Makah Whaling Misunderstood

by Madonna L. Moss

Published as a Guest Column in the Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon,

May 28th, 1999,

under the title, "Whale Hunt Honors Makah Way of Life."


Twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of working alongside Makah students on the excavation of the Ozette archaeological site, located on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. I had enrolled in the Washington State University field school, co-sponsored by the Makah Tribe, one of the first collaborative efforts between an Indian tribe and a university on an archaeological project. It was a pivotal experience, eventually leading me to a career in anthropology.


During that summer of 1974, I learned that Makah culture was not dead or dying. Makah youth were very proud of their heritage. They knew the songs of their kin groups; they knew which stories were their property to tell. They knew the dances their elders had taught them, and they honored their grandparents. They knew the ecology of their home territory: the food, medicinal, and industrial uses of the plants and animals in their rainforests, on their beaches, and in the nearshore and offshore marine environments. They were incredibly patient and generous with outsiders like me. Life on the reservation was not idyllic, however, with poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse causing serious social distress. The archaeological work at Ozette, however, promised to uncover a different chapter of their history.


Ozette was a whaling village, its occupation dating back 2000 years. It's a prime location for intercepting migrating gray whales, northern fur seals, and Steller sea lions. The remains of the village were buried under a mudslide, preserving the tools, implements, household furniture, as well as the houses themselves that normally disintegrate in the wet Northwest climate. Contained in the deposit were numerous whale bones, many used to line an extensive drain system built around the large wood plankhouses. Whale bones were used to make furniture and many other artifacts. We found the weapons used to hunt whales, harpoon point blades made of sharpened mussel shell, bone harpoon valves, cedar rope lanyards, and parts of the sealskin floats used to drag the whale. In one of the four houses excavated was a wood carving of a whale's dorsal fin, inlaid with over 700 hundred sea otter teeth. This item of great wealth was found in the back of the house, associated with the highest status family at the site, probably that of the whaling captain. The artifacts recovered from Ozette can be seen at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, a world-class, tribally-run museum in Neah Bay.


Drawing from ethnographic, archaeological, and ethnohistorical sources, we know that not every Makah person was qualified to be a whaler. The prerogative to hunt whales was inherited, but also had to be earned. Young men apprenticed to experienced senior men to learn the technology and personal power necessary for whaling and seafaring. They prepared for the hunt by fasting, spiritual purification, and rigorous physical training. Women played roles of equal importance; the wives of whalers had to undergo their own rites of purification and spiritual disciplines. It was a great privilege to be involved in whaling, and the entire community depended on the success of the whaling party. The same is true today.


Non-natives have caricatured contemporary Makahs as red-neck hunters, out to enjoy the thrill of killing. This portrait easily fits that of the "savage" or "primitive" American Indian. This grossly ethnocentric misrepresentation of Makah technological sophistication also fails to acknowledge the religious importance of whaling. While many of us have grown up in a society that rigidly divides church and state, religion was not separated out of everyday Makah life--- neither in the past or today.


The Makah and their relatives on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth, were the only Northwest Coast Indians who routinely hunted whales. The Makah have a special relationship with the gray whale, and whaling is a essential part of Makah social identity. This was never strictly an economic pursuit, as it incorporated spiritual practices Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists would call "prayer" and "meditation." Whaling was recognized as a dangerous activity, not only because of the whale's size and physical power, but because of the volatility of ocean conditions. Whalers were confronting challenges of supernatural proportions, and their success required individual and community preparation. Whaling demands comparable physical and spiritual provisions today-- although unfortunately-- the whaling crew has faced intimidation and threats of violence by misguided radical environmentalists.


While the Ozette investigations were about documenting the past, Makah whaling today is about exercising treaty rights and reclaiming history. The Makah hunt was sanctioned by the International Whaling Commission because it did not pose a threat to the survival of gray whales. As indicated recently, biologist Bruce Mate of the Hatfield Marine Science Center has documented 65 gray whales found dead along the shorelines of Mexico, California, and Oregon this past winter (1998-99). Whatever has been killing these whales should be of far greater concern to us than the single whale taken by the Makah. If we are worried about the gray whales, we should support Mate and others in discovering the causes of these deaths. We can rest assured that the Makah will use the products of their whale responsibly, to nurture their bodies and souls, to honor the memory of their ancestors, and to educate the rest of us about their unique culture.


Madonna L. Moss is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon.