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

If the Makah were to seek permits for commercial whaling, the tribe would run into stiff opposition from the federal government.

"We've been very clear that we would not support the tribe in any kind of commercial venture," says Scordino.

Ocean Defense International insists the Makah aboriginal hunt is just the first step toward resumption of commercial whaling.

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.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

"The Makah, with the support of the U.S., has opened the door to commercial whaling under the guise of 'cultural hunts,'" ODI said in its official statement to the IWC meeting last year.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society also points to a recent business deal between the Makah and Supreme Alaska Seafoods, a subsidiary of the multinational Japanese corporation, Taiyo Fisheries Co., as proof that the Makah intend to sell whale products to the Japanese.

"Taiyo Fisheries Co. (is) a Japanese multinational corporation that has been at the center of numerous whale meat smuggling schemes over the last 30 years," Sea Shepherd says in comments critiquing the draft environmental assessment.

NOAA's Scordino says the government is monitoring the business relationship. The Makah, he says, are selling only fish used in sashimi.

The Makah brush aside the allegations, saying that even if the tribe wanted to resume commercial whaling, it is against federal law, and that is very unlikely to change.

"We will abide by the law," says whaling commission chairman Keith Johnson.

The Makah, he says, lack the clout to overcome widespread political opposition to the resumption of commercial whaling in the United States.

"Who would lobby? Who would get it through?" he asks. "Who would be the big-bucks guys to push it through? Would it be the Makahs? I don't think so."

And, if by some remote chance commercial whaling did return, Keith Johnson sees no financial windfall for the Makah.

"Who would benefit from commercial whaling?" he says. "Our community would be cut out. We couldn't compete, just as we couldn't 80 or 90 years ago."

A window of opportunity opened for the Makah whaling crew in the spring of 1999.

There were no legal obstacles blocking a hunt, and the whaling crew had spent weeks practicing on the water.

The animosity between Theron Parker and Wayne Johnson had subsided -- at least enough to allow the hunt to proceed. Parker would run operations in the canoe, while Johnson would coordinate logistical matters and command the support boat.

The Makah Nation's long-awaited whale hunt began in earnest.

On the evening of Sunday, May 16, 1999, Parker was contacted by Makah allies in the nearby town of Sekiu, a small fishing resort about 20 miles east of Neah Bay.

The anti-whaling protesters had been spending evenings in Sekiu during their siege of Neah Bay.

"I got a call that said they were partying. They were celebrating because they beat us," Parker says.

The day before, the whalers had spent more than 10 hours on the ocean stalking whales. The protesters repeatedly buzzed the canoe with jet skis and Zodiacs.

The aggressiveness of the protesters was evident. Two of their vessels struck gray whales while trying to interfere with the whaling canoe.

"One vessel ran over the top of a whale and temporarily stunned the whale, while another vessel hit the flukes of a diving whale beside the canoe," federal reports state.

The Coast Guard arrested four protesters and confiscated three watercraft.

Despite the arrests, the protesters considered the day a success. Parker had twice thrown the harpoon at gray whales, but missed the target.

News that the protesters were celebrating, along with an anticipated break in the weather before another Pacific storm swept ashore, meant opportunity.

"I knew there was going to be a window in the morning where we could get in and get out," Parker says. "So, after I got the call that said they were partying, I said, 'That's cool. They'll be passing out about the time we are waking up.'"

That evening, Makah elders came to the whalers' camp and performed sacred ceremonies.

The whalers left before dawn in the Hummingbird, paddling the canoe down the Pacific coast as the sun began to break over the coastal mountains. They slipped past the Point of Arches and Father and Son rock formations toward their traditional hunting grounds off Cape Alava, just offshore from the historic village of Ozette.

The crew was confident this would be the successful hunt.

"In the morning, on the beach, we were calm. 'Yeah, it's going to happen today,'" Parker says.

But as soon as the crew got going, tensions mounted.

"We got through the waves, and we had a big ol' fight," Parker says. "We had to stop for a minute and get ourselves together."

Everyone was keyed up, ready for the strike.

"We sat and did a prayer, and then, just like that, we said 'Okay, let's go get this,'" he says.

The whalers were alone in the ocean. With wooden paddles and harpoon. Just as their forefathers had done for centuries. The weather was calm.

There were no protesters. No media boats. No helicopters hovering.

It was a primal scene.

The barefoot Makah whaler came to mind.

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