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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.

No Mercy 03.Jul.2009 19:24


The article above covers the killing of a whale in 1999 by the Makah. We should not forget that certain members of this tribe continue to insist on the right to kill whales even today, nor should we forget this abomination:

 link to www.livevideo.com

The video depicts the illegal killing of a young whale in September of 2007 by the same idiots who killed the baby whale in 1999. This time, the killing was condemned not only by those who had opposed the original hunt, but by the Tribal Council as well. During this "hunt," these awful killers shot the animal with multiple harpoons and explosives over the course of an afternoon, and then commenced to shoot the animal over and over, again and again with assault rifles as they laughed and joked in the safety of their boat. They clumsily attached floats to the harpoons that were stabbed into the bleeding flesh of the terrified and struggling animal to prevent her from escaping below the waves, and then they followed her around the bay in speed boats for the more than TEN HOURS of suffering that it took her to finally die of her many, many injuries. At long last she died, and then in a final and ironic rebuke to those who would claim that she had "given herself" to the whalers, she sank to the bottom of the bay where she was never recovered. These killers, so hungry for fame and profit in the guise of "tradition," so eager to thumb their noses at those who would interfere with their "right" to kill, took not the slightest notice of any tribal tradition in doing what they did, and in the end, the incompetent asses could not even bring the dead whale back as a trophy because they had never bothered to study tribal traditions on the matter, and they no idea on earth what they were even doing. And so, she died for nothing, martyred to some ridiculous, co-opted, and industry-backed caricature of "tradition" that some would have us believe is somehow noble or, at the very least, acceptable. It is not.

I need to underline that (with the glaring exception of a well-funded traveling road show of Japanese-financed "Makah grandmothers" who came to Portland recently to defend the monstrous and tragically incompetent perpetrators of this incomprehensible deed), the Makah tribe officially denounced this killing. One tribal elder expressed both outrage and revulsion at this blood thirsty crime. This was not about culture. This was about cold, heartless, callous, indifference to the lives and suffering of others. This was not tradition; it was stupidity, hubris, greed, and self aggrandizing miscalculation of the sort that is so sadly ingrained in every human culture, without exception, and is not intrinsically Native.

As stated in the original article, there is nothing necessarily Native about torturing and killing whales, and the Makah have not been the only ones to do it, nor even the most virulently destructive. Virtually every coastal culture has taken part in this brutality at one time or another. Many of us are descendants of whalers, refugees from cultures in which there is a long and inglorious "tradition" of killing, and it is up to ALL of us to end this unjustifiable practice, and to avoid rekindling "traditions" that mean suffering and death for others. Just as Alberta Thompson stood up against the whaling in Neah Bay, we must all stand up against whaling wherever it still exists.


I would not be opposed to compensation to the Makah in exchange for the renouncing of the "right" to kill whales. I am mindful that they did, in fact, trade away much of their land for very little, and that one of the very few things that they asked in return was the right to continue to kill the whales. Perhaps they should be fairly compensated for the part that whaling once played in their local economy and livlihoods, even if it had been abandoned by them voluntarily almost a century ago. More to the point, they should be fairly compensated for the land that was ceded, since it is doubtful that they had much of a choice in the matter and even with the whaling they clearly did not receive a fair trade. I would rather see my tax money go to pay this tribe and every other for the land that was taken from them by the US government than to see that tax money go to oppressing the people of Iraq or Afghanistan. I am mindful that one cannot simply buy away cultural traditions, but I am also mindful that many of the Makah themselves do not consider the killing of whales to be a necessary component of the reclamation of their own cultural traditions. At the very least, they are owed a fair price for the land that was taken, but I cannot support a cultural "right," even one granted by treaty, to take the lives of others, who had no say in that treaty. Not everything that has "always been done" should continue to be done, not even by indigenous peoples. When traditions cause suffering of innocents, I stand with the innocents.

Killing Traditions 04.Jul.2009 10:48

another thought

In view of continuing efforts to justify and excuse animal abuse as a matter of cultural "tradition," there is a lot to learn from this case. It is especially poignant since efforts to resume killing whales in Neah Bay are continiung.

All of us come from cultures in which the violent oppression of non-human animals is a long standing tradition. It is human nature to oppress those whom we consider to be different from ourselves, and non-human animals are the most different of all. We oppress women, children, sexual minorities, people of other races and cultures, but most universally, we oppress animals. Tradition cannot be a legitimate defense for actions that intentionally cause the suffering of others, be they human or non-human beings. Culture can seem like a convenient excuse, but especially given the universality of harm caused to animals by every culture on earth, it is not an acceptable defense of practices that inflict pain and suffering on others.

It is possible to recognize and respect each others' cultural identities without conceding the right to harm or kill others who do not want to be harmed or killed. In the case of the Makah, that comes with recognizing the voices of those within the culture who were, and are, opposed to the killing. It also comes with the recognition that the forces at work in the Makah whale hunt are no worse, but also no better, than the forces at work in other whale hunts, or those at work any time an animal is killed by a human. And finally, it comes with the recognition that the victim of the tradition also has a stake, and that the victim is also a thinking and feeling being who deserves consideration and compassion.

Some would suggest that, until we stamp out all animal abuse in non-indigenous cultures, we must remain silent about such abuses within indigenous cultures. Or more commonly, that until we stop all abuses within our own culture, we have no right to ask that people in other cultures stop abusing animals. Ironically, this suggestion often comes from people who would never accept that we can do nothing to end oppression of people in other cultures until we have helped every victim of oppression within our own culture. Nor would they ever accept advice to "take care of our own" with respect to natural disasters or famine. Someone who needs help needs help, and if we are able to help, then we must. The whales need help.

We must respectfully recognize that the Makah people are not more at fault than any of the rest of us in regard to committing unspeakable acts of cruelty against non-human animals; non-indigenous cultures routinely slaughter animals in disgusting and inhumane ways, non-indigenous cultures force animals into appalling conditions in factory farms, non-indigenous cultures murder whales in much greater numbers than the Makah, and so forth. And we must continue to fight for ALL of those animals. Yes, even the whales of Neah Bay. We cannot just turn our backs on the suffering of thinking, feeling, fellow beings just because we don't want to offend those causing the suffering, or just because other animals are suffering in other circumstances. This is not about pointing fingers and demonizing the Makah people. It is about standing up for the animals, even when those who would hurt them are doing so from a long cultural tradition of hurting those animals.

If we ignored the horrific factory farms, if we never spoke up against vivisection, if we celebrated the beating of circus animals or the torture of lab rats as part of our own cultural heritage, then yes, it would be hypocritical to rail against the killing of whales in Neah Bay. But none of us does those things. Those of us who fought against the whale killing are the same people who fight to end factory farms and fur shops, who battle vivisectors, and who refuse to eat meat.

Whale Intelligence 04.Jul.2009 18:50


From New Scientist:
 link to www.newscientist.com

"They were touted as the brain cells that set humans and the other great apes apart from all other mammals. Now it has been discovered that some whales also have spindle neurons - specialised brain cells that are involved in processing emotions and helping us interact socially."

From the Independent:
 link to www.independent.co.uk

"They show remarkably human-like emotions, ranging from joy to grief to care for the injured. Mr Simmonds quotes a case of a 30-strong pod of false killer whales which remained with an injured member in shallows for three days, exposing themselves to sunburn and the risk of stranding, until it died."

Abstract of Scientific Paper by M. P. Simmonds on the intelligence of whales and dolphins:
 link to www.sciencedirect.com

"As one consequence of high intelligence, the potential impacts of whaling and other removals may be far greater than they appear and a new approach to the conservation of these species - which takes into account their intelligence, societies, culture and potential to suffer - is advocated."

Science is beginning to reveal that whales are not only intelligent, but that they also have deep cultural knowledge of their own, and that cultural knowledge has in some cases been wiped out by whaling. What a monumental discovery! This should have been front page news everywhere. But it was not. A nation where every channel can be devoted to Michael Jackson has spared hardly a word to the paradigm-shifting truth that whales, like humans, have shared culture. (The same is true of elephants, and probably many other non-human animals.)

So while we talk about cultural traditions, let us also respect those of the whales.

ian wallace 06.Jul.2009 09:45

your so lame

Cetacean, what price tag would you put on their culture, you know, as a buy out of whaling? $10,000, $100,000? You might forgive the Makah is they don't trust another white person with another piece of paper for them to sign.

As to "trading away much of their land" (for very little!), and I'm not sure what your referring to. Was that all those treaties they signed at gun point? Regarding the lifestyle "abandoned by them voluntarily almost a century ago", I that the genocidal policies of the BIA, the imposition of the market economy on indigenous peoples, and the destruction of the material basis of their own economy makes the "voluntary" part of that pretty meaningless.

It was nice of you to point out that the Makah are not singularly evil in their cultural norms. It should be no surprise that a culture that was largely destroyed by a white supremacist military onslaught lack the direct skills to engage their traditions. I wonder why it is that society has not put any resources into cultural replication of native communities unless white people approve of it?

my friend, you are walking down the road of racism. Really. This is a separate question then whaling, as it is how you crafted your argument that exposes a level of privilege and cultural elitism (or sub-cultural elitism more precisely)that robs you of potential allies. I don't imagine many indigenous people would read your sanctimonious tirade and reflect on whaling as a road to cultural renaissance. I certainly didn't. I just put to in the file entitled "racist AR activist", unfortunately that has become a big file.

As a white person living on stolen land, what they Makah do to find a center to their culture is non of my goddamn business. And unless they attempt to start industrial whaling operations (you know, to please Cetacean's Yellow Peril), I would recommend white AR folks stay out of it.

The problem that we all face, the impending catastrophe called global warming (really carbon emissions) will require cross cultural alliances that will not benefit by the ignorance expressed by Cetacean. And if we don't get in front of that, then the ocean will be so fucked in 1 or 2 generations that it won't support whales, or much else then jelly fish for the next 2 million years or so.


Response to Ian Wallace 06.Jul.2009 21:23


"Lame"??? As in, "Your so LAME"??? Wow. Now there's a respectful use of language. I'm sure all the people who cannot walk really appreciate your attempt at cultural sensitivity.

As for the price tag of culture, why don't you ask the whales? As clearly spelled out already, whales have an age old culture of their own, and the murder of whales by humans is wiping out that culture.

And, my "friend," you are walking down the road to speciesism. Really. As a white person yourself, you really don't have the right to over-ride the voices of the Makah Elders who spoke out so eloquently against the Makah whale hunt, including Alberta Thompson who clearly stated that supporting the whales was not anti-Indian, no matter how many non-native white-guilt peddling animal haters tried to portray it that way.

Another response 06.Jul.2009 21:41

to Ian

"I would recommend white AR folks stay out of it."

Oh. Yeah. That's reasonable: Animal rights activist, based on race, should just turn their backs and ignore the screams and blood of baby whales being gunned down with AK-47s in Neah Bay, within our very ear shot. Because, of course, your human politicking should take precedence over the lives of, you know, "mere animals."

A more reasonable request is for all animal advocates to work together to prevent any more needless murders of any more innocent whales. You can ask for people to respect the culture and history of others, that would have been reasonable. But asking them to turn their backs on the cries of the whales? That's just showing your true flag. In your view, humans are so "obviously" more important than non-humans that we need not even consider the thoughts, feelings, culture, or reality of the whales here.

There are all kinds of cultural practices in EVERY human culture involving abuses against the powerless. You cannot possibly convince me that it is either necessary or moral to ignore or to condone those abuses in order to respect other cultures. Alberta did not think so, and neither do I.

The cultural relativist who ignores the distinction between cultural respect and turning a blind eye on the unconscionable runs a perverse risk: Because just as that person must "accept" practices in indigenous cultures that involve abuses such as female infanticide, whale hunting, honor killings, human sacrifice and etc, so that person must also "accept" cultural practices among non-indigenous cultures that involve abuses such as, for example, interning people in concentration camps, rampant cultural violence against women, cultural imperialist aggression, and etc. At some point, culture ceases to be a valid excuse for violence and harm to others. Where you draw that line says a lot: Too many people draw it where non-humans are involved. If it's "just" the lives of animals at stake, too many people want to just turn away and "stay out of it." Like the bystanders in New York who infamously allowed a woman to be followed, beaten, and stabbed over the course of several blocks and thirty minutes until she finally collapsed and died of her injuries, you simply "don't want to get involved." You figure it's "their business." Meanwhile, the whales scream for help.

You do what you think is best, but I will help.

No I choose to support the whales 07.Jul.2009 09:15


Since whales are intelligent beings who are being shot to death with assault rifles, I think it behooves us all to consider their clear pleas for life. I think, also, that it is unfair for anyone to contend that we should just ignore them, as Ian Wallace has done.

It is wrong to kill whales, no matter who you are. There is no cultural "right" to oppress, hurt, and kill others. None. Just as I cannot reasonably claim a cultural "right" to oppress indigenous people, no matter how long a history my culture may have of doing just that, so the Makah have no cultural "right" to murder whales, no matter how long a cultural tradition they may have of doing that. Makah Elders themselves have told you that, Ian. Listen to them, and listen to the whales.

Animal Rights and Culture 07.Jul.2009 18:51

an animal advocate

I've been working on an issue with similarities to this one, and I have a few thoughts on this, for whatever they are worth.

On the Columbia river, sea lions are being scapegoated and killed for eating fish. As we all know, the salmon are rapidly disappearing due to human factors -- over-fishing, dams, pollution, and short sightedness.
Wildlife managers have done worse than nothing to save them from extinction. They have continued to raise fishing quotas, fight ESA listing, support gill nets on the river, and failed to speak up about over-development, over fishing, water diversion, or any of the other serious issues causing salmon decline. Lest they take the blame for their bad management of the situation, they are now killing sea lions in the hope that they can divert attention away from the human causes of the problem.

As if that were not bad enough, some of those involved in the killing -- notably, the ODFW, the WDFW, the army corps of engineers, and the CRITFC -- have brazenly attempted to portray the killing of sea lions as a cultural issue, implying that the Native tribes along the river all support the program and that animal advocates should just stay out of it on those grounds. This was a frustrating development for all of the reasons spelled out above. It made it difficult for people who care about both indigenous rights and animal rights, because they felt they had to choose between one or the other.

But as is often true, it turns out to have been a false choice. There is certainly a cultural element involved in the health and well-being of the Columbia river ecosystem, since obviously Native people have lived here and depended on this ecosystem for many generations. So yes, it is a cultural issue. But it turns out that Native people tend to be better educated and better informed on the subject than any of the people working at the ODFW. For the most part, I have found that the Native people I talk to about this have a clear understanding that the sea lions are not to blame for the demise of the salmon, we are.

Although some Native people DO support killing sea lions, just as some non-Native people support the killing, the fact is most do not. Most people in general, Native and non-Native alike, do not support killing sea lions. This fact only became apparent to me when animal advocates in a group that I work with consciously chose to avoid some of the many pitfalls that occurred during the Neah bay whale hunt conflict, and began an effort to reach out and communicate directly with Native people about this. Rather than falling prey to racist assumptions, rather than ignoring the voices of indigenous people, and rather than just "accepting" the assertion that Native people did not care about the lives of the sea lions, activists have been working hard to overcome those obstacles.

Don't get me wrong, we still have a long way to go in this regard. And we are learning as we go.

I will not do what the ODFW has done, and mis-characterize what I say here as speaking for Native people. I am not Native, and I certainly haven't spoken to everyone who is. I can only say that, as I have reached out to communicate about this with Native people, I have found everyone to be very respectful toward me, to be as interested as I am in building understanding, and I have found many, many people who are opposed to the killing of innocent animals over the sins of humans. It is true that many of the people of the River Tribes have a long fishing tradition and a very vested interest in the survival of the salmon. It's also true that absolutely no one I have spoken with wants white people to come along and tell them what to do with the fish on the Columbia. (Go figure.) It's even true that some Native fishermen are as eager as the non-Native fishermen to scapegoat sea lions and other natural predators rather than face the possibility of reduced fishing quotas. But like I said, it turns out not to be true at all that most Native people support the killing of sea lions. We would not have known this if we had simply let people admonish us into "not interfering" in this issue because of the color of our skin.

I do not think it's productive to shy away from controversy any time some well-meaning (usually white) progressive insists that we can't speak up for the animals because human culture is more important. I also do not think it's productive when, on the other hand, activists allow themselves to sink into the mire of racism, whether intentional or not. And let's face it, we've done that. I had (and continue to have) very strong feelings about the killing of whales in Neah Bay as well. I was, and am, horrified at what was done to those whales, and I'm horrified at the thought of any more killing of any more whales. Just as I am horrified at the killing of sea lions on the Columbia. I believe in the struggle to save the whales, and I will continue to fight for them as I fight for the sea lions. At the same time, I am aware of incidents that happened in Neah bay in which people -- including myself -- allowed their ignorance, their anger, their lack of understanding to surface as insensitivity at the least, and racism at the worst. I think we owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to the animals to learn from those mistakes, and do better.

And so the people that I work with have made it a priority to challenge ourselves in that regard. This process can feel really clumsy and intimidating at first, and it can even feel strangely uncomfortable to approach people from other cultures as a student rather than a presumptuous teacher. I know it felt clumsy and difficult for me, because I felt like I was exhibiting my ignorance on my sleeve -- I'm not very social in the first place, and I did not know how to talk with people about this without accidentally offending them, or without making them feel like I was being disrespectful, or frankly, without looking stupid. I knew very little about Native culture before I started fighting for sea lions, and I did not even realize that. I mean, I thought I did, because I had worked to understand Native history, and had done a lot of reading and taken cross cultural classes, and I felt like I knew a lot about the oppression of indigenous people. So although it seems so obviously naive now, I was actually shocked at how very little I knew before actually moving past that comfort zone and taking the time to seek people out and learn from them -- however clumsily.

This is what we have to do, I think, to avoid the unintentional racism that can creep up in situations like this. When wildlife agents and fishing lobbyists began intentionally selling the idea that Native people all supported the killing of sea lions, it was very frustrating to me and to many other animal activists. I think we all thought, in the beginning, that the majority of Native people really did support the killing, and that it would be very difficult to bridge the cultural divide since none of us would ever accept being asked to ignore the oppression and suffering of non-human animals no matter how culturally entrenched that animal oppression might be. I know that's how I felt, at least. I thought it was going to be a matter of trying to figure out how to be as respectful as possible toward the people of the river tribes, even though I totally and completely disagreed with what I thought was "their position" on the killing of sea lions. But instead, I have come to meet so many people who are as outraged as I am by the killing. I found out that there is no "their position" among Native people on this issue any more than there is any one, monolithic "their position" among non-native people.

The point is, I think you really CAN support the rights of animals, even when cultural factors are at play, without tromping on the rights of indigenous people who might have a cultural tradition of harming those animals. It doesn't mean you always have to agree, and it certainly doesn't mean you have to just ignore the pain and suffering of the animals. It just means caring enough about getting this right to actually put some work into it. It means recognizing that all cultures, including ones' own, have traditions that harm animals, and it means finding ways to stop the killing without delving into the racist patterns that are also so ingrained in human culture. It means taking the time to communicate respectfully, and to really consider all the reasons why someone might not be receptive to you coming in and telling them they should do things differently.

(It also means not being so presumptuous as to speak up all self righteously on behalf of people who haven't asked you to. That, too, is racial insensitivity.)

I don't know, this is hard to put into words, and maybe it sounds preachy. It's not meant to. I just get dismayed when I hear white activists admonishing each other from two untenable sides of this very multi-faceted issue. It tends to be reduced down to either a fight between "us and them" which does not give enough consideration to cultural histories and imbalances of power, or else a presumptuous admonition not to get involved at all because we have no "right" to stand up for oppressed animals when oppressed humans are doing the oppressing. Neither of those simplistic extractions is acceptable to me. I think we can do better than that.

Yes 08.Jul.2009 16:38

also fighting this battle

Yes. Please never ask me to ignore the oppression of animals for any human reason. There are so many ways that humans justify their bloody horrific abuses of animals, and not one of them is adequate. NOTHING justifies what our species does to the rest of the living beings on this earth. Not sport, not profit, not convenience, not economics, not vanity, and no, not culture.

Just as nothing justifies the oppression of other humans, so also nothing justifies the oppression of animals. As white people cannot claim that their cultural traditions ever justified the oppression of indigenous humans, so EVERY human cannot claim that their cultural tradition makes it all right to hurt animals. I would think that people concerned about oppression would at least familiarize themselves with the concept of interlocking oppressions and learn to see it wherever it is. There is no excuse for torturing someone else to death, even when that someone else looks different from you. Yes, that even means when that someone else is another race from you, has a different color of skin that you, and even when they are a different species than you. Oppression is oppression, wrong wherever it is.

i agree 30.Oct.2009 08:55

veggie 4 life

i agree it is wrong to hunt whales especially when they bare endangerd

Not the whole story... 05.Dec.2009 10:01


One thing that has been consistently overlooked is how the Makah got around to this point and the voluntary efforts that they had put into making certain that there would be minimal impact on the whale population, if any. The Makah tribe didn't just wake up one day and say, "Hey, let's go stab and blow some holes into some whales without any regard for the environment and whale populations." The Makah hunt whales traditionally with hand-thrown harpoons and the .50 caliber rifle is used only as a final killing device because a whale expert told them that this was the fastest and most humane way to kill the whale and reduce it's suffering.
When the idea came about to resume whaling the Makah went to the administrators of the world's whaling and asked about whale populations and who had what for their hunting quotas. As is well known, there are several aboriginal tribes throughout the world that has rights to hunt a quota of whales designated by species per year. In their research the Makah found out that there was such a tribe in Russia that was hunting their allotted 15 Gray Whales and these whales were being used for fox farm feed as the tribe didn't like the taste of Gray Whale or something. The Makah also found out in this search that there is a tribe up in Alaska that wasn't using their full quota of whales by five per year. In a bit of horse trading, the Makah traded the extra five tasty whales from the Alaskan tribe that were not being harvested for the 15 nasty tasting Gray Whales that were being used as fox feed. So the Makah now had the rights to harvest 15 Gray Whales and they *voluntarily* stated that they wouldn't harvest any more than five whales per year. By doing so, they guaranteed that a net gain of ten whales per year were not going to be fox food.

So the Makah voluntarily save *at least* ten Gray Whales per year (and the tribe hasn't even proposed hunting more than one annually nor have they changed their original statement of not using the whale commercially) and people are still flipping out that killing one whale is somehow destroying the planet around it. I never heard any hug hub-bub when the Russian tribe was rolling out there to slaughter 15 Gray Whales for fox food. I guess killing whales is Ok as long as it's not aboriginal people eating it to regain their tribal identity instead of foxes or happening in the United States...