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A Clash of Civilizations: Makah and The Ban on Whaling

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Traditions and beliefs are the fundamental principles that govern any society. In contemporary times many of these principles have come under threat by globalization and the interference of various governments and agencies. The lengthy relationship between the Americans and the Indians is mostly rooted in fear, racism and profound, challenging and multifaceted philosophical conflict between the two parties. In this paper, I will argue in support of the Makah to preserve their culture and history. The paper will argue that the various attempts to hinder the Makah from reviving their cultural practices are based on the ethnocentric beliefs of American environmentalists. I will examine the history of the Makah, and also provide a brief history of whaling as it pertains to their culture and identity. I will discuss the Makha treaty of 1855 and its declaration that binds the U.S.A and the Makah, the effects capitalists whaling has had on the Makha traditions. Finally, I will provide evidence from different journal articles and declarations concerning the Makah.

A Brief History of the Makah and Whaling 

The Makah, an indigenous Indian nation that is located northwest of today’s Washington. They are a Southern Wakashan speaking society that is clustered around a tiny reserve around Cape Flattery on the far north-western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State. The Makah people are at their core ‘seafarers’ who lived near the shore, were experts in sailing their canoes in the open sea, and took their livelihood from the ocean. According to Miller, the Makah lived in big wooden buildings up to thirty-five feet wide and one hundred feet long, the houses were packed with whaling tools and other proof of the significance of whaling to the Makah. Makah used stone and shell instruments and elk antler barbs for their harpoons and made war clubs, knives, and whalebone combs. Like many ancient civilizations, the Makaha had three tiers in their society – the ruling elite, the commoners, and the slaves – and their status was attributed to birth. For at least 1,500 years, gray whale hunting, which was also a focal point of their culture and social structure, has been one of the backbones of the Makah economy.

Whalers held positions of high prestige in Makah culture, and they were politically strong. The leader of the extended family was the highest-ranking Makah male, who might have also served as the harpooner and captain of the whale hunt. Only male members of certain families were eligible for whale hunting; this elite position was protected by the union of the eldest son of a whaler to the eldest daughter of another whale. Organizing and directing whale hunting required significant wealth, which most of the chiefs had due to their family wealth. Before any hunt, the whalers had to undergo comprehensive physical and spiritual training, including prayer, fasting, and ritual cleansing. Whaling to the Makah is more than a cultural practice or a means for survival, this text indicates and confirms that whaling was a reverenced activity. The religious practices attached to whaling were thought to be crucial to achievement; they would create a connection between the hunter and the whale and lead the whaler to a whale ready to die for the tribe.

The whaling tradition of the Makah is an ancient tradition that provided the Makah enormous wealth, even before the arrival of the Europeans. Upon the arrival of the Europeans, the Makah also established trade with them as they had done with their neighbors and gained more wealth. This change in trade and economy caused major changes in the known system of social and family status for the Makah. Along with the change, the Europeans brought various types of diseases that began to eliminate the Makah, leaving a significant traditional gap for the next generation. An example of such an epidemic is mentioned by Busatta, known as the 1852 smallpox epidemic that led to a drastic reduction in the Makah population and caused the abandonment of Biheda.

The Makah Treaty

It should be known that the primary reason behind these treaties between the Makaha and the Americans was to enable the land transfers were conducted as peacefully as possible. It is also important to state that the treaties were generally arguments for exchange rights. The treaties were signed and negotiated as sovereign states; the treaty was not a gift to the Makaha; they were ‘not the granting of rights to the Indians, but the granting of rights to them – the reservations of those not given.’ The treaty between the United States of America and the Makah as it states in the Treaty With The Makah in article 1 ‘The said tribe hereby cedes, revokes, and relays to the United States all their correct, title, and interest in, and lands and lands occupied by, bounded and defined by, the said tribe’. In article 3 the Makah held their right to fishing and whaling as mentioned: ‘The right of catching fish and of whaling or sealing on the usual and customary grounds and stations is further guaranteed to the said Indians in common with all the people of the United States..’ This treaty is binding for both parties and the contents unless a party formally withdraws from the treaty (which none have) it must be held to the fullest. Unfortunately, the Makah have had to go through various hoops to resume whaling since the mid 20th century.

Industrial Whaling and the Aftermath 

As mentioned above, the 20th century was the beginning of a lifetime’s worth of problems for the Makah. In the 1920s the Makah opted to halt whaling due to the effects of industrial whaling for that caused the grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) populations to near endangerment. This is a very significant move from the Makah, notwithstanding the importance of whaling to their identity and to their tradition they choose to temporarily stop whaling knowing that if they didn’t they would have no whales to hunt in the future. Following a global awakening to the extinction of various species of whales, many countries, including the United States, signed the first International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946. In 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed by the United States Congress to ensure the protection of all marine mammals, including seals, whales, and dolphins. In June 1994, the population of the California Gray Whale had ‘recovered close to its estimated original population size and [was] not at risk of extinction’. The population of the whales grew to an outstanding 20,000 grey whales. That same year, Makah, with the assistance of the Department of Commerce, specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lobbied to begin whaling again.

To formalize their agreements, NOAA and Makah signed an agreement in October 1997, this agreement included an annual quota of 4 whales for subsistence and ceremonial use at the International Whaling Commission meeting. It also added dates and which areas were restricted from hunting. In 1999, the Makah struck and killed their first whale in over 70 years. Through the various cases from the 1900s till date, the Makha have been patient and law-abiding in their case for whaling.

Analysis and Position

At its core, cultural anthropology celebrates and seeks to understand the various cultures and societies of the world. As a student of cultural anthropology, I see the evidence is strongly on the side of the Makah, unfortunately, environmentalists are manipulating the law and delaying justice, by doing so they are trying to undo the treaty that binds the United States of America and the Makah Indians. The fact that the Makahs are not a completely sovereign nation or a nation with political power and wealth, just like Japan shows how much power dynamics are crucial on the global stage. Earlier this year, Japan resumed commercial whaling, ignoring the backlash from various countries and international agencies. Unlike the Japanese, the Makah consider whaling a spiritual practice, by denying them the right to freely practice their religion, their right to self-determination is hindered and I wonder how many more societies and traditions would have to suffer and/or go extinct due to western ethnocentric beliefs and oppression. The whole world cannot live or behave with American values, there are a million and more beliefs that will not fit into the agenda of average America, but it would be in the best interest of both parties for mutual understanding and respect for these differences. The evidence shows the Makaha has continuously adapted and helped environmentalists in protecting the whales and other conditions for whaling. I fear that if this case lingers for another decade, the traditions of the Makah core traditions might be forgotten and they might be forced to adapt to the traditions and customs that do not align with their ancient beliefs. Is this globalization? Extensive anthropological research should be carried out by various anthropologists as a way of solidifying the Makaha claims to the environmentalists.


The Makaha Indians and Europeans (America) have a history filled with mistrust, death and philosophical conflict; over 150 years ago the Makah gave up the right to most of their lands but held on to the most precious tradition and their identity: whaling. Many might say it was the most peaceful engagement between the Indians and the Americas. Seeing that their tradition would be stopped forever if the grey whale was declared extinct, they opted to temporarily stop whaling, even though whaling has been a part of their culture and identity for centuries. The journey to regain that right to whale has been met with injustice, it is uncertain when the final judgment will be made concerning the Makah it is also uncertain what will be the final judgment but what is certain is that the Makah has the right to whale and that right was explicitly documented in a treaty over 150 years ago. The political propaganda and explicit cultural ethnocentric has left a huge gap in the society and traditional structure of the Makah. Despite the odds that are stacked against them, the Makah have been working closely with the authorities to ensure that they are completely liberated to continue whaling under the proposed guidelines and amendments. The anti-whaling advocates would have to note that in addition to whaling being an essential part of the Makah society, under the new guidelines whaling is limited and has been ensured to be conducted in a way that is sustainable and will not have a great impact on the species. Finally, the main target of this anti-whaling campaign should be directed at countries such as Japan and organizations that commercialize whaling, without following the guidelines or have regard for it.


  • Busatta, S. (2017). Capitalists and Whalers: The Makah Indians. Journal of Historical Archaeology & Anthropological Sciences, 1(4). doi: 10.15406/jhaas.2017.01.00023
  • Ellingson, T. (2001). The Makah Whale Hunt of 1999. The Myth of the Noble Savage, 359–372. doi: 10.1525/california/9780520222687.003.0024
  • Ferraro G. P., & Andreatta, S. (2018). Cultural anthropology: an applied perspective. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
  • Ginkel, R. van. (2004). The Makah Whale Hunt and Leviathan’s Death: Reinventing Tradition and Disputing Authenticity in the Age of Modernity, 58–89. Retrieved from[18]/asset?1355373419337
  • Ginkel, R. van. (2007). GENTLE GIANTS, BARBARIC BEASTS AND WHALE WARRIORS: Contentious Traditions, Eco-Political Discourse and Identity Politics. MAST, 6(1), 9–43. Retrieved from
  • Miller, R. J. (2001). Tribal Cultural Self-Determination and the Makah Whaling Culture. Sovereignty Matters, 123–152. doi: 10.2307/j.ctt1dnncqc.10
  • Stevens, J. (2017). Of Whaling, Judicial Fiats, Treaties and Indians: The Makah Saga Continues. AMERICAN INDIAN LAW JOURNAL, 1(1), 6–29. Retrieved from
  • Treaty with the Makah(1855),

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