Historical Context of a Whale Hunt
The Pacific Northwest is valued for its natural resources, and indi- viduals who now reside within these lands often acknowledge the diverse cultures that were here prior to the colonization of this region. However, many Pacific Northwest residents are unaware of the treaty obligations that the United States has with local tribes and do not acknowledge the Indigenous tribal narratives of the region. Anyone who resides within the Pacific Northwest should understand that many Indigenous communities were forcefully removed from their lands and relocated to reservations to make way for the commercial enterprises and agricultural developments that led to the region’s prosperity.
The region has dramatically changed in the name of progress and development, and Indigenous perspectives and rights cannot be ignored or forgotten. Prior to European contact, the Pacific Northwest was home to many diverse communities, and these Indigenous societies were inti- mately familiar with the abundant resources found in the region.
Population estimates suggest that “as many as 200,000 Native Americans inhabited the Northwest Coast culture area, making it one of the most densely populated nonagricultural regions of the world” (Boyd 135). The relatively high population density reveals the abun- dance in natural resources, but it also indicates that Indigenous com- munities were able to sustain themselves by understanding, harvest- ing, and hunting these resources. European contact first occurred in the late eighteenth century, bringing numerous explorers to the including James Cook and George Vancouver, and the nineteenth cen- tury was a time of rampant commercial growth and development. At the same time, trade and other interactions with settlers spread diseases throughout Indigenous communties, diseases that claimed many lives, and Indigenous communities experienced significant sociocultural traumas as a result of these deaths. In addition to cop- ing with the consequences of smallpox and other diseases, Indigenous peoples also faced a considerable increase in the competition for nat- ural resources.
While Indigenous societies prior to the nineteenth century had an impact on local ecosystems, these settlements did not affect the region as irreversibly as the extensive settlements that began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The lands were rich in natural resources, and many individuals traveled great distances to become a part of the developing Pacific Northwest. In the rush to settle the region, Indigenous nations were either displaced or had to cooperate with settlers and government officials or risk losing their lands forever. Indigenous communities were subjected to blatant colonialism within the legal rhetoric and binding contracts of trea- ties, which is why the rights of Indigenous nations should be even more respected today. In the mid-nineteenth century, representatives of the United States government negotiated numerous treaties with Indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest to secure lands for settlement Governor Isaac Stevens of the Washington Territory negotiated many of these treaties, including the Treaty of Neah Bay with the Makah in 1855. Governor Stevens had a dramatic impact on the economic development of the Pacific Northwest, but his success hinged on the acquisition of lands and resources used by Indigenous communities. In volume seven of the Handbook of North American Indians, Cesare Marino provides one view of Governor Stevens in his discussion of western Washington history since 1846: “A believer in Manifest Destiny and a strong proponent of westward expansion Stevens regarded tribes under his jurisdiction as an impediment to civilization.
White settlement was to be facilitated by extinguishing Indian title to the land, concentrating tribes on reservations and pro- moting Indian acculturation” (169). Governor Stevens was not alone in his views, and the rhetoric of development and civilization allowed individuals to disregard Indigenous communities and their rights Indigenous communities in the region faced severe racism and were often coerced or forced to sign treaties or remove to reservations … Governor (Marino 171). After securing lands in the Puget Sound area from 1854 to 1855, Stevens started negotiations with Indigenous communities along the coast and signed the Treaty of Neah Bay with four Makah villages (Renker 427). The Makah villages were remote from areas of commercial development and were able to secure lands and rights to fishing, whaling, and other resources. These Makah villages “ceded land in return for education, health care, and the right to fish in ‘usual and accustomed grounds and stations” (Renker 427). In this treaty, the Makah representatives were careful to retain rights to fishing and whaling, because they understood the importance of these traditions to the future of the Makah Nation. The Makah Nation is located on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington. According to census data gath- ered in 2000, the Makah Nation comprises 42.7 square miles and wa home to almost 1400 individuals (DeCordoba).
The word Makah is a Clallam word that has been in use since the 1850s, but Makah peoples referred and refer to themselves as Qwiqwidicciat, or the “people who live by the rocks and seagulls” (Makah). The Makah entry in the Handbook of North American Indians emphasizes that the Makah held “prestigious” occupational positions for whale and fur seal hunters, and “[bloth occupations involved knowledge of complex systems of navigation on the open ocean, the ability to interpret the activities of the prey prior to the kill, and a reliance on ritualized activity to secure the success of the hunt” (Renker 423). Whale hunters and whales were held in high regard and were politically, economically, culturally, and spiritually significant. However, by 1915, commercial whaling had dramatically reduced the gray whale population and prompted the Makah Nation to postpone the hunts with the hope that the gray whale would return. Moreover, members of the Makah Nation had been subjected to “Indian policy [that] revolved around the assimila- tion of Makah people through an educational system that ignored Makah priorities and prohibited the use of the language” (Renker 427).
Even though the Makah Nation was dramatically affected by aggressive settlement of the Pacific Northwest, the Treaty of Neah Bay provides an important legal foundation for the Makah Nation today, and the whale-hunting traditions have survived despite legal attempts at cultural genocide. The last successful whale hunt took place in the early-twentieth century, but changes within the community and the drastic reduction in the whale population prompted the Makah Nation to forgo whale hunts until the gray whale population improved. In fact, the Makah Nation voluntarily stopped hunting whales over a decade prior to the United States government’s ban on hunting gray whales that was implemented in 1937 (Gaard). When the gray whale population recovered and with resources in place to begin the complex legal pro- cesses involved in attaining permission to hunt for a gray whale, indi- viduals within the Makah Nation began the legal procedures in the 1990s. Many animal rights activists and environmental organizations attempted to delay the hunt, but the Makah Nation received permis- sion and carefully conducted a hunt that conformed to the strict rules set in place by the International Whaling Commission.
In 1999, the Makah Nation celebrated the successful hunt of a gray whale off the coast of Washington state and revitalized spiritual and cultural prac- tices that had been carefully passed down for generations. In the years leading up to the whale hunt in 1999, the Makah Nation demon- strated respect for national and international legal systems, but the legal battles were relatively minor when compared to public reactions to the hunt. The rhetorically violent and legal backlashes from the 1999 hunt successfully delayed the Makah Nation from obtaining permission to hunt additional whales, which eventually led to a reckless and failed attempt at another hunt in 2007. In September of 2007 and out of frustration for the political delays, five members of the Makah Nation took the life of a gray whale without regard for tribal, national, or international rules. Many individuals viewed this hunt as an act of civil disobedience, but this unsuccessful hunt jeopardized the future of Makah whale hunts because it generated a great deal of public backlash. The five rogue hunters are still in litigation, and the Makah Nation is attempting to secure permission to hunt whales in the near future. The conflict surrounding the Makah whale hunt reveals signifi- cant ethical and moral differences, but it also uncovers a dangerous form of cultural imperialism that threatens tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.
The Makah Nation has rights protected by the Treaty of Neah Bay, and any infringement of these rights indicates a significant political shift that affects tribal nations across the United States and Indigenous communities around the world. Individuals with com- peting interests in natural resources, from animal rights activists to farmers, express dissatisfaction with the special treatment that Indigenous communities receive, instead of honoring the communi- ties that flourished here prior to the fairly recent “development” of the region and nation. The Makah Nation must confront pervasive neocolonialism in the form of political, economic, and cultural pressures in order to continue practicing its whaling traditions.
The rhetoric of neocolo- nialism rejects the tribal narrative of the Makah Nation as it attempts to coerce the Nation into relinquishing a tradition at the core of Makah cultural history. These manifestations of neocolonialism require the Nation to be prepared to challenge the neocolonialist rbetoric of the most “liberal” of individuals who ignore or forget the importance of Indigenous literary and tribal narratives. The ubiquity of neocolonialism exposes a need for an Indigenous tribal narrative that reinforces the importance of an ongoing whale-hunting tradi- tion for the Makah people.