let alone kill, any whales at all. The last known Makah whale hunt, prior to the resurgence of interest in the late 1990s, took place around 1910.
It must also be noted that the deplorable practices which led whales to the brink of extinction were not a function of Makah tribal practices. The Makah people had hunted sustainably for many generations, while European and Japanese forces all but wiped out the whales with their commercial fleets and factory ships within hardly more than a century of intensive, post-industrial whaling. So if we are looking for villains among the whale killers, we would start far from Neah Bay.
Having said that, we must also recognize the whales. These are sentient beings, capable of complex thought and logic, as well as deep emotions, who were never asked to sign any treaties giving away their lives - not to the Makah, or to anyone else. Whales are highly intelligent fellow travelers, who love and caress their young, sing elaborate songs, communicate with each other from across the world's oceans, aid the sick, and refuse to leave each other when a companion or family member is captured. Some whalers use this emotional depth in shocking ways: Whalers often kill babies and use them as bait to lure in their own mothers. Since the babies can't get away, the whalers attack them, and when the mother refuses to leave her young, they kill her too. In his ground-breaking book, Dominion, Matthew Scully describes vividly an image captured on film by Greenpeace in 1976:
"...Greenpeace ... filmed the Soviet catcher boat Vlastny launching one of these grenade-tipped harpoons at a sperm whale swimming with her mate. [....] As the stricken creature heaves in a bloody convulsion, her companion turns violently toward the Greenpeace raft, at the last moment sweeping around to charge the Vlastny. He lunges upward, clapping his jaw as if to get at the harpooneer, as the gun is aimed down and fired into his face."
Anyone who sees that video, which is still available online, cannot escape the sickening knowledge that these were beautiful, thinking, feeling, peaceful beings who had been minding their own business, and who were violently, brutally murdered by greedy, profit-seeking whalers. And this is a drama that is played out on the world's oceans thousands of times every year, often far from any witnessing camera lens. Mothers and their babies, lovers, companions, whole families, brutally slaughtered for no rational reason at all. Whales tend to be very trusting, often swimming right up to the killers out of benign, friendly curiosity. Lest anyone accuse me of "anthropomorphism" in pointing this out, I need to also point out that serious science no longer considers that charge, "anthropomorphism," to be a valid concept. Enough studies have been done, enough research compiled, enough data sifted through, that we now know without shadow of a doubt that non-human animals are as capable as we are of experiencing rich emotions and complex thought. Whales, with brains many times larger than our own, are especially gifted in this regard. And so the prospect of yet more whales being butchered for any reason, let alone for frivolous reasons, is enough to make one weep.
Again, I hasten to add that thousands of whales are murdered each year by non-Natives, mostly by Norwegian and Japanese nationals - the Japanese butchering them by the thousands for elite, upscale culinary markets and doing so by exploiting a loophole in the whaling ban that allows killing for "research" purposes. Blatantly deceptive, they paint the word "Research" on their whaling vessels, and then scour the world's oceans, even sanctuaries, for the few remaining leviathans left on earth. None of these animals is actually used for the purpose of research, all of them wind up on the open market, and everyone knows it. The Norwegians, on the other hand, choose to simply ignore the whaling ban all together, without even the pretense of compliance. And when I say that they are being killed for frivolous reasons, I should add that none of us requires whale products anymore, and arguably we never did. The ships that hunt down the whales and their young all run on deisel power now, not whale oil. Whale meat is not a staple of any diet, but an expensive luxury item best done without. So yes, one can easily argue that there are much more serious aggressors against the whale than the Makah, who "only" asked for the right to kill a handful of grey whales every year, and who asked to do so on the grounds of culture.
I would argue, though, that the life of every whale is precious, and these whales who were being hunted right here in Cascadia were as deserving of our compassion and protection as are the whales in the Southern Oceans, being protected by the ships of Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherds. These whales, as surely as the couple so vividly and tragically slaughtered by the Vlastny whalers, have the capacity to love one another, to love their lives, and to fight for their lives and for each other. These whales, just like the calving mothers cut down by Japanese "research" vessels, are peaceful, beautiful, compassionate giants who deserve to be left alone to live their long lives in peace. This is a very controversial subject, I acknowledge. And so I have begun this story with a recognition of all the reasons why the Makah, a sovereign people exercising treaty rights, were well within their rights vis a viz humans, to ask for permission to kill the whales. If we are talking only about human affairs, the right to hunt and kill their traditional prey, reserved to them by treaty, is not so unreasonable a demand. But we are not only talking about humans here. We are talking about the lives of others. Indeed, we are talking about the lives of thinking, feeling beings who consider their lives to be as meaningful, as sacred, as important to them as ours are to us. And again, they did not sign any treaty giving away their lives. They are among the most oppressed beings on earth, and their voices deserve to be heard in this debate as well. They have more at stake in this controversey than any of the rest of us, and they want to live.
So we return now, to the question of culture, of tradition, and of rights. Is this a case of the rights of animals clashing with the cultural rights of indigenous people? If so, then it is sadly complex but in the end, while I must respectfully acknowledge the voices of the Makah, I must stand with the whale. Or on the other hand, as I am about to argue, was there something else at play here that has never been fully acknowledged? Was this really all about reclaiming tradition and reasserting rights? In part, I am sure, but not fully. Those things seem to have come in as an afterthought. In fact, it had been so long since any Makah member had killed a whale that, when one was killed by the Makah in the late 90s, no one knew what to do with it. Tribal elders pointed out, in disgust, that no traditional practices had been observed, no traditional rituals had been even remotely respected in the killing of the first whale in nearly a century. (Source: Alberta Tompson, Tribal Elder.) They did not even know how to butcher the animal, and had to be shown how to peel back the blubber and render the animal by a visitor from Alaska. While one could argue that they simply needed to re-learn these lost traditions, several Makah tribal elders pointed out at the time that those involved with the hunt exhibited no respect whatsoever for tribal traditions related to the kill, nor did they seem inclined to learn.
Why, then, was interest suddenly rekindled in the traditional practice of killing whales? Was it really a resurgence of cultural values, a desire to return to the traditions of the past, or even a desire to exercise treaty rights for the sake of the rights themselves? Again, perhaps in part. But it turns out that the machine behind the renewed Makah whale hunt was not really so much about cultural heritage at all, but about money, politics, and cynical commercial whaling interests from Japan and, to a lesser extent, Norway. As it happens, the Makah tribe was getting along fairly well without whaling, and no one had given the practice much thought in several generations. That is, until Western PR firms working with the Japanese commercial whaling industry (make that the Japanese whale "researchers") came along. It seems that the PR firms had discovered that whaling could be made more palatable to world public opinion if it could be presented as "culturally significant." In other words, those PC animal advocates would be reluctant to speak up against whaling if a strong case could be made that the killing of whales is an indigenous right sanctified by the hallowed concept of diversity.
To that end, commercial whaling interests from Japan and Norway kicked in tens of thousands of dollars in 1996 to start a pro-whaling group, the "World Council of Whalers" right next to the Makah territory. Meetings began to ensue between the Japanese whalers and receptive members of the Makah, and money began to flow. It was shortly after this that interest in the "cultural right" to kill whales was suddenly reignited in the Makah tribe. One of the first members of the Makah tribe to suggest a return to the killing of whales was one Dan Greene, who suggested to tribal council members that a single whale could earn the tribe a whopping $500,000 if sold to the Japanese. (Although the terms of the agreement that eventually allowed the killing of whales strictly prohibited the sale of dead whales, Greene and others believed it would be easy to get around that little obstacle. Even John McCarty, the former executive director of the tribe's whaling commission, indicated that he was enticed by the thought of selling whale meat commercially to Japan.) (Source: The Great American Whale Hunt, by Richard Blow, Mother Jones Magazine.) Oh. Did I mention that the Makah Tribe's whaling commission and expensive entrance into the IWC was founded on money donated by none other than, you guessed it, Norway and Japan? Yes, this is rather important to add.
While world public opinion had been turning against whaling for decades, the Japanese and Norwegians had little leverage beyond their willingness to ignore the dictates of the IWC and the United Nations on the subject. But if they could firmly establish the "cultural right" to whale, then they would not only be increasing the acceptance of the practice, they would also be tailoring an enormous loophole to allow and justify their own voracious whaling habits: No one can argue that the Japanese and the Norwegians do not have a long cultural history of their own involving the hunting and killing of whales. If respect for cultural diversity could be leveraged to make whaling seem acceptable, which was the strategy of the whalers and their PR firms, then the same cultural rights could be claimed by the Japanese and the Norwegians, and the very lucrative wholesale commercial slaughter could be back on with a vengeance. At least, that was what they banked on, and with that in mind they sent delegates around the globe, whispering in ears, spreading money around, and creating an apparent resurgence in a desire to return to whaling -- even, in some cases, among indigenouns people who had had no cultural tradition of whaling at all prior to their encounter with colonialism. (Sources: Atherton Martin; M. Scully.)
This is not to suggest that the Makah had no cultural whaling traditions. As already conceded, they did. However, there had been no significant interest in these traditions in many years, and there was no perceived need to re-start the practice before the commercial whalers began whispering in ears and dropping cash into pockets. Whaling had stopped among the Makah many years before any moratorium had been placed upon whalers, and again, it had been so long since anyone had killed a whale that no one in the tribe even remembered how to render a whale. Indeed, the first whale to be killed was done in by assault weaponry, and most of its body was left to rot.
Undoubtedly, there were people among the Makah who did see the return to whaling as a way to reclaim some of their cultural heritage. Nothing is ever so simple and easy to lay out as a single article on the subject might imply. But yes, there were definitely other, more disingenuous, forces at work here as well, and these have not been fully addressed in any of the discourses I have seen recently on this subject. And yes, there were also voices among the Makah who did not support the killing, and who fought valiantly to stop it. Their voices, also, have been ignored.
Often, when questions about the unsavory relationship between the commercial whalers and certain facets of the Makah leadership arise, the charge of racism is leveled against anyone who dares to question the cultural and treaty rights of these indigenous people. It is a sticky question, and no one wants to be on the wrong side of this one. So touchy is this issue that many environmental and animal advocacy groups have shied away from even mentioning it, let alone taking any stand. The history of racism and oppression by white people against Native peoples in this country are so deep and entrenched as to be legendary. It is not difficult to understand why many Native people see any interference by non-Natives into tribal affairs as an affront, nor is it difficult to understand why so many well-meaning progressive people declined to speak for the whales when it seemed to mean speaking against indigenous rights. However, this reluctance to confront the hard realities at work here only undermined any real cultural understanding, and effectively colluded in the silencing of some very important Native voices, as well as the voices of the whales. In addition, the reluctance to examine this issue has fostered division between progressive people who should be natural allies with one another -- I have heard animal advocates expressing frustration over their perception that Native people don't care about animals, just as I have heard Native people expressing frustration over their perception that animal advocates do not care about the rights of Native people.
Perhaps both sides need to step back and listen to the voices of some important tribal elders from the Makah Nation. For it was not only non-Native outsiders who were horrified by the prospect of the killing of whales in Neah bay; It was also many of the Makah people themselves. Yes, many Makah people did support the hunt. But many others did not. One of the most eloquent voices against the killing of whales in Neah Bay was that of Alberta Thompson. Well into her 70s in the late 1990s, this grandmother and tribal Elder raised her voice against the killing, and took great offense at the portrayal of the hunt as being necessary for subsistence or traditional reasons. She told EF! journal:
"They say aboriginal subsistence, but there isn't that many people so poor here that a whale is going to fill their tummies. We are blessed by living on the oceanside, we can catch fish, we can get mussels, we can get clams and all that rock food. We have grounds that could produce potatoes and all those vegetables. We are not hurting, we're not poor. Even during the Great Depression we didn't even know we were in it because we were eating." (Source: EF! Journal, "A Makah Elder Speaks: Interview with Alberta Thompson.")
Thompson also took exception to the portrayal of aninmal advocates as being racist for opposing the hunt. Said Thompson:
"Some of the people outside [Neah Bay] call anti-whaling people racist, but they're not against Indians, they're against the killing of whales, which I, as an Indian, am against, especially for nothing." (IBID.)
Finally, Thompson was outraged at the claim of "tradition" when those participating in the hunt failed to follow any semblance of Makah tradition in the killing of the first whale in nearly a century. She described the gap between tradition and reality thusly:
"They say tradition, well the first part of whaling, the tradition is you spend a year of a clean life, spiritually clean, and they didn't do that. Three of them didn't pass a drug test. I was at court where one of them had a DUI against him and he was found guilty. But he had the common sense, the good sense of stepping down, not getting back in that canoe. But the three that didn't pass the drug test stayed in that canoe, so this is certainly not tradition. Right over television you see this boat towing this whale... and they towed it until they were almost into the bay and they then switched it over to the canoe...That is not tradition. The gun is not tradition. The way they disrespected that baby killed, by jumping on it and dancing on it is horrible." (IBID.)
Thompson was not alone in her dissent against the renewal of the whale hunt. She joined six other tribal elders in speaking out against the Makah Tribal Councils' suppoprt for the hunt in a half page ad in a local paper. Along with 96 year old Isabell Ides, 78 year old Harry Claplonhoo, 80 year old Margaret Irving, 94 year old Ruth Claplonhoo, 88 year old Viola Johnson, and 92 year old Lena McGee, Thompson signed the ad which read:
"We are elders of the Makah Indian Nation (Ko-Ditch-ee-ot) which means People of the Cape. We oppose this Whale hunt our tribe is going to do. The opposition is directly against our leaders, the Makah Tribal Council, Tribal Staff, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is an arm of the United States Government.
The Makah Indian Nation has been functioning without a quorum; two Councilmen are off on sick leave for very serious reasons, cancer. How can any decision be legal when our by-laws state the Treasures shall be present at every meeting? The Vice Chairman is the other man out.
The Whale hunt issue has never been brought to the people to inform them and 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. For these reasons we believe the hunt is only for the money. They can't say "Traditional, Spiritual and for Subsistence" in the same breath when no training is going on, just talk.
Whale watching is an alternative we support." (Source: Peninsula Daily News, Sunday Edition.)
There were other Makah members who spoke against the killing as well, both on behalf of the whales, and because they felt that the Tribal Council was disrespecting their traditions and their rights by failing to consult with tribal Elders, and failing to consider their opposition. Dottie Chamberlin, for example, joined Thompson in arguing that the Tribal Council is an artificial and imposed form of government forced upon the Makah by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). (Thompson often called the Council a "corporate government." She felt very strongly that the BIA was a destructive force in her tribe, and that the BIA had deliberately taken sides with the pro-whaling forces in order to foster division in the tribe.) Thompson, Chamberlin, and others said that traditional tribal elders should have been the ones to make such decisions, but that the elders are often ignored by the tribal council, and that this is what happened in the case of the whale hunt.
Thompson continued to speak out against the hunt in spite of repression from pro-whaling factions within the tribe, and from nefarious forces coming from outside the tribe, because she genuinely loved the whales. She often told a story about a journey she made on the ocean during which a mother whale and her calf swam right up to her, and she reached out and touched the whale. She did not believe that whales needed to be killed in order to respect tribal culture. She explained to an interviewer:
"There is a tribe in the northern part of Vancouver Island and I love what they say. They say the whale did take care of us, he did feed us, we ate the whale and now it's our turn to return that favor. So now we are just going to honor the whale and we're going to protect the whale. There are so many things that they did not do correctly in this hunt. I could start crying. They didn't tow that whale, a deep sea diver went and closed its mouth and that's not tradition. The way the media explained it they were a mile offshore when they caught the whale and we're supposed to be way more than that offshore, and they caught a little baby. They're saying it was three years-old, but it's not. And it was not cut up by Makahs. The whale was cut up by one Alaskan Indian, and when he got mad he quit, saying, 'Where are the Makahs, where is the Captain of the crew, why isn't he cutting this up?' He said, 'I quit.' So the National Marine Fisheries took over and they cut it. You should have seen all of us anti-whaling people, we could hardly talk without crying the day that they killed the baby. The media won't say baby, they just say whale."
Aside from the abject pain of watching helplessly while others murdered a baby whale in the name of her tribe, Thompson suffered a great deal of oppression for her outspoken resistance to the Council decision, and by extension, her resistance to the designs of the Japanese commercial whaling interests that had bought influence within the Council. Thompson was fired from her job with the tribal government after more than a decade of service. Her daughter was denied land rights on the reservation, her family members were harassed, and horrifically, her dog was murdered after she spoke out against the hunt. Her tribal pension was revoked, and she had to go into hiding for awhile after participating in a Sea Shepherd protest against the hunt. (Sources: Dominion, by M. Scully; NCSE Native Americans and the Environment; EF! Journal.)
This is not the first time that commercial whaling interests from Japan and Norway have blatantly interfered in other cultures, buying support from far flung indigenous peoples in order to bolster their claims of culture for the whaling industry. Japan has been plying Caribbean delegates to the International Whaling Commission with elaborate bribes for many years without even bothering to cover this unsavory aspect of IWC politics up with a veneer of respectability. This nasty underbelly seldom comes to light, except in the most dramatic cases -- as when, a few years back, Atherton Martin, the fisheries minister for Dominica, resigned in protest from the IWC, subsequently revealing that Japan had bribed his country with millions of dollars in order to buy a pro-whaling vote. (Sources, including a video of Martin speaking out on the subject of Japan's undue influence in his country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiN01wsLpOU; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/events/newsnight/994507.stm; http://www.dominicanewsonline.com/all_news/environment/6365.html, http://www.caribbean360.com/News/Tourism/Stories/2007/05/28/NEWS0000004423.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiN01wsLpOU; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/events/newsnight/994507.stm; http://www.dominicanewsonline.com/all_news/environment/6365.html, http://www.caribbean360.com/News/Tourism/Stories/2007/05/28/NEWS0000004423.html, link to archive.greenpeace.org.)
In fact, since the IWC operates on a system of simple majority (and unenforceable in any event), Japan and Norway have been busily bringing in new delegates from countries with no tradition of whaling at all outside of brief periods of colonialism by the West. (Source: Dominion by M. Scully.) These nations are then granted votes which are bought outright by the commercial whaling industries of these two countries. This is the dirty secret of the International Whaling Commission, and something you would have thought worth mentioning in the debate over the Makah whale hunt. But scarcely a word of this reached our ears from the corporate media; instead the battle was reduced to one of indigenous people versus whales, cultural tradition versus racism, Western imperialism versus diversity.
Lest we come away believing that we must choose either the rights of animals or the rights of indigenous people, we should listen to strong voices like that of Alberta Thompson and her sister and brother Makah Elders, who tell us that this is a false choice -- that we can support the rights of Native people while also supporting the rights of animals like the whales of Neah Bay. And lest we fall into the carefully crafted trap laid by pro-whaling PR firms who would divide us from each other, we should note that it was not only members of the Makah tribe who spoke out against the hunt, it was also neighboring tribes. The Quileute, for example, another tribe with a history of whaling, issued a statement in which they expressed support for whale watching rather than whale killing, pointing out that tradition was not dependent upon the killing of whales. So while nefarious interests would have us believe that Native people are all about killing off animals for tradition and profit, this is simply not so. There are many indigenous people who do not support this kind of killing.
And so, ten years after the first whale was killed by the Makah tribe in nearly a century, we are finally learning the truth: That this was not just a painful case of clashing values between indigenous rights and the rights of the whales. This was, to its core, a cynical attempt on the part of the whaling industry to co-opt other peoples' culture in the service of the whaling industry. It was money and corruption being used to buy legitimacy for a dying "tradition" of death. It was a wedge driven through communities and living rooms, all in an effort to undermine decades of progress made toward the ending of one of the most brutal and gut-wrenching aggressions ever to take place. As science began to uncover the astonishing intelligence and deep emotional lives of the whales, as the world began to recoil from the shocking abuses of these sentient beings, the multi-million dollar whaling industry desperately sought out ways to complicate and obfuscate the matter behind a veil of cultural tradition. Yes, there are still people who support the return of whaling on cultural grounds, but sometimes, culture is not enough to justify the untold suffering of others, usually non-human others, who are the victims of those traditions. And sometimes, we must look deeper than the surface to see the whole picture, even when it is uncomfortable for us to do so.
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