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

He was deeply worried.

Because of his official role as whaling captain, Johnson became the focus of worldwide media attention during the months leading up to the May 1999 hunt. He posed for an infamous photograph holding the .577 caliber rifle.

"He was our Hollywood Indian," says Janine Bowechop.

Keeping the Makah whaling tradition alive: Keith Johnson, left, and his son, Keith Jr., and father, Frank Johnson.
John Dougherty
Keeping the Makah whaling tradition alive: Keith Johnson, left, and his son, Keith Jr., and father, Frank Johnson.
Helma Ward, 83, had several relatives on the 1999 Makah whaling crew.
John Dougherty
Helma Ward, 83, had several relatives on the 1999 Makah whaling crew.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

While Wayne Johnson courted the media, Theron Parker and a group of his friends and relatives steadily assumed positions in the canoe.

Parker wasn't on the original crew picked by the commission, despite his well-known skills as a paddler and a hunter and his being a direct descendant of whalers on both sides of his family. Parker says he and his canoeing buddies were somewhat surprised by the whaling commission's early selections.

"We were looking at each other going, 'Well, they ain't bad, I guess. But I think we can do better than that.'"

As attrition took its toll, Parker and his allies slowly took control of the whaling canoe.

"This particular group of men had the commitment to do it," he says.

Parker spent hours building paddles for the crew. He also constructed the harpoon. He studied the whaling equipment in the museum. He repeatedly watched a clip from a 1933 movie about Inuit natives hunting gray whales from a sealskin boat, seeking clues on what to expect.

Parker stayed out of the limelight, focusing instead on preparing himself and his crew physically and spiritually for a great endeavor. He intimidated journalists with glares and rarely made public comments.

At 6 feet, 210 pounds, the then 36-year-old Theron Parker had the build, skill and power to be the harpooner, a role he assumed after two other candidates washed out.

But was he spiritually prepared to assume the mantle of the barefoot whaler walking down the beach with harpoon in hand?

Theron Parker grew up on the water.

He worked with his father on a fishing trawler and spent much of his youth competing in tribal canoe races. He particularly enjoyed participating in regional canoe gatherings called Tribal Journeys, where tribes from the Canoe Nations of the Northwest would paddle to a host nation for competitions and a feast.

"I started paddling, and I have loved it ever since," he says.

As a youth, Parker rummaged through the family's whaling equipment that had long been stored away. But relics were useless to a strong-headed, rambunctious teenager growing up in a tiny, rural town where whaling was a thing of the past.

Like many youth growing up in Neah Bay in the 1970s, he soon found himself involved with drugs and alcohol.

"Drinking and drugs was a part of my younger life," he says. "I had a hard go with things like that."

Sorrow and sadness stalked him in those days. He left Neah Bay after a tragic car accident -- a tragedy so deeply felt he will not talk about what happened or how it affected him. He lived off the reservation for a number of years after that.

He worked as a carpenter and produced Native American art, including hand-carved masks -- one of which depicts a drowned whaler and hangs in the Makah Cultural and Research Center gift shop.

Parker drifted back to Neah Bay in the mid-1990s, still seeking to come to terms with who he was. Soon after the tribe announced its intentions to resume whaling, he found himself back in the canoe.

Paddling rejuvenated his love for the water and gave his life new direction.

"It helped me see that it was a better way of life," he says. "A clean life. I really enjoyed it, once I got in it. I figured, that's for me."

His love of the canoe soon converged with his other favorite activity -- hunting. He was skilled at hunting seals, deer and elk. It was his mother who planted the seed that he should hunt the whale.

"It would be nothing new for you," Parker says his mother told him. "You would just move to a different plane."

Many forces were converging at once on Theron Parker.

He was a powerful paddler. An expert hunter. His tribe was poised to resume the activity that was the heart of its culture for centuries.

It was time for Parker to make a most important decision.

"I decided to try not to be anything other than what I wanted to be," he says. "I just decided that's what I had to do. After that, everything was better."

After coming to terms with himself, Parker next committed to preparing to hunt the whale -- mentally, physically and spiritually.

"I really got serious about preparing for it," he says. "I was kind of getting pushed that way anyway, to be clean, sober, straight, strong."

Theron Parker freed himself from his own troubled past.

Now, the unseen grip of his ancestors was guiding his actions.

"My great-grandfather was a whaler. And his father before that was a whaler," he says. "On my grandmother's side, their family was whalers.

"I'm gonna be a whaler. I didn't really have a choice in the matter, I guess. It's in the blood."

Theron Parker knew traditionally the harpooner was also the whaling captain. He asserted his power through his dominating presence in the canoe. No one was a stronger paddler, and now he was also the harpooner.

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