Resurrection

After a 70-year hiatus and a confrontation with the world, the Makah tribe resumes its communion with the gray whale

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope. In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration — at 12,000 miles round trip, the longest by any mammal — has become a trek through the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists and local residents. Here, writer John Dougherty goes into the heart of a Native American tribe in Washington state to find out how and why it has resurrected its cultural heritage of whaling, an action that has enraged animal rights groups.

 

Makah Nation
Neah Bay, Washington

A damp, cool spring evening envelops a cedar-plank house perched on a slight rise overlooking the rocky beach in the Makah whaling village of Ozette.

A full-scale, red-cedar plank long house stands at the entrance to the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington.
John Dougherty
A full-scale, red-cedar plank long house stands at the entrance to the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington.

Inside, a young boy sleeps on a wooden bench. A toy bow and arrow lie next to his head. Nearby, a woman works -- someone has to tend the fire hearths in the building that serves as home to a Makah whaling chief, his relatives and his slaves.

The twilight hours are bucolic, but the woman and child do not have much time left.

The rest of the two dozen or so people living in the 60-foot long house are away. The latest catch from the sea -- whether a 40-foot gray whale or a canoe load of seals -- demands their attention to the hunt and the ceremonies.

The woman and child are immersed in the pungent smells of freshly butchered sea mammals and filleted halibut drying on racks that hang above the long house.

Baskets with patterns of whales adorning their sides are stuffed with dried fish, berries, shellfish and roots gathered from nearby tidal pools and the steep hillsides of the rain forest, which looms over the beach and extends miles inland to snowcapped mountains that feed salmon-filled rivers.

An assortment of hunting gear -- yew-wood harpoons, sealskin floats, lines made from cedar bark and harpoon tips crafted from mussel shells and elk antlers -- is carefully stowed away in the whaling chief's corner of the long house.

The head man's quarters are the farthest away from the long house's only door, a door that opens toward the ocean.

Scores of bows and arrows are stashed in the area of the long house belonging to the hunter of the clan.

In another corner, occupied by the fisherman, are small boxes made from a single, thin plank of cedar that folds onto itself. They hold hemlock fishing hooks -- ingeniously crafted devices used to catch thousands of halibut feeding on banks far offshore.

Cedar bark mats hang from the rafters and offer privacy for the sleeping benches of the communal household.

Outside, fishing, whaling and sealing canoes carved from giant red cedar trees are drawn up on the beach. They are pulled over logs to keep them from being washed away by the high tide pounding the rocky reef that stretches past the breakwaters into the Pacific Ocean.

Perched on the westernmost point in the Pacific Northwest, Ozette is the perfect place to launch ocean hunts. Fur seals make their closest approach to shore, within three miles, while the gray whale often swims just offshore on its annual northbound migration to its summer feeding grounds.

This evening is no different than thousands before, and thousands yet to come, until the disaster strikes.

Without warning, the silty sand and clay hillside behind the long house liquefies, triggering a tsunami of suffocating mud that cascades toward the structure. Nothing resists, or survives. The mud swallows the house, collapses the walls inward and carries the roof toward the beach.

The woman and child vanish inside the avalanche of soil.

The long house becomes a tomb buried beneath tons of mud.

The deadly slurry captures, then holds for an eternity, an instant of daily life of the Makah Indians. It is A.D. 1500.

At the other end of the continent, Spaniards are only beginning their conquest of the Mayan and Aztec cultures to the south. It will take hundreds of years, but the white men will eventually find the whaling peoples of the Makah Nation.

Five centuries later, a young newspaper boy, an Indian child, pedals his bicycle through the small town of Neah Bay, about 15 miles north of Ozette. A couple of cars cruise down the main drag of the town where 1,200 or so Makah make their home on a small bay facing north, toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The boy rides past the harbor where fishermen unload the day's halibut catch into wheelbarrows, past the totem pole-flanked general store that sells everything from paint to potatoes, past the town's only breakfast shop -- the Makah Maiden Cafe -- where frantic waitresses tell patrons to fetch their own coffee.

The boy stops at a steel-paneled warehouse, grabs a newspaper and goes inside, where he finds archaeologists and Makah tribal members carefully sifting through thousands of artifacts being extracted from the 500-year-old long house at Ozette.

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