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

A powerful winter storm in 1970 had uncovered the remains of the ancient village, launching one of the greatest archaeological excavations in North America. Scientists from Washington State University, Makah tribal members and volunteers from around the world sifted through the remarkably preserved remains of the catastrophic mudslide.

The research center's director shows the boy the latest prize uncovered at Ozette -- a mussel shell harpoon tip that a whaling captain long ago imbedded into the vertebra of a whale.

"I thought, 'What power that man must have had to do such a thing,'" says 38-year-old Theron Parker, thinking back to that moment in his boyhood nearly a quarter century ago.

A replica of a Makah long house memorializes the archaeological site at Ozette, where more than 55,000 artifacts were recovered. A whale bone and seashell shrine decorates the interior.
John Dougherty
A replica of a Makah long house memorializes the archaeological site at Ozette, where more than 55,000 artifacts were recovered. A whale bone and seashell shrine decorates the interior.
"The return to whaling is a return to praying," says Makah carver Greg Colfax.
John Dougherty
"The return to whaling is a return to praying," says Makah carver Greg Colfax.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

That thought has long resonated with Parker, mixing with other visions and sounds of his youth.

The songs of his family are those sung by whaling chiefs.

The family heirlooms are the tools of whalers.

A persistent image is pressed into Parker's mind: a Makah whaler walking barefoot across the beach, holding a heavy harpoon and two sealskin floats, his long black hair enmeshed in a fur coat, a determined expression on his face.

Together, these fragments of a past way of life would endure -- whispering to Parker through the travails of drinking, drugs and exile that would lead him away from his Makah homeland.

But like the gray whales that return each year, Parker was drawn back to Neah Bay, back to a tribe struggling to regain its balance after 150 years of death and assimilation that destroyed most of its once vibrant, wealthy and powerful society.

The Ozette excavation triggered a sweeping revival in Makah art, language and traditions.

It also dramatically revealed that the heart and soul of the Makah were -- and remain -- rooted in the great whales the tribe once hunted.

Theron Parker soon found himself on a collision course that would force him to confront himself, and force his tribe to confront the world.

In mid-1995, the Makah Tribal Council stunned the globe when it announced plans to resume hunting the Eastern Pacific gray whale.

A tribe that few could locate on a map became the target of a worldwide media eruption.

For the previous 13 years, most of the world's nations had embraced a moratorium on commercial whaling. During this period, whales had increasingly become the symbol of the environmental movement, and in many cases were elevated to a level equal to, or for some, exceeding the value of humanity.

Whales were celebrated as cosmic beings, keepers of the records of time. They were widely depicted in modern mythological art as a sacred connection among ocean, land and heaven.

The Makah tribe's plans to resume whaling seemed completely out of step with "modern" morality.

But the Makah have a long history of whaling -- dating back possibly to the time of Jesus. They also have a most intimate connection with the whale -- one that has permeated their society on every level for 20 centuries.

The Makahs' long communion with whales was voluntarily ceased in the 1920s. The gray whale's population had been decimated by the commercial whaling fleets of the United States and Britain, and it became unprofitable for the tribe to engage in expensive and dangerous whale hunts.

Between 1845 and 1874, non-Makah commercial whaling fleets used harpoon guns to slaughter roughly 8,000 gray whales, including a substantial portion of females.

By the turn of the 20th century there were too few whales to hunt, even for the Makah, who traditionally harvested five to 10 whales a year.

Commercial hunting of gray whales was finally prohibited in 1937, with fewer than 3,000 remaining. The gray whale was placed on the U.S. endangered species list in 1970. The hunting hiatus proved beneficial. The population quickly rebounded, and by the mid-1990s it topped 23,000. In June 1994 the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list.

A year later, the Makah Tribal Council informed federal officials that it intended to exercise a provision in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay that explicitly reserved to the Makah the right to fish, whale and seal in their traditional hunting grounds. No other peace treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe contains a provision allowing whaling.

After preliminary discussions with federal officials -- which included the possibility of the Makah resuming commercial whaling -- an agreement was reached between the Makah and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA would seek permission from the International Whaling Commission for the Makah to conduct a ceremonial and subsistence hunt.

Federal officials made it clear that the United States would not support the Makah if the tribe intended to engage in commercial whaling. The Makah, in turn, stated they would reserve their treaty right to conduct commercial whaling in the future, but for now, the tribe was seeking IWC permission only to conduct a ceremonial and subsistence hunt.

The IWC granted the Makah permission to conduct such a hunt in 1997, issuing a quota of 20 whales that could be harvested from 1998 through 2002.

The Makahs' first whale hunt in more than seven decades would have to be conducted from a canoe paddled by eight men. The Makah were required to first harpoon their target before a sharpshooter in a motorized support boat would shoot the whale in the skull with a high-powered rifle to minimize its suffering.

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