Tue, Sep 20, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US tribe fights to protect its right to hunt whales


The whaling canoes are stored in a wooden shed, idle for the past six years. They were last used when the Makah Indians were allowed to take their harpoons and a .50-caliber rifle and set out on their first whale hunt since the late 1920s.

There were eight young men in a canoe with a red hummingbird, a symbol of speed, painted on the tip. There were motorboats ferrying other hunters, news helicopters, and animal rights activists in speedboats and even a submarine.

On May 17, 1999, a week into the hunt, the Makah killed a 30-tonne gray whale, striking it with harpoons and then killing it with a gunshot to the back of the head.

That rainy spring day remains etched in the minds of many Makah as a defining moment in their efforts to reach back to their cultural and historical roots.

It was their first kill in seven decades, and it was their last since they were stopped by court rulings.

They have asked the federal government for permission to resume hunting, and public meetings on the request are scheduled for next month.

The Makah, a tribe of about 1,500 near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Olympic Peninsula, see themselves as whalers and continue to identify themselves spiritually with whales.

Making history

"Everybody felt like it was a part of making history," Micah McCarty, a tribal council member, said of the 1999 hunt. "It's inspired a cultural renaissance, so to speak. It inspired a lot of people to learn artwork and become more active in building canoes; the younger generation took a more keen interest in singing and dancing."

The Makah, a tribe of mostly fishermen that faces serious poverty and high unemployment, were guaranteed the right to hunt whales in an 1855 treaty with the US, the only tribe with such a treaty provision.

Whaling had been the tribe's mainstay for thousands of years.

But it decided to stop hunting whales early in the 20th century, when commercial harvesting had depleted the species.

Whale hunting was later strictly regulated nationally and internationally, and the US listed the Northern Pacific gray whale, the one most available to the Makah, as endangered. The protections helped the whales rebound, and they were taken off the endangered list in 1994.

Permission to hunt

Several years later, the Makah won permission to hunt again, along with a US$100,000 federal grant to set up a whaling commission. By the time they were ready, none of the Makah had witnessed a whale hunt or even tasted the meat, hearing only stories passed down through the generations.

They learned that the whale was a touchstone of Makah culture -- the tribe's logo today pictures an eagle perched on a whale -- and that the tribe's economy was built around the lucrative trade with Europeans in whale oil, used for heating and lighting, during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

For a year before the 1999 hunt, the new Makah whale hunters prepared for their sacramental pursuit, training in canoes on the cold and choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean, praying on the beach in the mornings and at the dock in the evenings. Animal rights groups were preparing, too. When the hunt began, the small reservation and its surrounding waters were teeming with news helicopters and protest groups. On that May afternoon, when the protesters were somewhere off the reservation, the Makah killed their whale.

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