Whaling has always been crucial in Makah culture and history. They found it so important that when the former chiefs signed over the rights to acres of their land in the Treaty of Neah Bay, they made sure they reserved their right to hunt whales. A single whale can provide enough resources for a whole village to last for months. “Makah whaling tradition provides oil, meat, bone, sinew and gut for storage containers: useful products, though gained at a high cost in time and goods.” (Makah.com)
Although they secured their rights to hunt whales back in 1855, they were not alone in their hunt. White commercial whalers all but wiped out the whale population in the area by 1920, so the Makah decided they would have to stop hunting the whales.
Many hardships fell on the Makah Tribe throughout the 1900’s. The people of the cape were almost completely wiped out by disease, poverty, and cultural assimilation. It began illegal to potlatch, speak their native language, and do anything that would set them aside as Makah people. Whaling became something that was sung about but no longer seen. Whaling would still show up in art and dance, kids would hear their grandparents tell about the whale hunts, but no one would every experience it.
By the 1980’s the isolated reservation found itself with soaring unemployment and a uninspired tribe with little resources. An earlier discovery in the 1970’s at Ozette saw the uncovering of many ancient Makah artifacts and had creating an increased interest to develop in the community of the peoples native roots. People were curious and had a real desire to continue on with expressing their culture as they had before the white man came.
Since the 1940’s when the whales had been put on the endangered list, the population had come back strong. Grey Whales had rebounded from a couple thousand to around 23,000 in total. The Makah people technically still had the right to hunt these whales, except they needed them to get taken off the endangered species list. The Makah tribe asked for permission from the International Whaling Commission to be able to hunt five whales annually. Before they did this they also had to bring the matter of the whales no longer being endangered to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In June 1994, “Eastern north Pacific gray whales are removed from the Federal List of Endangered Wildlife after a determination that the population has “recovered to near its estimated original population size and is neither in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, nor likely to again become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” (NOAA)
Even after the Makah Tribe had gone through all the trouble of getting all the right permits to continue whaling they still had a lot of backlash from the surrounding communities, especially from animal rights groups. Some groups accused the Makah of only wanting to hunt whales so they could do business internationally. The Makah however were only interested in mending the fabric of their culture, which at the time was in quite an array. After a couple unsuccessful attempts due to weather and protesters the Makah Tribe finally brought a whale to shore on May 17, 1999. Everyone gathered around the huge beast on the beach and a massive feast and celebration took place! Everyone was so excited and connected through this tradition that most members had only heard about from elders in songs, dance, and art.
Although the Makah Tribe had to do some legal battling and a lot of waiting to get their needed permits for waiting. The hunt of the single whale was enough to inspire and unite their community in a crucial way. Unfortunately, since then the Makah have run into more legal trouble with animal rights groups that claim the Makah whale hunt can damage the population in the immediate area. As of right now whaling has been postponed again waiting on further investigations about the environmental impact of whaling. This hasn’t stopped the Makah from whaling though, and in 2007 several hunters caught a whale illegally. The whale was not allowed to come to land and it sank. Those involved in the hunt were prosecuted in court and are still fighting legal battles.
It just goes to show that even through all the legal hiccups, the Makah people care enough about the tradition of whaling to go against the law. Hopefully in the future they will be able to resolve this issue through the proper channels.
Makah Whaling-A Gift from the Sea, http://makah.com/makah-tribal-info/whaling/
Makah Whaling, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5301
Chronology of Major Events Related to Makah Tribal Gray Whale Hunt, http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/cetaceans/chronology.html