The Whale Hunt

The Seattle Times
September 20, 1998
By Alex Tizon

NEAH BAY, Washington – One day next month, an eight-man crew of Makah Indians will launch a dugout canoe into the Pacific Ocean to hunt for a gray whale. Very likely they will find one. They might succeed in killing it or they might find that a 40-ton animal does not so easily give up life. This is certain: The commotion that will precede and follow the first thrown harpoon will be a spectacle of extraordinary proportions.

“Big whales, big waves, big guns, and a lot of crazy people,” said whaling crew leader Wayne Johnson, in summary.

On land and at sea, two motley armies will closely watch the hunt. One will try to protect the whale in the name of conservation; the other, to protect the Makah in the name of indigenous rights. Each side will deploy strategies of war while trying hard not to hurt anybody. At odds, after all, are two politically correct causes that will not benefit from violence. Public opinion will be the final arbiter.

What transpires will resemble more a chess match — one that will involve decoys and diversions, moves and countermeasures. The pieces will be Coast Guard cutters, high-speed cruisers, Zodiac inflatable boats, fleets of kayaks and canoes, even a submarine disguised as an orca.

On land, the National Guard and a phalanx of other law-enforcement agencies will police the reservation as activists stage protests and possibly attempt to sabotage the hunt. The media will bring their swarming charm to the show. Journalists and filmmakers from around the world will ensure that this is one of the most thoroughly documented whale hunts in history. Closely monitoring media reports will be indigenous groups in Canada, Japan, Norway and Iceland, which are waging their own campaigns to resurrect whaling traditions.

Many Americans will follow the story simply because the quarry is a whale, an animal given exalted status in some circles, to the extent that some regard them as “the humans of the sea.” This is the land that made a folk hero of Keiko the killer whale, whose $12.5 million journey home from Oregon to Iceland this month was front-page, feel-good news.

The Makah, too, revere the whale, but the relationship has always been one of hunter and prey. Theirs is the only tribe in the United States with a treaty right to hunt whales, and the U.S. government has given the Makah more than $330,000 over the past three years to pursue the plan. The money has been spent for travel and for the creation of a whaling bureaucracy. The tribe now has whaling bureaucrats but no whalers.

For 2,000 years the Makah hunted whale without restriction; then they stopped, in the 1920s, when white commercial whalers had nearly wiped out the gray-whale population. The animal continued to figure prominently in the tribe’s spiritual and social life, as demonstrated by its ubiquitous presence in tribal art and ceremonies. Now, seven decades after its last hunt, the tribe hopes a return to the age-old tradition will empower its people for the next century.

Obscured by the more dramatic confrontation on the high seas is the tribe’s private, and legitimate, quest for spiritual revival. The hope is that tapping into the tribe’s ancestral strength will bring the community together, bolster pride among the young people and instill the message that great obstacles, and great beasts, can be overcome and conquered.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that the Makah, too, were almost wiped out. White incursion and disease in the latter half of the 1800s brought them to the edge of extinction. Now the tribe, trying to recover from a catastrophic 19th century, has found itself at odds with the cultural mores of this century.

They may lose either way: If they kill a whale, they will be viewed by many as cruel and backward; if they don’t, they will view themselves as defeated again by outsiders.


Wayne Johnson is pretty sure they will get a whale. He is 45, wiry and brimming with candor, and the leader of the tribe’s whaling crew. For months, he’s been preparing an eight-man squad, with eight alternates, for the hunt. Will they be ready come Oct. 1?

“We’re ready now,” he says. “We could go out there tomorrow.”

The crew has been paddling every day this month, starting from the marina to some far-off point — sometimes 20 or more miles out to sea. From way out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the village of Neah Bay, the main settlement on the 44-square-mile reservation, can look like a mere cluster of barnacles on a rocky shore.

About 2,000 people live here, most of them fishing families committed to a place where the fish have largely disappeared. Unemployment reaches 55 percent in the summer, 75 percent in the winter. A few nice homes peek out from between overgrown lots and rows of dilapidated houses and trailers.

It isn’t an overly sad place. Kids and dogs have mountain and sea as playgrounds, and there seems no shortage of joviality among the adults. Intimacy and familiarity seem to make up for the other insufficiencies. Someone can put up a sign at Washburn’s market like “Garage sale Saturday at Julie McGimpsey’s house,” and that would be enough said. If and when Johnson’s crew brings in a whale, the whole town will know in minutes.

The U.S. government, honoring an 1855 treaty, successfully lobbied a deal through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that allows the tribe to take up to five whales this year, and 20 over the next five years, for cultural and subsistence purposes. The tribe has agreed not to sell the meat or any other parts of the whale. That being the case, the talk on the reservation is that the tribe will probably take only one whale this year, two at the most. “Only what we need” is the official line.

It is also the hottest point of contention, “need” being one of those words given to wide interpretation. Opponents of the hunt — some 350 animal-welfare and conservation groups from 27 countries, as well as many members of Congress — say the tribe no longer needs to whale at all, at least not for subsistence. The tribe’s ultimate goal, opponents say, is to return to commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986.

Some countries, such as Japan, Norway and Iceland, have continued whaling through a “scientific study” loophole, and a few indigenous peoples — Inupiats in Alaska, Chukotka Inuit in Siberia, Eskimos in Greenland, residents of the Faroe Islands and villagers on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent — are allowed subsistence hunts.

Sanctioning the Makah hunt, opponents say, will open the door for a whole other set of peoples who could truthfully argue that whaling was part of their cultural traditions as well. Indigenous groups in four other countries — including 13 tribes of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth nations on Vancouver Island in Canada, who are culturally related to the Makah — have expressed serious interest in resuming whaling.

For most of these groups, including the Makah, who in the mid-1800s were selling more than 20,000 gallons of whale and fish oil a year, the commercial use of the whale was inseparable from the cultural tradition.

“A lot of people don’t know that the spiritual aspects of Makah whaling were coupled with commercial aspects,” says Will Anderson, wildlife advocate for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Lynnwood, one of the leaders of the opposition. “Makah ancestors were commercial whalers.”


The tribe does not hide its commercial-whaling past, and some members resent that they will not be able to benefit economically from any whale taken this year. Commerce traditionally had no sinister connotations for the tribe. The Makah, like most other Native American groups, and unlike much of modern Western society, did not recognize a separation between spiritual and secular activities. Every aspect of life was imbued, and shaped, by a belief in a spirit world, and spirits found expression in everyday affairs.

With this world view, and their smaller numbers, indigenous groups hunted animals without decimating entire populations. “The killing of all the whales — that was not done by us,” says Makah tribal chairman Ben Johnson Jr., a soft-eyed, soft-spoken man in his 50s.

The whales were decimated by white commercial whalers. By the turn of the century, the gray-whale population had gone from as high as 30,000 to as low as a few thousand. The animal was finally placed on the endangered-species list in 1969. A quarter of a century later, the whale was taken off the list after its numbers had risen to 23,000, and its rate of population growth had steadied at 2.5 percent a year.

Makah elders constantly remind outsiders that the tribe can take only five whales a year. Even biologists on the anti-whaling side concede that such a minuscule harvest will not pose a threat to the gray-whale population.

In addition, some of the most influential conservation groups in the country have been conspicuously silent, which tribe members have interpreted as tacit approval. Greenpeace, the force behind the modern “Save the Whales” movement, has deliberately chosen not to oppose the hunt.

And Michael McGinn, head of the Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club, said: “Our members considered the issue, and given the nature of the Makah hunt, we didn’t think it posed a serious enough threat for us to take a position on. And we found no compelling evidence it would lead to excessive whaling.”

At the Makah Maiden cafe across from Washburn’s market, crew leader Wayne Johnson sips a cup of coffee while discussing all the hoopla. He has just returned from Port Angeles, an hour-and-a-half east. The Humane Society of Clallam County sits on the north side of the road just outside Port Angeles. Johnson passes it all the time, a place where hundreds of cats and dogs, supposedly man’s best friends, are quietly killed and disposed of every year — without a whimper from anybody. At one point, rubbing his eyes, he holds up five fingers but doesn’t say a word. His expression says:

“All this fuss over five whales.”


To kill even one may be a gargantuan task. Not a single living tribe member has ever taken part in a whale hunt. The crew launching out to kill a whale next month will be doing so for the first time, and more than a few, including some Makah, worry the tribe may not know what it’s getting into. For one, the ocean around Neah Bay in October and November is no placid playground. Swells of 10 or more feet are not uncommon, and storms can appear as quickly as an orca moving in for a kill.

Ed Claplanhoo, 70, a tribal elder, supports the hunt but fears the tribe is being rushed into it: “I’m not sure (the crew) understands the risks. I’m not sure we know the right training. We’re concerned for their safety. All the scrutiny is pushing it ahead faster than we may be ready for.”

Makah whalers of the past were men for whom whaling was the center of their lives: They went through torturous physical and spiritual training, praying and fasting, performing Herculean feats of strength and endurance. One exercise entailed walking underwater carrying a large rock from one bank of the Waatch River to the other.

They would abstain from sex. They would flog themselves with stinging nettles, bathe in frigid mountain ponds and lie naked on the beach until covered by sand fleas to purify their spirits and enter an other-worldly state where they were “at one with the whale.”

“If the modern man went through everything our ancestors used to do, they wouldn’t be able to handle it, they would go crazy,” says Micah McCarty, 27, a thoughtful, handsome man with a wispy beard and a favorable lineage. He is the great-grandson of Hishka, one of the last great Makah hunters. McCarty is a leading candidate to be the harpooner in the fall hunt.

Long ago, whaling for the Makah was not an act as much as an enterprise. The whole village was involved, performing rituals meant to protect the hunters and entice the whale willingly onto the harpooner’s blade and into the next life. From the time a whale was sighted to the moment the last piece of blubber was distributed, every member of the tribe had participated in some way.

The tribe and its people have undergone major evolutions. McCarty is an artist. Wayne Johnson is a former gill-netter. The rest of the crew includes a teacher, a woodcarver, a groundskeeper and a high-school student.

The crew is strong and determined — at the recent Makah Days canoe race, they outdistanced rival canoes by half a mile — and each member has tried to enter into the spiritual training of his ancestors. But none has ever sunk a harpoon into a full-grown, free-swimming gray whale.


The whales have already started their annual 10,000-mile migration from the Bering Sea to their birthing lagoons off the Baja peninsula. A trickle of grays passing through Washington waters will become a dense rush in late October and early November. Most of them will be 15 to 20 miles offshore, but some will venture close, right up to the surf.

The average adult gray whale is about 40 feet long, 3 feet longer than the cedar canoe to be used in the hunt. Grays weigh about 1 ton per foot. White whalers at the turn of the century used to call them “devil fish” for their ferocity after being struck by a harpoon.

“They can turn like a cat and attack like a dog,” said Johnson, who has heard stories from the Inupiat whalers in Alaska.

When not being hunted, they are among the most sociable of whales, routinely approaching and making contact with humans. A cottage industry in the Baja peninsula thrives on the practice of getting tourists to pet the giant animals. All along the West Coast, whale-watching ventures depend on the whales’ predictable appearances.

Three adult grays were spotted recently just off Shi Shi Beach, a short jaunt from here. From high up in the hills on a clear day, you can spot a spouting whale a long way in the distance. The tribe will likely post sentries at several secret hilltop lookouts starting next month, and once a whale is spotted, some sort of communication system will be used to alert the whaling crew.

The canoe crew will set out into the water followed by two motor boats: a high-performance “chase boat” and a smaller support boat. The support boat will help in case of accident or injury. The chase boat will be used to ensure that a harpooned whale does not escape.

“We have to land every one we strike,” Johnson says. “We’ll be under a microscope out there. The whole world will be watching.”

Johnson likely will be the gunner on the chase boat. In meeting the IWC requirement that the kill be as humane as possible, the tribe commissioned a University of Maryland veterinarian, who also happens to be a ballistics expert, to design a weapon that would cause immediate death. The expert, Allen Ingling, came up with a retrofitted World War I .50-caliber anti-tank rifle that at first glance looks like a bazooka. It is twice as powerful as an elephant gun. The first time Johnson fired it, he was pushed backward six feet, landing on his backside, so powerful was the kick.

The canoe and chase boat will approach on the left side and come to within feet of the whale. The harpoon will be driven into the whale’s shoulder, just behind the flipper, and as soon after as possible, the gunner will shoot the animal in a spot just behind the blowhole, in the area of the brain. Once the whale is motionless, a diver will plunge into the water and sew its mouth shut so the animal doesn’t fill with water and sink. Then the animal will be towed to an undisclosed spot to be ritually butchered.

Other tribes in the region will be invited to a community feast while the Makah conduct sacred post-hunt ceremonies that won’t be filmed or photographed. Plans are under way to piece together a community smokehouse to preserve the meat.

“We’re going to do this,” says a resolute Keith Johnson, 47, president of the tribe’s whaling commission. “There is no defiance or anger in me. My heart is pure. We just want people to know that, damn it, this is where we are and this is what we’re going to do.”


The Makah gave up a great deal for their treaty right to whale. Before they even reached the point of negotiating the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, they had been decimated by smallpox and measles brought to the area by whites. By the end of the last great epidemic, two-thirds of the tribe was dead. A white 19th-century trader, Samuel Hancock, wrote in his journal:

“It was truly shocking. . . . In a few weeks from the introduction of the disease, hundreds of natives became victims to it, the beach for a distance of eight miles was literally strewn with the dead bodies of these people.”

The tribe’s pre-contact population was estimated at 2,000 to 4,000. By the late 19th century, the number was under 1,000, and by 1910, there were as few as 360 living Makah. It was a greatly weakened tribe that signed the treaty which ceded thousands of acres to the U.S. government. Even then, with its whaling hierarchy devastated, tribal elders insisted on the right to continue whale hunts. Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens agreed, and the treaty was signed and ratified by Congress.

But the tribe never fully recovered from the epidemics and government campaigns to “Christianize and civilize” native people. The Makah languished for most of this century in a sleepy, oceanic poverty. Then, in the 1970s, a major archaeological dig at the Makah village of Ozette unearthed thousands of whaling artifacts and whale bones. It spurred interest among the Makah in their own history and culture, an interest that eventually grew into a full-scale plan. Four years ago, the tribe decided it was going whaling.


The Makah hunting crew will venture to sea surrounded by U.S. Coast Guard vessels, which will act as armed chaperones. The government ships will try to enforce a 500-yard “exclusion zone” around the tribal vessels to keep protesters, reporters and spectators from getting too near. The only other vessels allowed in the zone will be National Marine Fisheries Service boats, whose crews will monitor the hunt.

That does not mean protesters won’t try to penetrate the area. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has led the opposition, plans to deploy a 27-foot submarine that could easily enter the exclusion zone. Standing by will be the group’s 173-foot, steel-hulled flagship, its 95-foot former Coast Guard cutter and two Zodiacs.

The Sea Shepherds plan to use an underwater speaker system to blast orca sounds through the water in an attempt to scare away any gray whales in the area, and the submarine, painted to look like an orca, will be cruising nonstop for visual impact. In past campaigns, the society has resorted to ramming illegal whaling vessels with its flagship.

If it comes to that, Wayne Johnson says, the tribe has a few big boats of its own. “If they ram us, we’ll ram them.”

Also on the water will be boats for PAWS, the Humane Society of the U.S., and a plethora of lesser-known animal-protection agencies. One California group calling itself In the Path of Giants, a gray-whale advocacy organization, plans to have hundreds of kayakers in the waters around Neah Bay.

“Our goal is to impede the whalers from leaving the harbor,” says leader Stephen Dutton on the group’s Internet Web site.

In anticipation of all this, the tribe is considering using decoy canoes. The Makah have a number of canoes at their disposal, and several tribes in the region have volunteered to join in distractive maneuvers. And it’s possible, some tribe members say, that the whale will be gutted on a barge or large boat instead of on shore, where it will almost certainly create a circus atmosphere. There’s even the option, one tribe member says, of hauling the whale across the strait to Vancouver Island, 18 miles away, where it can be butchered in private.


The mood in the village is one of wary anticipation. Some would say weary anticipation. Tired of all the talk and red tape, more than a few tribe members want to get on with it, and move on. There are other matters to attend to, other problems to address.

“We should have just gone ahead and done it a long time ago,” says Harry “Champ” McCarty Jr., a tribal elder and whaling commissioner.

It isn’t as if the tribe is completely unacquainted with gray whales. As fishermen, Makah encounter them all the time, sometimes accidentally netting them. At least five times in the past 15 years, a gray whale has been caught and drowned in Makah nets intended for salmon and other fish. The whales were confiscated by federal authorities, except in 1995, when the tribe was allowed to keep one of the accidental catches.

The whale had been dead for at least 12 hours before the tribe got to it. Still, much of it was cut up and eaten, and some of it frozen. The parts that were spoiled or close to spoiling were thrown away, a circumstance exploited by opponents of the hunt: “See, the whale ended up in the town dump because the tribe didn’t know what to do with it,” critics said.

One of those vocal opponents has been Alberta Thompson, a septuagenarian Makah elder hailed as a hero by animal-protection groups and resented by many in the tribe. What many don’t know is that Thompson was resented even before the whaling issue. She is what you might call the loyal opposition, a gadfly who routinely opposes tribal plans, although a gentle-mannered, likable person one-on-one.

Last month she was fired from her tribal job of 15 years after she made a phone call to Sea Shepherd from her work station. She is appealing the firing and continues to oppose the hunt. Others on the reservation oppose it, but they are a small minority.

Whereas many tribe members may have been neutral a few years ago, the experience of receiving worldwide censure has pushed them to unite with their fellow Makah. The tribe has been inundated with phone calls and letters from around the world condemning the hunt. Some have been outright racist, others, threatening. “For every whale that dies,” one caller reportedly said, “a Makah will die.”

“Our front door has been blown open, and the criticism of the world has been shouted in our faces,” says Micah McCarty.

It has come to the point, sadly, where the tribe perceives the situation as the Makah versus the world. And in many ways, the tribe feels obligated to follow through, lest it seem weak and be reminded of past defeats at the hands of outsiders.

What was a plan has become a crusade. The virulent opposition has ensured the hunt. And so the paddlers keep paddling, preparing for that fateful day when the hilltop sentry gives the signal. What will follow in the choppy waters of this remote Northwest peninsula is a life-and-death struggle for both the whale migrating south, and the tribe finding its way back to its own past.