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

The vitriolic words were paralleled by hostile actions.

Makah tribal members were forbidden access to restaurants, hotels and health clinics in the nearby towns of Port Angeles and Forks and sometimes in larger cities, including Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia.

Sadie Johnson, the 70-year-old mother of Wayne Johnson, recounts numerous stories of businesses refusing to allow her entry because she was Makah.

Wilson Parker, Makah whaler, stands on the beach at the Waatch River. Merged into this historical photograph is a recent portrait, right, of his great-grandson, Theron Parker, standing in the same spot with whaling gear and wearing the same silver ring passed down to him.
Cheryl Humbert
Wilson Parker, Makah whaler, stands on the beach at the Waatch River. Merged into this historical photograph is a recent portrait, right, of his great-grandson, Theron Parker, standing in the same spot with whaling gear and wearing the same silver ring passed down to him.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

Even her chiropractor in the logging town of Forks refused to treat her after learning her son was captain of the whaling crew.

"He completely locked the doors on me," Sadie Johnson says.

The animal rights groups focused on three areas to propel their anti-Makah whaling message.

First, they claimed the Makah were conducting an illegal hunt and that the United States, by supporting the Makah, had become a pirate whaling nation.

Next, the animal rights groups repeatedly referred to the whales being hunted by the Makah as "resident" whales, implying they spent their lives off the coast of Washington, Vancouver Island and in Puget Sound. They began naming whales -- creating the equivalent of a cetacean "Bambi."

Finally, the groups claimed that the tribe's real goal was to create a commercial whaling business and that the ceremonial hunt was just the first step toward this new, highly profitable enterprise.

There are elements of truth in all the positions espoused by the animal rights groups, but they were taken largely out of context.

Claims that the Makah were acting illegally were quickly dismissed by government officials and Makah whaling leaders. However, anti-Makah whaling activists won a court order temporarily halting further Makah hunts.

The government took -- and still takes -- the position that the Makah have the right to hunt whales under the 1855 treaty and need no formal approval to proceed.

"Strictly speaking, we couldn't stop the Makahs from whaling under any circumstance," says Brian Gorman, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They don't need anybody's approval."

The Makah, however, knew there would be massive opposition to their plans, particularly if they went ahead without seeking federal approval. The tribe, after lengthy debate, decided it would be best to work in conjunction with the U.S. government, which has a trust responsibility to uphold the tribe's treaty, says the Makah Whaling Commission's George Bowechop.

After receiving the tribe's 1995 notice of its intent to resume whaling, NOAA's Joe Scordino says the agency decided to seek permission from the International Whaling Commission for the Makah to conduct subsistence whale hunts.

This placed the U.S. government in an awkward position.

As a member of the International Whaling Commission, the U.S. has prominently supported the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling that went into effect in 1982. The U.S. has opposed repeated efforts by Japan and Norway to lift the ban.

The IWC, however, does allow limited hunts for traditional aboriginal subsistence.

The United States decided supporting an aboriginal permit for the Makah would preserve U.S. opposition to commercial whaling while meeting its treaty obligations to the Makah.

In 1997, the U.S. and the Makah sent delegations to the IWC's annual meeting in Monaco to ask for permission to hunt up to 20 gray whales over five years, with no more than five taken in any one year. At the same meeting, the Chukotka people of Russia, facing starvation in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, applied to hunt up to 600 gray whales over five years.

The IWC approved the joint request by the United States and Russia by consensus, without objections, NOAA states.

Some IWC member nations, however, strongly contest that approval, saying only the Chukotka quota was approved. Despite the controversy, the way was clear for the Makah to begin hunting gray whales.

In June 2000, a coalition of anti-whaling groups led by U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf (R-Washington) put another roadblock in front of the Makah. A federal appeals court ruled that NOAA had entered into a whaling management agreement with the Makah before completing an environmental assessment of how the hunt would affect the overall population of gray whales. The court ordered a new environmental assessment.

The ruling forced NOAA to suspend its agreement supporting the tribe's whaling activities. The tribe could still go whaling under its treaty rights, but would do so without government support.

A draft assessment by NOAA last winter prompted a contentious public hearing in January. The final assessment, which is expected to conclude that the Makah hunt will have no significant impact on the 26,000 gray whales migrating along the Pacific Coast, is expected to be released this week.

If the court approves the final document, the Makah could resume whaling, perhaps by the end of summer.

Gorman praises the Makah for cooperating with the government when the tribe could have taken direct action years ago and embarrassed the United States.

"Their whole approach has been very accommodating and patient," he says.

A key issue in the environmental review is the status of so-called "resident" whales.

Under NOAA's initial plan for managing Makah whaling, the Makah were restricted to hunting migrating whales in the open ocean. They could not hunt gray whales that spend the summer feeding in the shallower and more accessible Strait of Juan de Fuca, which borders the northern edge of the reservation.

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