When five Makah tribal members conducted an unauthorized hunt for a gray whale off the coast of Washington last month, some people jumped to conclusions that just weren’t accurate. In no time, misinformation and baseless rumors about the incident were splattered around the world. Some reports even said the hunters used a machine gun to kill the whale. While untrue and later corrected by the media, many people were left with this false impression.
The truth is the Makah have done an outstanding job of managing the tribe’s return to whaling, and I, for one, heartily applaud them. Last month’s hunt was not approved by the Makah Tribal Council or the Makah Whaling Commission. The whalers are being held to account in tribal court, and that’s as it should be. It’s the very definition of sovereignty.
The Tribal Prosecutor is working with the U.S. Attorney’s office to share evidence needed for tribal prosecution of the case. The tribe will announce filing of charges against the five in the near future. The tribe, meanwhile, will continue to work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the case.
Anybody who blames the entire tribe for this infraction by a few should question their own double standards. While tribes are excellent natural resource managers, it is wrong to hold them to different standards than any other nation. Do we blame the entire federal government when a non-Indian hunts out of season?
Maybe those quick to assign blame where it doesn’t belong should study history a little more thoroughly. That might help them understand why the Makah Nation and the Whale Nation are long-time comrades in the fulfillment of the ways of nature through mutual sustainability. The Makah are the best human friends whales have.
For thousands of years the Makah Nation, like other tribal nations, has respected, protected and depended upon fish, wildlife and wild plants for survival and identified with these gifts through their culture and traditions of conservation. Their skillful management was evident when European newcomers found nature in abundance just a few hundred years ago. When the United States and Makah signed the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, opening hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful Olympic Peninsula land to non-tribal settlement, the Makahs retained their right to fish, hunt, seal and whale. The U.S. Constitution defines such treaties as the supreme law of the land.
By the 1920s non-tribal hunting had brought gray whales to the brink of extinction. The Makah Nation then elected to halt whaling until the whale population could again sustain harvest. It was a time of deep pain and sacrifice for the Makah people, who have never forgotten their ancestry or disconnected from their roots. Over the years gray whale populations resurged, and the whales were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994. The tribe knew then that it could finally return to whaling on a limited, sustainable basis.
Although the Makah right to whale remains intact, the tribe chose to cooperate with the federal government and the International Whaling Commission in rekindling its whaling tradition. By 1999, the tribe had been allocated five whales per year, from the allocation of Russian indigenous people and, for the first time in more than 70 years, took a whale.
The meat was shared with all members of the tribe and the whale’s bones reassembled for an educational exhibit in the Makah tribal museum. It was a time of cultural celebration supported by indigenous people from across the globe.
Self righteous protesters have tried every trick to stop Makah whaling and have succeeded in causing a temporary delay in court. But neither they, nor anyone else, will ever break the age old bond between the Makah and the whale. The Makah will whale again.
Some people seem to think that the unauthorized acts of a few render the treaty right invalid. Wrong. Treaty-protected rights are the tribes’ Bill of Rights and those rights continue, now and forever.
The Makah are a whaling people, with powerful traditions that precede any customs, rights or spiritual beliefs brought to this continent by non-Indians. The Makah Council is a sovereign, elected government that is taking a slow, but determined and judicious path to resumption of its whaling tradition.
The Makah Nation has earned, and deserves, your support.
Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer, NWIFC, (360) 438-1180.