Resurrection

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

The only question remaining was whether the Makah would ever whale again.

The federal government opened the door to resume hunting in 1994 when the gray whales were removed from the endangered species list. On May 5, 1995, the Makah Tribal Council notified the United States it intended to implement Article IV of the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay.

George Bowechop says the initial Makah plan was straightforward.

Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd 
Conservation Society, leads the siege of Neah Bay.
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, leads the siege of Neah Bay.
Wayne Johnson displays the .577 caliber rifle used by the Makah to quickly kill a whale after it has been harpooned.
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Wayne Johnson displays the .577 caliber rifle used by the Makah to quickly kill a whale after it has been harpooned.

"Let's go whaling."


Traditionally, Makah whale hunts were conducted by a unified crew under the command of a single captain with unquestioned support from the community.

None of these touchstones was present in Neah Bay in the late 1990s.

Only two dozen or so Makah families were direct descendants of whalers and considered eligible to participate in the hunt.

Many of the people living in Neah Bay were not directly related to whaling chiefs and had little to gain personally from the tribe conducting a whale hunt. Their family names, songs and dances would not be directly embellished by a successful hunt.

For a tribe suffering from 50 percent unemployment, widespread poverty, an overtaxed public water-supply system, serious health problems and persistent drug and alcohol abuse, spending tribal funds on a whale hunt appeared to some as frivolous.

Whaling proponents overcame opposition by claiming that a whale hunt would reaffirm a crucial tribal treaty right and strengthen the tribe's access to the ocean's resources. Opposition -- including a handful of tribal elders who gained widespread publicity -- crumbled further after the tribe received a $200,000 grant from the federal government to help cover start-up costs.

The money came with stipulations -- including the use of a high-powered rifle to kill the whale, the creation of a Makah Whaling Commission to direct operations and the tribe's agreement to gain approval for a subsistence and ceremonial hunt from the International Whaling Commission.

A more serious obstacle to conducting the hunt was assembling a whaling crew that could actually work together. Historically, the whaling captain had complete control over the crew, since the captain was generally a village chief.

The tribe, however, wanted to include representatives from as many families as possible in the initial hunt. While this ensured more families would reap benefits from a successful hunt, it also created a tremendous amount of tension among crew members. In a community where families' own songs and dances and bloodlines are paramount, grudges between families can last for generations. The largest families tend to control tribal politics, generating hostility from families left out of the mix.

"It's like Russia," says one descendant from a whaling family. "If you're not with them, you're out."

The first Makah whaling crew in seven decades would be made up of descendants of whaling captains and village chiefs, some of whom despised each other.

From this volatile mix, someone would have to be chosen as the boss.

The duty -- and honor -- fell on 48-year-old Wayne Johnson.

To many Makah it was a surprising choice. Widely regarded in the community as a screw-up with a hard past and a complainer with a trigger temper, Wayne Johnson held three powerful cards -- he was a direct descendant of a whaler, he was a member of the Makah Whaling Commission and he was one of the few living Makah who had actually caught a whale. He accidentally snagged the whale in the 1980s in a fishing net.

But unlike traditional whaling captains, Johnson wasn't going to be in the canoe armed with a harpoon. Instead, he was going to be on the support boat that would accompany the canoe. The support boat would carry extra harpoons and the marksman who would kill the whale.

"I figured I would be kind of old to be a paddler and probably not strong enough to be a harpooner," he says inside the comfortable two-story Neah Bay home he shares with his mother.

From a pool of eligible men from the whaling families, the commission selected the initial members of the whaling crew.

Many of the picks washed out as families argued over lineage and candidates decided they didn't have the time or desire to participate.

The selection process did not sit well with Johnson.

"I didn't get to pick my crew," he says bitterly. "Some of them I got along with, some of them I didn't."

The whaling commission required the whaling crew to pass random drug and alcohol tests, which proved to be the greatest challenge for several crew members. Each whaler had to rack up at least 220 hours paddling in the canoe, demonstrate proficiency in reading the weather and ocean currents, understand each crew member's unique role, and have the ability to swim in frigid ocean water.

There was also a series of closely guarded spiritual requirements that varied from family to family.

"Nobody gets too nosy about that one," says whaling commission executive director George Bowechop. "Each one has their own way of doing it, and that's it."

As the whaling crew trained under the watchful eye of protesters, Johnson busied himself with a mountain of logistical problems, ranging from securing hunt equipment to figuring out how to butcher a whale. He fretted over paperwork, tribal politics, negotiations with protesters and assorted personal issues, including clearing up some minor arrests.

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