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Understanding The Makah Culture and Its Connection to Whaling

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusions


For hundreds of centuries, the Makah Indians have revolved their culture and traditions around whaling. It has been part of their tradition as long as the tribe has ever existed. In the early part of this century the Makah voluntarily abandoned the whale hunt in recognition of the precarious situation of the gray whale. When the whale was listed as an endangered species in 1969 the hunt was officially banned.

The Makah were formally forced to give up whaling. After seventy years, however, the Makah are once again in a position to whale. They wish to do so on the basis of the importance of whaling to their traditional culture. This wish, however, is highly controversial. It is has stirred up much dissent among numerous groups including the International Whaling Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and numerous animal rights groups. Even the Makah themselves are not fully united on this issue of whaling. This paper examines the importance of the whale hunt to Makah culture and discusses the changing nature of tradition. The question is presented as to whether the Makah are reestablishing tradition or simply pursuing a viable commercial opportunity.


The Makah Indians are indigenous to what is now Washington State. Their population is small; only about two thousand people are on the tribal rolls (The Economist, 1998). Their traditional culture, like all indigenous groups, was completely toppled by the arrival and eventual dominance of non-Native, European groups to this continent during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Makah tradition included, as one of its core components, many of the same hunting and gathering practices employed by other indigenous peoples. Much of their livelihood and material culture was based on their extensive whale hunting activities. In 1928, recognizing the precarious status of the whale population the Makah voluntarily abandoned their tribal tradition and gave whale hunting (Russell, 1999). In 1969, however, the whale hunt was officially taken from the Makah with its placement on the endangered species list (Blow, 1998).

Without the whale hunt the Makah became even more distanced from their traditional culture. It was a distance which they both resented and sought to change. It was a distance which environmentalist justified on the basis of the endangered status of the whale. One of the most adamant opponents of restored whaling is the Sea Shepherd Society, a 45,000 member organization whose efforts to protect the whale sometimes border on terroristic (Strohm, 1999; The Economist, 1998). The High North Alliance is also another vociferous opponent to restored Makah whaling (High North). They maintain an extensive web site on the subject which contrasts tradition and what they consider greed. This clash between the Makah view and the environmentalist views are prominent.

The Literature Much has been written in recent years regarding indigenous rights and the Makah whale hunt in particular. The popular literature is replete with the subject, as is the environmental literature. A quick search on the Internet reveals numerous hits as well for web pages which are devoted to either the cultural plight of the Makah or the plight of the whale. This paper will concentrate on the material presented in the environmental literature and on the material presented on the World Wide Web.

With the removal of the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994, whale hunting is once again a possibility in Makah culture. It is, however, a possibility which is greatly resented and contested by environmentalists (Russell, 1999). Despite the protest of these environmentalists and the fact that the International Whaling Commission has yet to recognize the indigenous cultural rights of the Makah to the whale hunt, the Clinton administration granted permission for the Makah to resume their traditional whale hunting activities (Strohm, 1999).

This permission was granted despite the protest from a number of interest groups. Even the Makah are not completely united on the issue of whaling (Russell, 1999). Several of their tribal members have, in fact, been quite outspoken against resuming whale hunting. One of the most adamant opponents to whaling who also happens to be Makah herself is seventy-four year old Alberta Thompson. Thompson has adamantly defended the whales and spoken out against hunting (Russell, 1999). She states:

“My dream is that I wake up one morning and the Tribal Council has called a conference to make a statement: we now realize that the whale gave up his life for us a hundred years ago so that we could eat. Now we want to honor and protect the whale until the end of time” (Russell, 1999).

The issue over the resumption of Makah whale hunting it seems is divided between those that want to maintain Indian tradition and those that want to maintain the whale population. Both sides have valid arguments, both arguments are the extensive target of a variety of literature.


Although the gray whale population has been restored to a less threatened population level it still seems somewhat of an injustice to kill such a phenomenally impressive creature. There are of course more justifiable commercial substitutes for practically every product the whale produces. What there isn’t a substitute for, however, is the role that the gray whale hunt played in Makah tradition. There is no arguing the fact that the whale hunt was of tremendous importance to Makah tradition. The Makah were a people of oral tradition. They had no written language prior to the arrival of the Europeans to their homelands but never-the-less they were able to maintain their history and their culture from one generation to the next.

Because the Makah had not developed a written method for recording information, they depended heavily on oral history both to remember information which was critical to their survival and to remember their complex social and cultural moral practice. Much of the oral history of the Makah revolves around the traditional whale hunt. One of the earliest Makah legends relates the story of the all-powerful Thunderbird who ruled the universe (Russell, 1999). The Thunderbird was so powerful that it could hunt the great whale, lifting it from the water and carrying it to its roost to be devoured (Russell, 1999).

According to the legend, the privilege of the whale hunt passed to the Makah people with the death of the great Thunderbird (Russell, 1999). The whale hunt to the Makah was not taken lightly. It was a deeply religious experience which took one year of spiritual preparation for an individual to participate (Russell, 1999). Preparation for the hunt included prayer, fasting, sexual abstinence, icy plunges into the waters which surround the Makah homelands, and even an underwater walk from one bank of the Waatch River to the other carrying a large rock to ensure that a potential participant stayed submerged for the entire walk (Russell, 1999).

The Makah had to “become one with the whale” in order to participate in the hunt (Russell, 1999). Anthropologists contend that these ceremonial preparations have been carried on for at least 1,500 years by the Makah and their ancestors (Russell,1999). The argument that the Makah are entitled to the whale hunt is more than tradition, however. By treaty the Makah were awarded the right to the whale hunt (Russell, 1999). With their 1855 treaty the Makah gave up almost all that they had but they were ensured the right to the whale (Russell, 1999). Many Makah argue that a return to their traditional ways is necessary for the physical as well as religious health of the people (Russell, 1999). Keith Johnson, the chairman of the Makah Whaling Commission notes:

“Many of our tribal members feel that our health problems result from the loss of our traditional seafood and sea mammal diet. We also believe that the problems troubling our young people stem from lack of discipline and pride. And we hope that resuming whaling will help restore that” (Russell, 1999) The only chance of survival for the hundreds of Native American cultures is tradition. Being a people whose histories were recorded orally until only recently in history, tradition is rooted in the memory of the people. In the Makah memory tradition is the whale hunt.

To the environmentalist the whale hunt is where it belongs, in the memory. The whale hunt to them is nothing but commercial exploitation, killing for a profit. Indeed, there is a profit in whaling. The Makah have shown interest in this profit. They have looked at foreign markets and they have explored the possibility of a processing plant in which foreign markets would have been a definite possibility (Russell, 1999).

Whale meat it seems means more to the Makah than simple tradition. It is a means of addressing the reservations sometimes seventy-five percent unemployment rate and it is a bridge from the past to the future. Currently the Makah are allotted only four whales a year for the next five years (Strohm, 1999). Those who favor the Makah view that whaling is their innate right contend that four whales a year could not possibly impact the whale population which is estimated at twenty-five thousand individuals (Russell, 1999).

While it may be conceded that this number is indeed small and unlikely to directly impact the whale population, the real concern lies in the precedent which will be set by the allotment (Russell, 1999). The United States, in fact, is not the only country who has expressed an interest nor are the Makah the only indigenous people (Makah Whaling Commission). The Chukotka people of Russia have expressed an interest along with the Makah in traditional rights to the whale (Makah Whaling Commission). Russell (1999) reports that indigenous people of eighteen other countries have endorsed “commercial activities related to the sustainable use of whales”.


The issues surround the rights of the Makah to whale hunt are numerous and complex. It is true that whale hunting was an integral part of their traditional culture. It is also true, however, that traditional cultures change. Sometimes these changes are negative but sometimes they can be very positive. The Makah have existed without whale hunting for over seventy years. Those who do remember the whale hunting days remember them only as children or only through the early histories of their ancestors.

The questions which must be addressed regarding the controversy is exactly what is it that the Makah hope to attain by restoring the hunt. Although their preparations include the wooden canoes that were the tradition of their people (The Economist, 1998), do they include the wooden bone pointed harpoons and hand corded lines that were a part of their traditional culture as well or do they include the modern equipment of the modern whaler (High North)? How many of the potential hunters have made the one years worth of spiritual preparation that tradition dictates (High North)? How many have walked underwater from one river bank to another? These are the questions which must be addressed if the Makah contention of following their traditional culture is to be either supported or refuted.

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