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

Suddenly, the whaling crew had two captains: Wayne Johnson and Theron Parker.

Descendants of Makah whalers both, Wayne Johnson and Theron Parker wanted to get a whale. But they had decidedly different ideas on how it should be done. They not only distrusted each other -- they despised one other.

"I hated him, and he hated me," Johnson says.

Neah Bay High School shop class students build canoes and paddles.
John Dougherty
Neah Bay High School shop class students build canoes and paddles.
A shirtless Theron Parker celebrates the May 17, 1999, catch: a 30-foot, 3-year-old female gray whale.
Associated Press
A shirtless Theron Parker celebrates the May 17, 1999, catch: a 30-foot, 3-year-old female gray whale.


Read all the stories in the Shades of Gray series.

Johnson says Parker was turning the hunt from a tribal effort into a personal mission to bring glory to Parker and his family. There was increasing tension over whose family songs would be sung when the whale was caught -- Johnson's or Parker's or a tribal song.

Parker declines to discuss his feelings toward Johnson.

But others in the tribe say tensions were high because of Johnson's problems handling the logistics of the hunt, his absence from the canoe and recurrent problems with some crew members failing drug and alcohol tests.

As the spring of 1999 approached, and the gray whales began returning to their North Pacific feeding grounds, the Makah whaling crew was bitterly divided.

The whaling crew's acrimony was surpassed only by the hatred being directed at the tribe by animal rights protesters. They were employing a sophisticated propaganda campaign that exploited latent racist attitudes toward Native Americans in the Northwest.

The campaign relied heavily on half-truths and unsubstantiated claims to create an image of a barbaric tribe flouting international law by seeking to kill innocent "resident" whales in the guise of cultural renewal. The animal rights groups insisted the tribe's true intent was to launch a massive commercial whaling operation that would open the door to worldwide whale hunting.

Self-proclaimed captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was the primary architect of the anti-whaling campaign. Watson has a long history of exposing pirate whaling operations throughout the world and taking radical steps, including having rammed or sunk at least 10 ships, to protect whales and other sea creatures.

Watson, who operates a small fleet of ships and directs an $800,000-a-year fund-raising arm, told the New York Times Magazine that the then-pending Makah whale hunt "is possibly the most important whale hunt in the past 25 years."

He told MSNBC News Forum in January 1997 that the Makah intended to create a "commercial whaling operation" to sell whale meat that fetches $80 a kilo in Japan. Watson said the Makah hunt will "have implications for literally thousands of whales."

Sea Shepherd, which claims 30,000 members, was supported by a host of other animal rights groups in the United States and at least 27 other countries in opposing the Makah. They distributed press releases, posted web sites and held numerous press conferences in the months leading up to the hunt.

Notably absent from the anti-Makah campaign were the mainline environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the group that launched the worldwide "Save the Whales" campaign, the Sierra Club and the Green Party -- all of which quietly sidestepped the issue because the hunt posed no threat to the overall population of gray whales.

Nevertheless, animal rights activists considered the impending death of a gray whale equivalent to murder and boldly stated in public meetings they would do whatever it took, including sinking the canoe, to stop the Makah.

There were "animal rights crazies who would stand out in a public forum and who would say 'I will hurt you, or I will kill you, if you kill a whale,'" says Joe Scordino, deputy regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service, the agency that conducts public hearings and oversight of the Makah whale-hunting activities.

Public opinion quickly mushroomed against the Makah, who found themselves under siege as the animal rights groups placed occasional blockades on the only road into the town. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society posted two ships in the harbor at Neah Bay, including its 173-foot, steel-hulled flagship, the Edward Abbey, and a 95-foot former Coast Guard cutter called the Sirenian, along with two inflatable Zodiacs.

Regional newspapers were soon inundated with vicious letters attacking the Makah.

"Natives were often referred to as `savages,' and it seems little has changed," wrote John and Edna Zawyrucha to the Seattle Times. "God Bless America and all those members of the Makah tribe who once again were successful in resurrecting latent feelings of racial hatreds!"

Tensions were so high that the Washington governor deployed 800 National Guard troops to Neah Bay in August 1998 during the tribe's annual Makah Days celebration to quell violence that never broke out. The National Guard mobilization cost more than $751,000, triggering another wave of anti-Makah statements, this time for wasting public funds.

The hateful tone reflected in letters to the editors of the Seattle Times, Peninsula Daily News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Tacoma News Tribune and other newspapers escalated.

"I am anxious to know where I may apply for a license to kill Indians," wrote Phillips Wylly of Pebble Beach, California. "My forefathers helped settle the West, and it was their tradition to kill every redskin they saw. 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian,' they believed. I also want to keep faith with my ancestors."

Andrew Christie, a Sea Shepherd spokesman, acknowledges that its campaign unleashed a wave of racism but says "it was kind of unavoidable."

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