When’s the Hunt? The World Awaits the Makah Tribe’s Next Move

The Seattle Times
December 1, 1998
By Alex Tizon

In the end of “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s epic tale of obsession on the high seas, the peg-legged Captain Ahab finally gets his white whale, and in the process, the whale gets him. I know this because I watched the movie. I couldn’t get through the book. It was too ponderous for my late-20th-century sensibility.

The story unfolding in Neah Bay has had the same effect. My attention has begun to drift. Certainly, the basic premise had great potential: Small coastal tribe declares whale hunt, defies world, braves wind and waves, slays great beast, starts new era of spiritual and cultural renewal.

The actual story has gone more like this: Tribe declares whale hunt, appoints media liaison, convenes weekly meetings on “whaling issues,” retains attorneys to head off legal injunction, applies for permit to conduct hunt, experiences boat problems, holds news briefing explaining reasons for delay, on and on.

Whale hunts, I guess, are not what they used to be. None of us could have known that the great Makah whale hunt of 1998 — the tribe’s first in seven decades — would turn into a process, with all the drama of a zoning change.

The process includes: Daily news briefings at 9:30 a.m., tribal-council meetings Mondays at 9 a.m., whaling-commission meetings Thursdays at 7 p.m., protests by anti-whalers Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. Yes, even the protests are scheduled. The protesters arrive, wag a finger for 20 minutes, chant “Save the Whales,” are turned away by tribal police, and everybody goes home until the next Saturday.

This routine has gone on for most of the eight weeks since Oct. 1, the official start of the Makah whaling season. It dawned on the media horde slowly, as we trudged dutifully to each meeting and protest, that the whole endeavor had evolved into something ludicrous.

The whalers seemed lost, like a ship without an Ahab. The protesters had an Ahab (more on this later) but nothing real to protest. And the media had to cover a whale hunt without a whale or a hunt anywhere in the picture.

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We were the biggest clowns of all — the people with the notepads and microphones and cameras. We came with leviathan expectations. We wanted a Steven Spielberg blockbuster and were disappointed when we got, instead, a reading of Moby Dick. My edition of the book is 700 pages long. Apparently, Melville, too, thought there was more to whaling than killing a whale.

The Makahs did not invite us to their hunt. We came, dozens of us from all over the globe, because it promised to be a sexy story. And we have, by our collective presence, placed enormous pressure on the tribe. We’ve put the Makahs on the free-throw line and focused the eyes of the world on them. If I hadn’t shot a free throw in 70 years, I’d be nervous, too.

They can’t afford to miss. As Wayne Johnson, the whale crew’s gunner, said: “We’ll be under a microscope out there. We have to land every one we strike.”

Not a single living tribe member has ever hunted a whale. They’re trying to figure out how to do it. And we’re watching their every move, and applying pressure like a toddler in the back seat asking every five minutes:

“Are we there yet?”

For the past two months the tribe has said:

“No, not yet.”

The Makahs are a small, poor Indian tribe. Like every poor place, Neah Bay has its rough edges, such as a police chief with a shady past. And as in many poor places, small problems easily become big ones. At one of the first press briefings, Keith Johnson, president of the tribe’s whaling commission, explained to the media throng that the history-making hunt would be delayed because the battery in the tribe’s chase boat was not working.

There have been many other “dead batteries” since then. This is a dead-battery town. Which is not to say it’s a dead-end town. It’s one of the most gorgeous places on Earth, and its residents, among the most gracious and hospitable anywhere. They’ve lived here a long time. This is home to them in a way that we’ll never know. I would guess that a people who’ve lived in one place for 10,000 years know how to wait for the right time.

Like wading through a 700-page novel, waiting is something that comes hard for many modern people, especially when time is money, as it is for the media crowd living in Neah Bay. Every day without a hunt is money down the drain.

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The tribe has succeeded, inadvertently, in killing something, namely their opponents’ determination. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society recently pulled its two main ships out of Neah Bay. The ships had been anchored just off the tribe’s marina for the past two months, supposedly ready to wedge themselves between the hunting canoe and a fleeing whale.

Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson, the swashbuckling eco-pirate, said he would do whatever it took to save the whales, but apparently that didn’t include waiting. Watson and the tribe had been eyeball-to-eyeball since Oct. 1. Then Watson yawned. He’d had enough. The tribe won by inflicting massive amounts of boredom on him.

Watson insisted until very recently that the Makah hunt was part of a Japanese conspiracy to restart commercial whaling all over the world. I would guess the vast majority of Japanese people couldn’t tell a Makah from a McCaw.

The latter, we all know, is a rich white guy named Craig from Seattle with a very big checking account. “The cell-phone guy,” as he’s now known on the reservation, sent one of his top emissaries to town recently to see if the tribe wouldn’t be open to letting the whales swim peaceably to Mexico in exchange for, say, a new village or two.

The tribe, to its credit or immeasurable folly — I’m not sure which — didn’t respond to McCaw’s overture with much enthusiasm.

There is a little bit of Ahab in the tribe, the part that’s as stubborn and implacable as a stump of yew wood. They want their whale, and no one’s going to tell them they can’t have it.

But in terms of character, the tribe is actually more like Ishmael, the schoolteacher-turned-adventurer who is the book’s narrator. His quest is more a search for identity. The Makahs are looking for theirs. They lost it a long time ago with the help of smallpox and the U.S. government. Now they hope to reconnect with a piece of their history in the blubbery folds of a dead whale. Identity can be mysterious that way.

Many people have their doubts, but I think the tribe is going to do it eventually. But the Makahs will do it, like Melville with his masterpiece, on their own terms and in their own way — fickle batteries and all.