The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope. In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration at 12,000 miles round trip, the longest by any mammal has become a trek through the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists and local residents. Here, writer John Dougherty goes into the heart of a Native American tribe in Washington state to find out how and why it has resurrected its cultural heritage of whaling, an action that has enraged animal rights groups.
Neah Bay, Washington
A damp, cool spring evening envelops a cedar-plank house perched on a slight rise overlooking the rocky beach in the Makah whaling village of Ozette.
Inside, a young boy sleeps on a wooden bench. A toy bow and arrow lie next to his head. Nearby, a woman works -- someone has to tend the fire hearths in the building that serves as home to a Makah whaling chief, his relatives and his slaves.
The twilight hours are bucolic, but the woman and child do not have much time left.
The rest of the two dozen or so people living in the 60-foot long house are away. The latest catch from the sea -- whether a 40-foot gray whale or a canoe load of seals -- demands their attention to the hunt and the ceremonies.
The woman and child are immersed in the pungent smells of freshly butchered sea mammals and filleted halibut drying on racks that hang above the long house.
Baskets with patterns of whales adorning their sides are stuffed with dried fish, berries, shellfish and roots gathered from nearby tidal pools and the steep hillsides of the rain forest, which looms over the beach and extends miles inland to snowcapped mountains that feed salmon-filled rivers.
An assortment of hunting gear -- yew-wood harpoons, sealskin floats, lines made from cedar bark and harpoon tips crafted from mussel shells and elk antlers -- is carefully stowed away in the whaling chief's corner of the long house.
The head man's quarters are the farthest away from the long house's only door, a door that opens toward the ocean.
Scores of bows and arrows are stashed in the area of the long house belonging to the hunter of the clan.
In another corner, occupied by the fisherman, are small boxes made from a single, thin plank of cedar that folds onto itself. They hold hemlock fishing hooks -- ingeniously crafted devices used to catch thousands of halibut feeding on banks far offshore.
Cedar bark mats hang from the rafters and offer privacy for the sleeping benches of the communal household.
Outside, fishing, whaling and sealing canoes carved from giant red cedar trees are drawn up on the beach. They are pulled over logs to keep them from being washed away by the high tide pounding the rocky reef that stretches past the breakwaters into the Pacific Ocean.
Perched on the westernmost point in the Pacific Northwest, Ozette is the perfect place to launch ocean hunts. Fur seals make their closest approach to shore, within three miles, while the gray whale often swims just offshore on its annual northbound migration to its summer feeding grounds.
This evening is no different than thousands before, and thousands yet to come, until the disaster strikes.
Without warning, the silty sand and clay hillside behind the long house liquefies, triggering a tsunami of suffocating mud that cascades toward the structure. Nothing resists, or survives. The mud swallows the house, collapses the walls inward and carries the roof toward the beach.
The woman and child vanish inside the avalanche of soil.
The long house becomes a tomb buried beneath tons of mud.
The deadly slurry captures, then holds for an eternity, an instant of daily life of the Makah Indians. It is A.D. 1500.
At the other end of the continent, Spaniards are only beginning their conquest of the Mayan and Aztec cultures to the south. It will take hundreds of years, but the white men will eventually find the whaling peoples of the Makah Nation.
Five centuries later, a young newspaper boy, an Indian child, pedals his bicycle through the small town of Neah Bay, about 15 miles north of Ozette. A couple of cars cruise down the main drag of the town where 1,200 or so Makah make their home on a small bay facing north, toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The boy rides past the harbor where fishermen unload the day's halibut catch into wheelbarrows, past the totem pole-flanked general store that sells everything from paint to potatoes, past the town's only breakfast shop -- the Makah Maiden Cafe -- where frantic waitresses tell patrons to fetch their own coffee.
The boy stops at a steel-paneled warehouse, grabs a newspaper and goes inside, where he finds archaeologists and Makah tribal members carefully sifting through thousands of artifacts being extracted from the 500-year-old long house at Ozette.
A powerful winter storm in 1970 had uncovered the remains of the ancient village, launching one of the greatest archaeological excavations in North America. Scientists from Washington State University, Makah tribal members and volunteers from around the world sifted through the remarkably preserved remains of the catastrophic mudslide.
The research center's director shows the boy the latest prize uncovered at Ozette -- a mussel shell harpoon tip that a whaling captain long ago imbedded into the vertebra of a whale.
"I thought, 'What power that man must have had to do such a thing,'" says 38-year-old Theron Parker, thinking back to that moment in his boyhood nearly a quarter century ago.
That thought has long resonated with Parker, mixing with other visions and sounds of his youth.
The songs of his family are those sung by whaling chiefs.
The family heirlooms are the tools of whalers.
A persistent image is pressed into Parker's mind: a Makah whaler walking barefoot across the beach, holding a heavy harpoon and two sealskin floats, his long black hair enmeshed in a fur coat, a determined expression on his face.
Together, these fragments of a past way of life would endure -- whispering to Parker through the travails of drinking, drugs and exile that would lead him away from his Makah homeland.
But like the gray whales that return each year, Parker was drawn back to Neah Bay, back to a tribe struggling to regain its balance after 150 years of death and assimilation that destroyed most of its once vibrant, wealthy and powerful society.
The Ozette excavation triggered a sweeping revival in Makah art, language and traditions.
It also dramatically revealed that the heart and soul of the Makah were -- and remain -- rooted in the great whales the tribe once hunted.
Theron Parker soon found himself on a collision course that would force him to confront himself, and force his tribe to confront the world.
In mid-1995, the Makah Tribal Council stunned the globe when it announced plans to resume hunting the Eastern Pacific gray whale.
A tribe that few could locate on a map became the target of a worldwide media eruption.
For the previous 13 years, most of the world's nations had embraced a moratorium on commercial whaling. During this period, whales had increasingly become the symbol of the environmental movement, and in many cases were elevated to a level equal to, or for some, exceeding the value of humanity.
Whales were celebrated as cosmic beings, keepers of the records of time. They were widely depicted in modern mythological art as a sacred connection among ocean, land and heaven.
The Makah tribe's plans to resume whaling seemed completely out of step with "modern" morality.
But the Makah have a long history of whaling -- dating back possibly to the time of Jesus. They also have a most intimate connection with the whale -- one that has permeated their society on every level for 20 centuries.
The Makahs' long communion with whales was voluntarily ceased in the 1920s. The gray whale's population had been decimated by the commercial whaling fleets of the United States and Britain, and it became unprofitable for the tribe to engage in expensive and dangerous whale hunts.
Between 1845 and 1874, non-Makah commercial whaling fleets used harpoon guns to slaughter roughly 8,000 gray whales, including a substantial portion of females.
By the turn of the 20th century there were too few whales to hunt, even for the Makah, who traditionally harvested five to 10 whales a year.
Commercial hunting of gray whales was finally prohibited in 1937, with fewer than 3,000 remaining. The gray whale was placed on the U.S. endangered species list in 1970. The hunting hiatus proved beneficial. The population quickly rebounded, and by the mid-1990s it topped 23,000. In June 1994 the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list.
A year later, the Makah Tribal Council informed federal officials that it intended to exercise a provision in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay that explicitly reserved to the Makah the right to fish, whale and seal in their traditional hunting grounds. No other peace treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe contains a provision allowing whaling.
After preliminary discussions with federal officials -- which included the possibility of the Makah resuming commercial whaling -- an agreement was reached between the Makah and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA would seek permission from the International Whaling Commission for the Makah to conduct a ceremonial and subsistence hunt.
Federal officials made it clear that the United States would not support the Makah if the tribe intended to engage in commercial whaling. The Makah, in turn, stated they would reserve their treaty right to conduct commercial whaling in the future, but for now, the tribe was seeking IWC permission only to conduct a ceremonial and subsistence hunt.
The IWC granted the Makah permission to conduct such a hunt in 1997, issuing a quota of 20 whales that could be harvested from 1998 through 2002.
The Makahs' first whale hunt in more than seven decades would have to be conducted from a canoe paddled by eight men. The Makah were required to first harpoon their target before a sharpshooter in a motorized support boat would shoot the whale in the skull with a high-powered rifle to minimize its suffering.
The IWC decision triggered a worldwide outburst from animal rights and anti-whaling groups that vowed to stop the Makah tribal hunt at any cost.
The Makah soon became the focus of a well-funded and frequently vicious anti-whaling campaign highlighted by hundreds of death threats, the blockade of the only highway into town and virtual siege of its harbor by a fleet of anti-whaling boats.
Protesters equipped with jet skis and high-powered inflatable Zodiacs accompanied by a converted Coast Guard cutter vowed to block the Makah hunt by coming between the Makah whaling canoe and any targeted gray whale. If necessary, they would sink the canoe.
Anti-whaling groups brushed aside the Makahs' claim that whaling was an essential part of their culture, dismissing it as irrelevant to modern life.
"A society can never evolve by adopting archaic and inhumane rituals," says Michael Kundu, a spokesman for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which spearheaded the anti-whaling campaign.
"No legitimate argument can be made that the Makah, or any other ethnic group, can move their culture forward through ritual killing."
Protesters were largely successful in focusing media attention on a simplistic battle between anti-whaling groups portrayed as valiantly striving to prevent the needless death of gray whales versus a bloodthirsty band of savages in a ruthless pursuit of a conscious and trusting whale.
The Makahs' rich, whaling-based culture -- which is on vivid display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center that was dedicated in 1979 to house the Ozette artifacts -- was barely mentioned in the hundreds of news articles generated by the tribe's return to whaling.
The anti-whaling public relations campaign soon unleashed a wave of racism directed at the tribe, and at Northwest Indians in general, with a ferocity reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the Deep South.
The Makah would not be deterred.
The tribe was determined to exercise its treaty rights, and, perhaps more important, to rekindle its whaling tradition in the hope of strengthening families and unifying the community.
The more the Makah were pressured to forgo whaling, the more dedicated they became.
"The real beauty of whaling is what surrounds a whale hunt rather than the actual hunt or tasting the whale," says Janine Bowechop, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Resource Center. "The discipline involved, the requirements of the community and of the whaling crew are what strengthens us and keeps us more alive."
Soon after the Makah Tribal Council announced plans to resume whaling, Theron Parker returned to Neah Bay and took up an activity he had loved as a youth -- paddling in the ocean in wooden canoes. The exercise and camaraderie with fellow "pullers" helped him wrestle with the demons of drugs and alcohol.
"I had to straighten myself out, and I did," Parker says.
Becoming sober was a monumental step for Parker, but it was only the first rung on a ladder that at the top bore that persistent image of the barefoot Makah whaler.
Parker was steadily being drawn to the whale hunt -- although he wasn't among the first whaling crew members selected by tribal officials. But lack of official notice was not going to stymie Parker and his mates.
His tribe was determined to resume a traditional whale hunt last executed some 70 years ago.
Not only would they have to overcome protesters trying to disrupt the hunt, someone would have to thrust a harpoon shaft into the back of a 60,000-pound gray whale, a species famous for its aggressive counterattacks on whalers. The tribe might need a skilled hunter and seaman, which Parker had become.
The physical challenges that loomed were daunting, but they were minor compared to the mental and spiritual preparations necessary before a modern-day Makah whaling crew could even begin to compare itself with the great Makah whalers of the past.
Parker and his band of friends and relatives would have to transform themselves physically, mentally and spiritually into their forefathers -- who according to the tribe's songs and legends had become One with the Whale.
"The return to whaling is a return to praying," says Makah artist Greg Colfax.
"That's what it is. It's a return to the ancient spiritual methods of praying and following as much of the advice that the elders can provide for how they lead their lives.
"What time should they wake up in the morning? What should they do in the first several minutes of waking up? What kind of diet should they have? How are they to relate to their wives and their girlfriends? How are they to relate to the community? How do they relate to themselves and the environment?
"It's a boot camp," Colfax says. "It's a boot camp for the mind and of the body."
Colfax is a renowned carver whose masks are highly sought on both the commercial market and within the tribe for traditional uses in songs, dances and rituals. One of his masks -- a transformation mask -- hangs in the home of Nelson Mandela.
Colfax speaks slowly and carefully, the cadence further punctuated by long drags on his pipe. He worked at Ozette during the dig that lasted from 1970 through 1981 before going to college to study teaching. It was the excavation that inspired him -- along with many others of his generation -- to study and project traditional Makah culture.
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.
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."
"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."
The whalers' control of wealth translated into political power. The whaling captains were usually the chiefs in the five villages (Neah Bay, Ozette, Baada, Sooes and Waatch) strung along the Cape Flattery coastline that made up the Makah Nation.
Unlike Western society where wealth is measured largely by accumulation, the status and prestige of the Makah whaling captains were enhanced by how much bounty they gave away.
Much of the gifting took place at potlatch ceremonies, where chiefs would reaffirm their status by bestowing nearly everything they owned to guests, including commoners and slaves. To the Makah, family songs are more valuable than any worldly possession.
Makah whalers used their canoes, harpoons and sealskin floats to harvest five to 10 whales a year. The harvest could have been far higher, but appears to have been limited by internal politics -- the chiefs controlled the whaling canoes, and the right to whale was strictly based on hereditary lines.
The abundance of whales close to shore -- particularly during the gray whales' northern migration from their winter calving grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico -- increased the certainty of successful hunts and justified spending tremendous time and resources to prepare for whaling expeditions.
The Makah Cultural and Research Center displays a stunning array of finely crafted products -- paddles, canoes, harpoons, knives, clubs, baskets, boxes, looms, clothing and hats made from cedar bark, ropes, toys and spiritual icons -- all related to whaling.
While whale hunting was the central force driving the society, the Makah also relied heavily on offshore halibut fisheries, along with harvesting fur seals, shellfish from the rocky coastline, salmon from rivers draining the Olympic Peninsula and game, including deer and elk.
There was abundant food for the five villages, so much so that when the federal government began treaty negotiations it named the people the Makah -- which means "people who are generous with food."
Until then, the Makah referred to themselves as "qwi-dich-cha-at," which roughly translates to "the people who live near the rocks and the seagulls."
While the Makah lived in communal long houses, the tribe nevertheless embraced a strong concept of personal wealth, including the owning of songs, dances and natural resource areas. Potlatches provided the Makah the opportunity to publicly declare ownership of property and record important events such as marriages and deaths.
The Makah welcomed early contact with explorers and trading ships that began to appear with increasing frequency by the 1790s. Trade benefited both parties. The Makah incorporated new materials such as metal into their harpoons and sails onto their canoes. In turn, Makah whale oil was highly sought by traders.
While commerce was welcome, the Makah resisted incursions into their traditional land and sea territories. Survivors of shipwrecks -- including Russians and Japanese -- sometimes found themselves taken as slaves by the Makah.
The 1850s unleashed three powerful blows to the tribe -- commercial whaling, disease and assimilation.
Commercial whaling fleets began the ruthless and systematic massacre of thousands of gray whales from Alaska to Baja. The gray whales were easy targets. They migrate each year more than 6,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the north -- stretching from Alaska's Bering Sea to Washington's coastline -- down to coastal lagoons in Baja California, Mexico.
About the same time, smallpox and measles brought to the Northwest by European explorers and settlers swept through the Makah villages. The epidemic peaked in 1852, leaving untold number of dead Makah whose rotting bodies littered the beaches.
A white 19th-century trader, Samuel Hancock, wrote in his journal:
"It was truly shocking to witness the ravages of this disease here at Neah Bay. . . . In a few weeks from the introduction of the disease, hundreds of natives became victims to it, the beach for a distance of eight miles was literally strewn with the dead bodies of these people, presenting a disgusting spectacle."
Scholars estimate that the Makah population plummeted from a peak of 2,000 to 3,000 down to fewer than 1,000 in the wake of the 1852 epidemic. The deaths of whalers, seal hunters and fishermen, along with elders, swept away vast stores of knowledge.
The epidemic set the stage for the third wave of cultural destruction -- the beginning of formal relations with the U.S. government.
Acting on behalf of the United States, Washington governor Isaac Stevens initiated treaty negotiations with the decimated tribe, still reeling from the epidemic. The Treaty of Neah Bay was signed on January 31, 1855.
The Makah ceded vast tracts of land to the United States in exchange for education and health care. But while the Makah were willing to turn over land, the tribe steadfastly demanded continued, unfettered access to its traditional ocean-based resources.
Makah Chief Tse-Kaw-Wootl told treaty negotiators, "I want the sea. That is my country."
As a result, Article IV of the treaty explicitly states that the Makah have "the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds."
Soon after the treaty was signed, the federal government initiated a plan to systematically vanquish the Makah way of life. Between 1863 and 1934, 18 agents of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw activities on the reservation. The agents instituted a series of harsh, if well-intentioned, measures designed to assimilate the people into an American, and decidedly Christian, society.
These measures included:
Forbidding the Makah language.
Separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
The vitriolic words were paralleled by hostile actions.
Makah tribal members were forbidden access to restaurants, hotels and health clinics in the nearby towns of Port Angeles and Forks and sometimes in larger cities, including Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia.
Sadie Johnson, the 70-year-old mother of Wayne Johnson, recounts numerous stories of businesses refusing to allow her entry because she was Makah.
Even her chiropractor in the logging town of Forks refused to treat her after learning her son was captain of the whaling crew.
"He completely locked the doors on me," Sadie Johnson says.
The animal rights groups focused on three areas to propel their anti-Makah whaling message.
First, they claimed the Makah were conducting an illegal hunt and that the United States, by supporting the Makah, had become a pirate whaling nation.
Next, the animal rights groups repeatedly referred to the whales being hunted by the Makah as "resident" whales, implying they spent their lives off the coast of Washington, Vancouver Island and in Puget Sound. They began naming whales -- creating the equivalent of a cetacean "Bambi."
Finally, the groups claimed that the tribe's real goal was to create a commercial whaling business and that the ceremonial hunt was just the first step toward this new, highly profitable enterprise.
There are elements of truth in all the positions espoused by the animal rights groups, but they were taken largely out of context.
Claims that the Makah were acting illegally were quickly dismissed by government officials and Makah whaling leaders. However, anti-Makah whaling activists won a court order temporarily halting further Makah hunts.
The government took -- and still takes -- the position that the Makah have the right to hunt whales under the 1855 treaty and need no formal approval to proceed.
"Strictly speaking, we couldn't stop the Makahs from whaling under any circumstance," says Brian Gorman, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They don't need anybody's approval."
The Makah, however, knew there would be massive opposition to their plans, particularly if they went ahead without seeking federal approval. The tribe, after lengthy debate, decided it would be best to work in conjunction with the U.S. government, which has a trust responsibility to uphold the tribe's treaty, says the Makah Whaling Commission's George Bowechop.
After receiving the tribe's 1995 notice of its intent to resume whaling, NOAA's Joe Scordino says the agency decided to seek permission from the International Whaling Commission for the Makah to conduct subsistence whale hunts.
This placed the U.S. government in an awkward position.
As a member of the International Whaling Commission, the U.S. has prominently supported the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling that went into effect in 1982. The U.S. has opposed repeated efforts by Japan and Norway to lift the ban.
The IWC, however, does allow limited hunts for traditional aboriginal subsistence.
The United States decided supporting an aboriginal permit for the Makah would preserve U.S. opposition to commercial whaling while meeting its treaty obligations to the Makah.
In 1997, the U.S. and the Makah sent delegations to the IWC's annual meeting in Monaco to ask for permission to hunt up to 20 gray whales over five years, with no more than five taken in any one year. At the same meeting, the Chukotka people of Russia, facing starvation in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, applied to hunt up to 600 gray whales over five years.
The IWC approved the joint request by the United States and Russia by consensus, without objections, NOAA states.
Some IWC member nations, however, strongly contest that approval, saying only the Chukotka quota was approved. Despite the controversy, the way was clear for the Makah to begin hunting gray whales.
In June 2000, a coalition of anti-whaling groups led by U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf (R-Washington) put another roadblock in front of the Makah. A federal appeals court ruled that NOAA had entered into a whaling management agreement with the Makah before completing an environmental assessment of how the hunt would affect the overall population of gray whales. The court ordered a new environmental assessment.
The ruling forced NOAA to suspend its agreement supporting the tribe's whaling activities. The tribe could still go whaling under its treaty rights, but would do so without government support.
A draft assessment by NOAA last winter prompted a contentious public hearing in January. The final assessment, which is expected to conclude that the Makah hunt will have no significant impact on the 26,000 gray whales migrating along the Pacific Coast, is expected to be released this week.
If the court approves the final document, the Makah could resume whaling, perhaps by the end of summer.
Gorman praises the Makah for cooperating with the government when the tribe could have taken direct action years ago and embarrassed the United States.
"Their whole approach has been very accommodating and patient," he says.
A key issue in the environmental review is the status of so-called "resident" whales.
Under NOAA's initial plan for managing Makah whaling, the Makah were restricted to hunting migrating whales in the open ocean. They could not hunt gray whales that spend the summer feeding in the shallower and more accessible Strait of Juan de Fuca, which borders the northern edge of the reservation.
For some unknown reason, 200 to 300 of the 26,000 gray whales that migrate to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea split off and spend some or all of the summer feeding in waters from Northern California to southeastern Alaska. Some scientists and animal rights activists say those are "resident" whales.
While most -- if not all -- of these whales join the annual winter migration to the Baja lagoons, some return year after year to the Washington summer feeding grounds.
The Makah, wanting to avoid a public relations fiasco for hunting a whale that has been returning to the same area year after year, initially agreed to hunt whales only in the open ocean and during times when migrations are taking place.
Animal rights groups, lead by Ocean Defense International, are now arguing that any gray whale actively feeding in Pacific Northwest waters -- including those in the ocean during migratory periods -- are "resident" whales and should be protected.
"It was clear that many of the whales targeted by the Makah were resident whales, evidenced by 'mud plumes' present," ODI said in a statement to last year's IWC meeting. "The mud plumes are only present when whales are feeding. Migrating whales do not stop to feed."
Mud plumes are created when gray whales forage on the sea floor for food.
The Makah say there is no such thing as a resident whale because all the whales eventually migrate to Baja each winter. The resident whale issue has been drummed up to interfere with their hunt, the Makah say.
Keith Johnson, chairman of the Makah Whaling Commission and no relation to Wayne Johnson, says it doesn't matter where the whales stop to eat. He says it's impossible to determine how many whales spend time feeding exclusively in Pacific Northwest waters and how many feed there before continuing up to the Bering Sea.
Rather than trying to figure out whether a whale is a "resident" or a migratory whale, Johnson says the tribe's future approach will be more straightforward.
"If they stop here, watch out," he says.
NOAA is also taking the official stance that there is no such thing as resident whales.
"They might show up in the same place every year for three or four years running, but then they are not seen again," says NOAA's Scordino. "It is better to say they are feeding where food is available."
Even if the Makah exclusively hunted "resident" whales, scientists say it is unlikely that taking four or five each year would harm the population.
Calambokidis, however, cautions that if Canadian tribes that are closely related to the Makah begin hunting gray whales in significant numbers, it could damage the whale population in Pacific Northwest waters.
Several Canadian tribes have publicly stated they would like to resume whaling. But unlike the Makah who have a treaty right to whale, the Canadian Indian tribes do not expect to have treaties signed with the Canadian government for several more years.
And the Canadian government is not likely to approve commercial whaling. Canada is not a member of the International Whaling Commission, but it banned commercial whaling in 1972.
Anti-whaling groups filed suit last winter in Washington State alleging the Makah hunt is endangering "resident" whales.
And more legal action is promised in the wake of NOAA's expected decision that the Makah hunt poses no significant threat to the gray whale population and that the Makah can hunt in areas frequented by resident whales.
Andrew Christie of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society says, "The grounds for a lawsuit based on tainted process and bias will be present, and legal action a certainty."
The final arm of the animal rights propaganda campaign against the Makahs was to claim the tribe intended to begin commercial whaling.
Once again, there is a sliver of truth to the allegation.
The Makah take a very aggressive stance to defending their treaty rights. They have engaged in numerous lawsuits for several decades to secure their fishing rights and title to property. Article IV of the 1855 treaty that ensures the Makah the right to fish, whale and seal places no limits on how those resources are used -- whether for personal consumption or for commercial gain.
At the time of the treaty, the Makah conducted commercial whaling by trading whale products with neighboring tribes and Western enterprises, including the Hudson Bay Company.
The Makah made clear they didn't intend to conduct commercial whaling when they applied for an aboriginal whaling quota with the IWC and NOAA. But they also said they weren't giving up that treaty right for the future.
"Their letter to us said that their request was explicitly for ceremonial and subsistence use," says Scordino. "They did have a statement in there that it didn't mean they were giving up their right for commercial, but they weren't asking for that."
The Makah acknowledge their position could always change.
"I think they would certainly be interested in commercial whaling if that was an option," says Makah attorney John Arum. "But you can't really have a commercial operation without legal markets."
If the Makah were to seek permits for commercial whaling, the tribe would run into stiff opposition from the federal government.
"We've been very clear that we would not support the tribe in any kind of commercial venture," says Scordino.
Ocean Defense International insists the Makah aboriginal hunt is just the first step toward resumption of commercial whaling.
"The Makah, with the support of the U.S., has opened the door to commercial whaling under the guise of 'cultural hunts,'" ODI said in its official statement to the IWC meeting last year.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society also points to a recent business deal between the Makah and Supreme Alaska Seafoods, a subsidiary of the multinational Japanese corporation, Taiyo Fisheries Co., as proof that the Makah intend to sell whale products to the Japanese.
"Taiyo Fisheries Co. (is) a Japanese multinational corporation that has been at the center of numerous whale meat smuggling schemes over the last 30 years," Sea Shepherd says in comments critiquing the draft environmental assessment.
NOAA's Scordino says the government is monitoring the business relationship. The Makah, he says, are selling only fish used in sashimi.
The Makah brush aside the allegations, saying that even if the tribe wanted to resume commercial whaling, it is against federal law, and that is very unlikely to change.
"We will abide by the law," says whaling commission chairman Keith Johnson.
The Makah, he says, lack the clout to overcome widespread political opposition to the resumption of commercial whaling in the United States.
"Who would lobby? Who would get it through?" he asks. "Who would be the big-bucks guys to push it through? Would it be the Makahs? I don't think so."
And, if by some remote chance commercial whaling did return, Keith Johnson sees no financial windfall for the Makah.
"Who would benefit from commercial whaling?" he says. "Our community would be cut out. We couldn't compete, just as we couldn't 80 or 90 years ago."
There were no legal obstacles blocking a hunt, and the whaling crew had spent weeks practicing on the water.
The animosity between Theron Parker and Wayne Johnson had subsided -- at least enough to allow the hunt to proceed. Parker would run operations in the canoe, while Johnson would coordinate logistical matters and command the support boat.
The Makah Nation's long-awaited whale hunt began in earnest.
On the evening of Sunday, May 16, 1999, Parker was contacted by Makah allies in the nearby town of Sekiu, a small fishing resort about 20 miles east of Neah Bay.
The anti-whaling protesters had been spending evenings in Sekiu during their siege of Neah Bay.
"I got a call that said they were partying. They were celebrating because they beat us," Parker says.
The day before, the whalers had spent more than 10 hours on the ocean stalking whales. The protesters repeatedly buzzed the canoe with jet skis and Zodiacs.
The aggressiveness of the protesters was evident. Two of their vessels struck gray whales while trying to interfere with the whaling canoe.
"One vessel ran over the top of a whale and temporarily stunned the whale, while another vessel hit the flukes of a diving whale beside the canoe," federal reports state.
The Coast Guard arrested four protesters and confiscated three watercraft.
Despite the arrests, the protesters considered the day a success. Parker had twice thrown the harpoon at gray whales, but missed the target.
News that the protesters were celebrating, along with an anticipated break in the weather before another Pacific storm swept ashore, meant opportunity.
"I knew there was going to be a window in the morning where we could get in and get out," Parker says. "So, after I got the call that said they were partying, I said, 'That's cool. They'll be passing out about the time we are waking up.'"
That evening, Makah elders came to the whalers' camp and performed sacred ceremonies.
The whalers left before dawn in the Hummingbird, paddling the canoe down the Pacific coast as the sun began to break over the coastal mountains. They slipped past the Point of Arches and Father and Son rock formations toward their traditional hunting grounds off Cape Alava, just offshore from the historic village of Ozette.
The crew was confident this would be the successful hunt.
"In the morning, on the beach, we were calm. 'Yeah, it's going to happen today,'" Parker says.
But as soon as the crew got going, tensions mounted.
"We got through the waves, and we had a big ol' fight," Parker says. "We had to stop for a minute and get ourselves together."
Everyone was keyed up, ready for the strike.
"We sat and did a prayer, and then, just like that, we said 'Okay, let's go get this,'" he says.
The whalers were alone in the ocean. With wooden paddles and harpoon. Just as their forefathers had done for centuries. The weather was calm.
There were no protesters. No media boats. No helicopters hovering.
It was a primal scene.
The barefoot Makah whaler came to mind.
But there could be no hunt.
Not until the federal biologists arrived to observe the hunt and not before Wayne Johnson and the support boat showed up with the rifleman. Johnson arrived around 6:45 a.m. Within minutes, a media boat was on the scene with television helicopters hovering above.
Incredibly, after months of stalking the whaling canoe's every move, mounting blockades of the road into Neah Bay, broadcasting anti-whaling messages from ships docked in the harbor, offering large sums of money to the tribe if only it would give up the hunt, vowing to sink the canoe and do harm to the whalers, the protesters were nowhere to be seen.
The hunt was on.
Several gray whales were in the area. The whaling canoe began tracking a 30-foot whale that appeared to be feeding. The weeks of practice paid off, and the team powered the canoe quickly into position.
Parker rose from the bow, his right hand clutching the harpoon, as the gray whale surfaced.
The action was being broadcast live on morning news shows.
"They have a target," a newscaster reported from a helicopter.
"There's the harpoon," the broadcaster said in the same tone a sportscaster would use during a field goal attempt -- "The kick is on its way. . . ."
The whale cut in front of the canoe. Only feet away, Parker thrust the harpoon deep into the back of the gray whale.
The whale was stunned.
"It hurt the whale so bad that it buckled," Wayne Johnson says.
Which was a good thing for the crew because the bow of the Hummingbird was directly over the top of the whale -- the last place the whalers wanted to be in case the whale flipped its flukes in a furious response to the sudden attack.
Instead, the whale gently rolled to one side. (The Makah say the whale's passive reaction showed it was willing to give its life. Protesters say the whale was shocked from the unprovoked attack and didn't know what was happening.)
The crew quickly paddled backwards, seconds before the whale finally reacted and thrashed its fluke against the ocean surface before diving beneath the waves.
The harpoon tip lodged in the whale was attached to a rope, which ran to the canoe. The line connected to the whale went taut, and the wounded whale began towing the Hummingbird across the ocean. In historic times, the whale might have lived for several days and towed a whaling canoe far out to sea.
But this hunt was going last only several more minutes.
"We are going to show you what is unfolding live," the broadcaster told a breakfast audience. "This may be a disturbing scene to some of you. You may choose to turn away from your television right now. The harpoon has stuck. The support boat with the gunner is moving into position near the whale."
The first two shots from the rifleman missed. A second harpoon was thrust into the whale, this time from a crewmember aboard the support boat.
The third shot hit the whale in the spine, slowing it to a crawl.
"Between the two harpoons and the gunfire that has been shot at the whale, it appears the whale is mortally hurt at this time," a television reporter said from the scene.
The support boat again moved into position.
The rifleman aimed and fired. The bullet blasted a three-inch-wide hole into the skull of the whale, killing it instantly.
Elapsed time from first harpoon thrust to fatal shot -- eight minutes. Time of death: 7:03 a.m., May 17, 1999.
Moments later, the weather kicked up and a cold, heavy rain began to fall.
The protesters finally showed up. All Captain Paul Watson and the crew of Sirenian could do was mournfully blare the boat's horn.
Sea Shepherd spokesman Christie declined to comment on the Makah assertion that the protesters were late because they were partying. He says the Makah surprised the protesters by paddling "against the tide very early in the morning, contrary to common practice."
Christie says the Sirenian was "virtually the only" protest boat left after the Coast Guard had "methodically seized" nearly all of the other protest boats. The Sirenian was refueling and gathering more jet skis in Sekiu when its crew got word the hunt was underway.
"We arrived on the scene 15 minutes after the kill," he says.
By that time, the whaling crew had already given prayers of thanks, before thrusting their paddles into the air and cheering.
After some confusion, Wayne Johnson and members of the support crew secured the whale -- which had suddenly sunk to the shallow ocean floor before rising to the surface as decomposing gases made it buoyant. The 3-year-old female whale was attached by ropes to a Makah fishing vessel and slowly towed north along the coast.
Eleven hours later, the ship arrived outside Neah Bay. The Hummingbird, along with canoes from four other tribes, pulled the whale onto shore in a ceremonial procession witnessed by thousands of wildly cheering Indians, many dressed in traditional clothes.
The whale was dragged onto the beach by hundreds of Makah in a giant tug-of-war. "Heave! Heave! Heave! Heave!" they yelled as the rain pounded down.
Theron Parker and other members of the crew climbed onto the back of the beached whale. Parker spread sacred eagle feathers on the whale.
And then, Parker sang his family's sacred whaling song.
Nearby, Wayne Johnson watched in anger.
"I told Theron there was going to be no family songs and dances," Johnson says. "We had songs and dances the whole village could do. I didn't just want one family to take the glory. So when we got on the beach he down-feathered it, claimed it with eagle feathers, sang his songs. . . . I didn't want that to happen."
"That was my job to do that. Not his job," Wayne Johnson says before betraying his jealousy over Parker's actions. "It's not his whale. It's my whale."
A few days later, the tribe threw the biggest potlatch in decades as thousands of people ate whale -- a whale that had been caught by the Makah.
Parker was hailed as the hero during the feast.
Johnson was largely ignored and went home early.
Bitterness within the crew had little impact on the community, which heartily celebrated the successful hunt.
Eighty-three-year-old Helma Ward, who had several relatives on the whaling crew, had spent the morning of the hunt lying motionless in the Makah belief that female relatives of whaling crew members had a connection with the whale, and by keeping still would prevent the whale from fighting. She was joyous, and so was everyone else, at the hunt's success.
"You could feel a glow coming from the town," Ward says.
Two years have passed since the whale was hauled onto the beach of Neah Bay.
The hunt is still fresh in everyone's mind.
At Neah Bay High School, students have spent more than 2,000 hours cleaning the whale's bones, which are lined up across the floor of the school's shop. After a preservative is applied, the bones will be displayed at the Makah Cultural and Research Center.
"There's 14 ribs on each side, and there's 56 vertebrae," says shop teacher Bill Monette. "The No. 7 dorsal vertebra is where the harpoon went. It actually lodged right through the bone and severed the nerve pack that runs through the center of the vertebrae."
Next to the bones, more than a dozen racing and whaling canoes are in various stages of production.
The whale hunt has triggered a revival in canoe building, and the shop class is producing more than a dozen a year.
"Everything you see in here is a result of going back to tradition, going back to hunting," Monette says.
Monette hopes to have the students operating a business by the end of next year, selling handmade, wooden canoes.
"The sales will go right back into a payroll account so it will be nonprofit, on-the-job training," he says.
As students cut and sand paddles and glue down strips of wood on canoes, Theron Parker scrubs the bottom of a whaling canoe he is repairing in the shop alongside the students.
He says nothing, but the students know who he is.
A few blocks away, Wayne Johnson stands outside his recently purchased dump truck, complaining that the tribal council failed to give him a contract while hiring a non-Makah contractor. He mentions moving from Neah Bay, frustrated with economic opportunities.
Parker, meanwhile, is committed to staying in Neah Bay and encouraging youth to embrace canoeing.
His memories of the hunt, Parker says during an interview inside his home decorated with whaling gear and newspaper articles documenting the kill, have not faded.
"The emotions were really overwhelming for quite a while. It still is," he says standing beside six framed photographs of the men who joined him in the whaling canoe. (Only seven of the eight crewmembers were in the canoe on the morning of the successful hunt.)
"I'm proud of each and every one of those guys who stuck it out and did what we did," he says. "Those are some men there."
The hunt has changed his life in many ways.
He's says he's praying more, and he believes in the power of prayer.
"Spiritually, I've learned to pray to my creator a lot better than what I had before, and I believe in that," he says. "It's changed me a lot. It's made me grow in so many different ways."
The community, Parker says, is no longer living in the past, looking into a museum to feel its heritage.
"We are a living culture," he says. "It's not, 'This is what they used to do.' This is what we do as a people."
Traditions that have long been set aside, but never forgotten, once again have an urgency.
"The whaling songs those families had, we can use those songs, because there is a purpose for using them again," he says.
His hope for the future is that whaling will help improve the overall health of the community.
"It makes the whole community come together and work together as a tribe," he says.
The Makah are waiting for the government to issue the final environmental documents, although several whalers say they are growing impatient and might just do a hunt without federal approval.
Parker says he's in no hurry.
"We'll hunt when we are ready to hunt," he says.
As summer begins, Parker and his wife, Polly, are busy organizing canoe races and rounding up participants for this summer's Tribal Journey -- looking for those future Makah whalers.
They recently had all the racing and whaling canoes out on the water for children of the community to explore.
"Once they got in there, they never wanted to get out," he says. "There were canoes all over the water. It was the most awesome sight."
Parker thinks for a moment about his childhood. About the time the research center director showed him the harpoon tip embedded in the vertebra of a whale. He remembers how impressed he was with the power of that ancient whaler.
"Come luck, or however you go with that, my harpoon did the same thing as the bone that I had seen," Parker says.
The connection and its transformational impact leave him in awe.
"It just kind of blew me away," he says. "I thought about this man and now I am this man."
This man. The barefoot Makah whaler. Walking down the beach. Harpoon in hand. Staring ahead.
The image hangs as a life-size photograph in the Makah Cultural and Research Center, overlooking the whaling canoe.
It is an image Parker has seen most of his life.
The photograph by renowned Northwest historian Asahel Curtis is perhaps the most widely displayed image of a Native American whaler in the country. It hangs in museums throughout the Northwest.
The photograph is of a Makah whaler named Wilson Parker -- the great-grandfather of Theron Parker.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.