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

In the past, Colfax says, whaling crews devoted extensive periods of time preparing themselves for the hunts. They would swim in the frigid ocean, weight themselves down with boulders and walk submerged on the river bottom, bathe in mountain ponds, thrash themselves with stinging nettle, fast, abstain from sex and retreat to sacred areas where secret family rituals were conducted.

Legends -- along with reports from ethnographers -- say the dead were sometimes used in rituals. A whaler would seek power and understanding by draping a corpse across his body, entering a lake or river and spouting water in imitation of a whale.

Sometimes, a whaler would seek out a corpse and lay the body face down over a stone. He would drive a stake through the back of the corpse's skull and out the mouth. The whaler would place a hollow tube in the hole and shout through it, encouraging whales to drift ashore. He would then dry the corpse and place it in a shrine.

Makah tribal members butchering a gray whale in the early 1900s.
Asahel Curtis, NA721, MSCUA, courtesy of Universit
Makah tribal members butchering a gray whale in the early 1900s.
Keeping the Makah whaling tradition alive: Keith Johnson, left, and his son, Keith Jr., and father, Frank Johnson.
Keeping the Makah whaling tradition alive: Keith Johnson, left, and his son, Keith Jr., and father, Frank Johnson.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

Most of all, whalers would spend long periods in prayer, often falling into a trance.

The Makah believed such rituals and prayer opened communication between the whale and hunters -- leading the hunters to whales willing to die for the benefit of the tribe.

The goal was to become spiritually united with the whale.

While the macabre aspects are no longer practiced, the overarching goal of communicating with the whale's spirit remains.

"Do you believe things have spirits?" asks Makah Tribal Chairman Greig Arnold.

If so, Arnold says, then the biggest mammal on the Earth must have a spirit that is huge.

"You've got a responsibility," he says. "We are just not killing that animal. We are asking for its life.

"This is a very important event to the whalers."

Not only to the whalers, but to their families -- their ancestors who have lived and died and the children of future generations.

"In the U.S., one is inspired to reach their peak as an individual," says Arnold, who was actively involved in the Ozette excavation and is preparing a whaling crew. "Well, for us, it is to reach your peak as a family. This (whaling) is for us an opportunity for that to occur."

Whaling, the Makah say, instills discipline and forces the whalers to confront their mortality.

"Everybody has to act in unison," Colfax explains. "Everybody has to know instinctively how to handle the canoe, what to do when the whale is hit, how to get out of the way, how to keep yourself alive."

If the Makah were trying to capture a whale strictly for subsistence purposes, it would be far easier to go out into the ocean in a 120-foot fishing trawler and simply shoot it.

"But no, guys are going out in a canoe and getting harpoon close. That's pretty darn close," Colfax explains. "And what does a whale do when it is harpooned is anybody's guess. You can be literally destroyed. So the guys have to be ready for that, too."

Confronting death has its benefits.

"They have to make peace with themselves and their communities and their families, and folks have to realize that what they are doing, they may not come back. They may come back in a box," he says.

Colfax takes a long pause and looks out the window of his double-wide yellow mobile home.

"There is a part in here that must remain silent. There is a huge part of it that the outside world has no business knowing. No business knowing anything about the real bottom line of all of it.

"All they need to know, I believe, is that the young men who are going out there are proving themselves to be out there. They have proven themselves to the rest of the community that they have a right to be there by behaving and properly leading their lives.

"We are just not sending out anybody out there. There is some very intensive training that goes on that guides this whole business," Colfax says.

"Whaling," he says "was the business of chiefs."

And quite a business it was.

Prior to contact with European explorers beginning in the late 1780s, the Makah tribe was firmly established as the wealthiest and most industrious in the Northwest. Its strategic location on Cape Flattery -- a point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca -- positioned the Makah at the economic center of native coastal commerce conducted primarily by a fleet of canoes.

The Makahs' skill at whaling generated a key commodity -- whale oil -- which became the tribal equivalent of the gold standard in Western economies. Whale oil, which was used as a cooking oil, was accepted in trade for a wide variety of products produced by tribes as far away as Alaska and California.

"People would come from up and down the coast to trade, and they would bring their blankets, canoes and whatever," says Colfax. "So the man who hunted the whale had all his gallons of oil. With that, he could go and trade for more things. It was a great thing to whale."

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