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

These measures included:

• Forbidding the Makah language.

• Separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools.

Makah whaling captain Wayne Johnson strikes his family drum commemorating the successful May 17, 1999, hunt.
John Dougherty
Makah whaling captain Wayne Johnson strikes his family drum commemorating the successful May 17, 1999, hunt.
A Makah training canoe cuts an elegant shape in Neah Bay harbor.
John Dougherty
A Makah training canoe cuts an elegant shape in Neah Bay harbor.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

• Stripping land from tribal chiefs and redistributing it to other tribal members, who frequently lost control to non-Indians.

• Forcing the tribe to farm rather than rely on the sea for food and materials.

• Forbidding traditional clothing in schools.

• Discouraging families from living in long houses.

• Banning ceremonial dances and gatherings, including the potlatch.

The strict oversight by Indian agents took its toll, despite persistent efforts by the Makah to secretly practice ceremonies and rituals that the Indian agents considered taboo.

"After 70 years of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' presence, the tribe's 2,000-year-old settlement pattern and society had been radically altered," says Karen Barton, a University of Arizona geographer who completed her doctoral thesis on the Makah.

By the 1920s, the Makah culture was on the brink of extinction.

The tribe's population was decimated, its language forbidden and its songs and dances outlawed.

As the tribe dwindled, so, too, did the gray whales.

So few whales remained that the Makah, known throughout the Northwest Indian societies as the most successful whalers of all, put away their whaling harpoons. The tribe's 2,000-year-old intimate relationship with the gray whale was over.

But it was not forgotten.

Seventy years would pass before the gray whales could recover from the devastation of commercial whaling.

And fifty years would pass before the Makah were strong enough even to consider preparing their best young men to be whalers.

The powerful 1970 storm that eroded part of a hillside near Cape Alava partially exposed the remains of the 500-year-old village at Ozette.

For the next 11 years, archaeologists, Makah tribal members and volunteers excavated more than 55,000 artifacts from the ruins of five long houses that were buried in the sudden, catastrophic mudslide.

Hailed as a "New World Pompeii," Ozette thrust the Makah into the international spotlight.

"No one could anticipate the wealth of materials that were there," says Richard Daugherty, a Washington State University anthropologist who supervised the excavation.

The Ozette excavation literally pulled Makah culture from the grave. The discoveries gave the ghosts that had been kept hidden in secret ceremonies the courage to come out in the open again.

"The creator and our ancestors gave this back to the people to save the culture," says Ann Renker, a linguist who has written extensively on the tribe, lives in Neah Bay and is married to a Makah.

Elders were taken to the remote site by helicopter to help identify artifacts as they were pulled from the mud. Families began to trace their lineage back hundreds of years to determine whether they could be looking at the remains of their ancestors' homes.

Ozette provided tangible evidence in support of the oral traditions that had been passed down for 20 centuries through songs, dances and legends.

"I think back on my grandfather's words," says tribal chairman Greig Arnold. "What Ozette did for me was make his words physical."

The timing couldn't have been better. There were still tribal members alive in the 1970s who participated in whale hunts 50 years earlier and were familiar with the whaling equipment.

"There were people that knew what each part was used for," says George Bowechop, executive director of the Makah Whaling Commission.

Ozette offered the Makah, particularly the young, a crash-course in traditional culture.

"It created a climate for young tribal members to really acquire traditional knowledge that they may not have otherwise come by," says Janine Bowechop, George's daughter-in-law. "You had objects in your hand that you wanted to know about."

As a young girl, Bowechop helped catalogue artifacts that became the impetus for building the research center she now directs.

Ozette's impact on the Makah remains far-reaching.

Many Makah who actively participated in the excavation are now teaching the Makah language to children, carving traditional masks, serving as tribal council members -- and seeking to become whalers.

"You can't talk about how the village exists today without talking about Ozette," says Renker.

Coming at a time of legal victories over tribal fishing rights and land ownership, the Ozette discovery wakened another ghost from the past, George Bowechop says. The Makah wanted to hunt whales again.

"There was a huge interest, all different age groups, from the little guys all the way up to the senior citizens, to go whaling," he says.

But the Makah would have to wait another quarter century.

In the 1970s, the gray whale was on the U.S. endangered species list. Despite the fact that the Makah had an explicit treaty right to go whaling, George Bowechop says the tribe didn't want to hunt an endangered species.

The tribe's focus shifted from whaling to constructing the Makah Research and Cultural Center, which was dedicated in 1979. The center displays many of the Ozette artifacts and serves as an education platform for Makah language and cultural traditions.

The museum includes a beautiful replica of a handmade dugout whaling canoe and assorted hunting implements, including a yew harpoon, paddles, sealskin floats and ropes.

Ozette -- along with the construction of the research center -- erased any doubt that whaling was the center of Makah culture.

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