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

The whale was dragged onto the beach by hundreds of Makah in a giant tug-of-war. "Heave! Heave! Heave! Heave!" they yelled as the rain pounded down.

Theron Parker and other members of the crew climbed onto the back of the beached whale. Parker spread sacred eagle feathers on the whale.

And then, Parker sang his family's sacred whaling song.

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.

Nearby, Wayne Johnson watched in anger.

"I told Theron there was going to be no family songs and dances," Johnson says. "We had songs and dances the whole village could do. I didn't just want one family to take the glory. So when we got on the beach he down-feathered it, claimed it with eagle feathers, sang his songs. . . . I didn't want that to happen."

Parker also took the first cut from the whale as the butchering began, again infuriating Wayne Johnson, whose role as official captain had been all but eclipsed by Parker's role as harpooner.

"That was my job to do that. Not his job," Wayne Johnson says before betraying his jealousy over Parker's actions. "It's not his whale. It's my whale."

A few days later, the tribe threw the biggest potlatch in decades as thousands of people ate whale -- a whale that had been caught by the Makah.

Parker was hailed as the hero during the feast.

Johnson was largely ignored and went home early.

Bitterness within the crew had little impact on the community, which heartily celebrated the successful hunt.

Eighty-three-year-old Helma Ward, who had several relatives on the whaling crew, had spent the morning of the hunt lying motionless in the Makah belief that female relatives of whaling crew members had a connection with the whale, and by keeping still would prevent the whale from fighting. She was joyous, and so was everyone else, at the hunt's success.

"You could feel a glow coming from the town," Ward says.

Two years have passed since the whale was hauled onto the beach of Neah Bay.

The hunt is still fresh in everyone's mind.

At Neah Bay High School, students have spent more than 2,000 hours cleaning the whale's bones, which are lined up across the floor of the school's shop. After a preservative is applied, the bones will be displayed at the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

"There's 14 ribs on each side, and there's 56 vertebrae," says shop teacher Bill Monette. "The No. 7 dorsal vertebra is where the harpoon went. It actually lodged right through the bone and severed the nerve pack that runs through the center of the vertebrae."

Next to the bones, more than a dozen racing and whaling canoes are in various stages of production.

The whale hunt has triggered a revival in canoe building, and the shop class is producing more than a dozen a year.

"Everything you see in here is a result of going back to tradition, going back to hunting," Monette says.

Monette hopes to have the students operating a business by the end of next year, selling handmade, wooden canoes.

"The sales will go right back into a payroll account so it will be nonprofit, on-the-job training," he says.

As students cut and sand paddles and glue down strips of wood on canoes, Theron Parker scrubs the bottom of a whaling canoe he is repairing in the shop alongside the students.

He says nothing, but the students know who he is.

A few blocks away, Wayne Johnson stands outside his recently purchased dump truck, complaining that the tribal council failed to give him a contract while hiring a non-Makah contractor. He mentions moving from Neah Bay, frustrated with economic opportunities.

Parker, meanwhile, is committed to staying in Neah Bay and encouraging youth to embrace canoeing.

His memories of the hunt, Parker says during an interview inside his home decorated with whaling gear and newspaper articles documenting the kill, have not faded.

"The emotions were really overwhelming for quite a while. It still is," he says standing beside six framed photographs of the men who joined him in the whaling canoe. (Only seven of the eight crewmembers were in the canoe on the morning of the successful hunt.)

"I'm proud of each and every one of those guys who stuck it out and did what we did," he says. "Those are some men there."

The hunt has changed his life in many ways.

He's says he's praying more, and he believes in the power of prayer.

"Spiritually, I've learned to pray to my creator a lot better than what I had before, and I believe in that," he says. "It's changed me a lot. It's made me grow in so many different ways."

The community, Parker says, is no longer living in the past, looking into a museum to feel its heritage.

"We are a living culture," he says. "It's not, 'This is what they used to do.' This is what we do as a people."

Traditions that have long been set aside, but never forgotten, once again have an urgency.

"The whaling songs those families had, we can use those songs, because there is a purpose for using them again," he says.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets