Respect the Makah Culture and the whales

In the op-ed piece “it’s time to give up whaling” (TNT – 9/16), is Bergman writing to support the special nature of whales, or is he writing to attack Makah Culture?  We’d like to make it clear from the outset that we are not writing to attack those who believe that whales are special, but we do feel that it is urgent to express support and respect for Makah Culture.

All humans view things through the lens of culture, and no one has a monopoly on the “right” way of looking at things.  Some non-Makah  feel that hunting whales is wrong.  They have every right to feel that way.  In our society, however, we expect vegetarians to accept the dietary practices of those who eat meat.  We do not prohibit the consumption of pork or seafood because some of us believe these foods should not be consumed.  Prohibiting Makah whale hunting would be a much more extreme than a mere dietary prohibition, it would deny the Makah a central element of their cultural heritage.

For thousands of years, Whale has nourished the Makah.  Excavation at the Makah village of Ozette revealed that whale accounts for as much as 85 percent of all of the food represented by the recovered food remains.  Few sites older than Ozette’s 1500 years have been sampled, but whale bones are common in sites of human activity as much as 4,000 years old.

Makah Culture is alive.  Their identity as whalers is an important part of the living culture.  Although more than 70 years had passed since the last whale hunt in the 1920’s, members of whaling families knew what they were supposed to do physically and spiritually to prepare for the revived hunt in 1999.  The tribe selected the image of Thunderbird carrying a whale for the Tribal flag.  Thunderbird hunts whales like an eagle hunts salmon and in the distant past, Thunderbird taught the Makah how to hunt whales.

Traditional belief holds that if whale hunters are properly prepared both physically and spiritually, then Whale will give itself to them.  To characterize Whale offering this gift as a “victim asking for it” (Bergman TNT – 9/16) betrays a complete lack of cultural understanding and is deeply offensive.  For the Makah, Whale is not a subordinate species under the dominion of Man, but rather a powerful, intelligent, generous entity who graciously provides food and material for various uses to the Makah people.  The hunt on 9/8 violated tribal law, taking place without the required tribal authorization.  It will be dealt with in Tribal Court where the penalties for violating tribal hunting regulations can be severe.

Hunting gray whales is legal, a right that existed before the 1855 treaty with the U.S. that is guaranteed to the Makah by the treaty.  The 1994 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act states that “Nothing in this Act … is intended to alter any treaty” with Indian Tribes.  The gray whale no longer is endangered; the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission estimated in 2002 that more than 400 whales a year could be sustainably harvested annually.  The Makah are proposing to take no more than 5 whales per year.

The tribe has a strong record of managing their natural resources to enhance the resource base, including timber, fish, and wild life.  The continued practice of many important aspects of Makah Culture requires a healthy natural environment.  These efforts help to protect the marine environment of the region.  It is not in the Makah’s interest to harm the gray whale population; they have a detailed management plan based on strong natural resource conservation principles.

Non-Makah are in no way obliged to adopt Makah practices or to become Makah, but neither are the Makah in any way obliged to cease to be Makah.  Once, not all that long ago, Europeans did attempt to oblige the Makah and other Native Peoples to cease to exist.  The continued existence of Native Americans is powerful evidence of the importance of identity to human beings.  An assertion that the Makah should “change their culture” springs from an assumption that cultural difference is cosmetic, a stage dressing under which lies one universal way of being in the world.  Anthropological research has taught us that, although we are universally human beings, members of the same species, there is no one universal human way of being in the world.

By David R. Huelsbeck and Judith M. S. Pine

Huelsbeck has worked with the Makah for 30 years on archaeology and educational projects.  Working with the Makah Cultural and Research Center, he has brought PLU students to Neah Bay to learn about Makah Culture January for the last 12 years.  Pine has taught anthropology for 9 years.  She took a class to Neah Bay last January to learn about the heroic efforts being made by the Makah Language Program to restore their language to health.  Both are faculty at Pacific Lutheran University.