Sunday, December 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Who Will Speak For The Whales? -- Elders Call For A Spiritual Dialogue On Makah Tribe's Whaling Proposal

Special To The Times

SEATTLE WRITER Brenda Peterson and Native American writer Linda Hogan journeyed to Neah Bay to interview Makah elders who are speaking out against the tribe's proposed return to whaling. Hogan's article appeared on last Sunday's Issues page; Peterson completes the series with this piece.

This Christmas, baby gray whales are being born in Baja, Calif., to continue a cycle of life that began millions of years before humans crawled out of the primal seas. The ancestors of the great whales lived on land 50 million years ago; whale skeletons reveal vestigial hind limbs and long fingers like huge human hands inside their evolved pectoral fins. As land and sea mammals, we humans are related to the great whales, but they are our elders. And this ancient, interrelated mammal lineage reminds us that long before there were humans or tribes, treaties or laws, there were whales.

Recognizing that we are part of a kinship system that includes other species in the continuing story of evolution is one of the many wise and visionary perspectives the First Peoples of the Northwest Coast gave us.

This story of interdependence is recorded in Native petroglyphs on gray rocks that rise up from Neah Bay's shores like breeching whales. Here on this windswept northern tip of our continent, the Makah have made their villages for centuries. Makah petroglyphs of whales face-to-face with round, wide-eyed humans show the tribe's survival was interwoven with the gray whale's.

Through ceremony, art and hunting, the Makah celebrated the gifts and guidance of the great gray whale. And the whale hunt was not only for subsistence, but also to seek spiritual balance with the natural world.

Like this Native American tradition of balancing the subsistence of both body and spirit, any dialogue today between environmental groups who seek to stop whaling and the nations who want to exercise their historic treaty rights and begin whaling again, must also be a spiritual dialogue. We must engage our ethics as well as our science, our future generations as well as our history. And in this debate, we must also somehow respect the abiding culture and future health of another species: the great gray whale.

The gray whale was taken off the Endangered Species list in January 1993. It is common knowledge that the Makah along with 14 commercial fishing groups and 19 other tribes had petitioned to get the gray whale delisted with the specific goal of whaling.

What is not commonly known is that it was the Makah who in 1915 were among the first to put away their harpoons and declare an end to whale hunting. The Makah made this voluntary decision without prompting from the outside world because their chiefs had died and nobody was properly trained in the whale hunt. The Makah also saw the near-extinction of this species after Yankee whaling ships had devastated the gray whale populations to only a few thousand between the mid-1800s and the turn of the century.

Ironically, the 20th-century history of the Makah bears some sad similarities to the gray whale: In the mid-1800s, at the same time the Makah found their villages ravaged by smallpox, measles, and other diseases of their conquerers, the gray whales migrated to Mexico to give birth in ancestral lagoons, only to be brutally slaughtered. Yankee whalers massacred newborn gray whale calves as bait to bring their mothers beside the whaling boats. After such brutal slaughter, the gray whale was believed almost extinct and the Makah stopped their hunt - an example that was not followed by other nations until the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946 prohibited gray whale killing. The U.S. banned all whaling in 1971, then placed the gray whale on the Endangered Species List.

Now, at the turn of another century, we can thank: the Makah, who first put away their harpoons; the Mexican government, which in the 1970s declared the Baja birthing lagoons the world's first whaling sanctuary and in 1988 created the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve for gray whales; the growing environmental movement, and the IWC for bringing the great whales almost back from the brink of extinction to their ancestral waters.

Some scientists disagree with the delisting of the gray whale, citing evidence of lower populations than the United States census of 21,000, and their concern for the increasing pollution of our oceans. Gray whales are sea-bottom feeders and as such are the first to show toxicity; some scientists are concerned about the increasing toxicity of PCBs and heavy metals found in our mammal kin.

What does this say about our native waters? We are connected to the whales by the air we breathe and the seas we share. That is why the recent success story of returning the gray whale to its rightful habitat isn't just about healing and restoration - it's about our mutual survival. It's also about a new, interdependent way of looking at our fragile, blue plane.

Today, in those Baja birthing lagoons, scientists are documenting the "Friendly Whale Syndrome," which since 1975 has mystified the world. Why would gray whales - who twice in the last 120 years have faced extinction from whaling - now come so near our boats, occasionally allowing human touch? And recently, along our own Pacific Northwest coast, whale-watching boats report the gray whales are approaching them, as if curious or trusting. What kind of new bond is this between species? And what does this bode for the future of human and whale kinship systems if we begin again to hunt these friendly whales along the ancient 10,000 mile migration of these great grays?

The whale's long journey

The Makah's story is one chapter of the gray whale's long journey; but this tribe's debate over whether to go whaling again after over 70 years is absolutely crucial to the survival of the gray whale. Just off the Endangered Species list for two years, the gray whale faces new dangers: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Japanese company Mitsubishi and the Mexican Ministry of Trade are once again proposing the build the world's largest salt factory right next to Laguna San Ignacio, the only birthing lagoon undisturbed by human encroachment.

In these shallow nursery lagoons, the newborn calves are buoyed up by the kind salinity of intense salt content in these tropical waters. They nurse on mammalian whale milk so rich the calves gain 100 pounds of baby blubber a day. Within three months, the calves and mothers begin their migration along our Northwest Coast up to Alaska and Siberia, where under subsistence quotas for aboriginal people, the gray whales are hunted with automatic weapons and anti-tank rockets; their meat sold to Russian fur farms for fox food. According to the Canadian periodical Arctic Circle: "The gray whale slaughter casts a long shadow over the legitimate harvest practics practices of aboriginal people in Russia and throughout the circumpolar world."

The shadow is falling now not only across the gray whales' migratory route, but also upon the Makah. The reason the whole world is watching what the Makah do, is that their decision will profoundly determine the future of whaling. If the Makah decide to exercise their treaty rights and go whaling, some other tribes along the coast that have shown an interest in whaling may do the same. While the Makah claim that taking five whales a year will have no environmental impact, this domino effect would surely pose a threat to the gray whale populations.

Whaling nations like Japan, Russia and Norway are watching the Makah because their precedent could create a new IWC category of whaling: cultural heritage as the only requirement for an aboriginal quota.

As a recent report by Rick Spill of the Animal Welfare Institute points out, Makah whaling could clear the way for Japan and other countries to practice cultural coastal whaling without demonstrating a nutritional need and "without having to officially repeal the existing moratorium against commercial whaling." Makah whaling would also undermine the U.S. in its international stance against whaling. While the federal government supported the Makah last year in their intent to request IWC support for whaling, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution opposing the Makah whale hunt.

The Makah's request to the IWC last year was officially withdrawn after seven of their tribe's elders signed a petition against whaling.

Alberta Thompson is a 73-year-old Makah who not only signed that opposing statement but also attended the IWC meeting in Scotland to speak out against Makah whaling. Dotti Chamblin is also against her tribe's return to whaling, though her great-grandfather Ba-Ba-Sit, who died in 1907, was the last Makah to hunt whales. Raised in The Old Way, Chamblin is a traditional healer and professional in education and health care who recently ran for tribal council and lost to a pro-whaling member.

Thompson and Chamblin criticized the lack of consensus and consultation on the part of their tribal council. Pushing for whaling, "the council went ahead without consent of the tribe," Thompson said. "They say they have 70 percent, but that isn't so." According to Thompson and Chamberlin, there is no Makah tribal consensus on the issue of whaling, though the tribal council has officially stated to the news media that they are acting for the whole tribe.

When an impromptu vote was called, only 104 of the 600 Makah cast their vote and only 70 voted yes. From that unrepresentative sample, the council claimed consensus. But Thompson points out that the tribal council is not talking to the tribe; they are in fact silencing the elders who first signed the anti-whaling statement. That published 1996 statement by the elders concluded: "We think the word `subsistence' is the wrong thing to say when our people haven't used or had whale meat/blubber since the early 1900s . . . We believe the hunt is only for the money."

As the tribal council prepares again to seek IWC permission to take whales, Chamblin adds: "It's grandmothers fighting this fight against them. The tribal council issued a memo that nobody was to talk to the newspaper. . . . They wanted to banish those of us who oppose whaling from the reservation. This fear of banishment really stopped a lot of people from helping us."

Because the Makah are both members of a tribe as well as citizens of the U.S., they live in two worlds and sometimes their two sets of laws are at odds. The women would like to see their young people and tribal elders talk openly together about the relationship between the Makah and the great gray whales. Why, these elders ask, is there no open forum within the tribe for a whaling debate? Why is there no environmental education and spiritual training about the whale?

Some organizations are quietly and selflessly working to open a dialogue with tribal representatives while hoping that traditional spiritual values of everyone will help find solutions benefiting whales and Makah alike. Will Anderson, who has been involved with this issue from the beginning, says, "This is a painful issue for us because we have supported Native American rights and are well aware of past cultural genocide. However, our concern is to act on behalf of whales who have also suffered."

Who will be responsible?

Thompson tells the story: "I asked the chairman of the Makah Whaling Commission, `Who is going to be responsible for the first deaths? - because there will be deaths.' "

Not only the whales, but humans may die. Whether it's harm to environmentalists who will try to stand between the whales and the Makah harpoons, or the Makah themselves who have no training in the whale factory ships, Thompson worries about her tribe's future relationship with its own people, our country and the world at large.

"The tribal council isn't telling the world that we Makah are really split on this issue and there is a silent majority that is just afraid to speak out against whaling because the tribal council tells them it will threaten our treaty rights. This is not true at all. Our treaty rights will stand whether we go whaling or not."

These Makah grandmothers are seeking to stop the whaling request, but they are also reaching out to environmentalists and the public for alternatives. For example, might the federal government pay the tribes not to whale in the same way they subsidize farmers not to plant crops? Whale watching along the West coast is a $100 million yearly business. Why shouldn't the Makah share in this more benevolent use of a natural resource, the same way the Boldt decision declared that Indians had a common right to salmon and other fisheries?

There is a great deal of potential for cultural-based whale watching in Neah Bay," says Dr. Toni Frohoff, consultant to The Humane Society of the United States. `"hale watching may be a viable alternative to whaling which would not violate the trusting relationship between whales and humans which has been carefully established over many years. In New England, the history of whaling is kept alive through museums and whale watching."

More actively, we on the West Coast could witness a return to Makah mock-whaling, much like the Native tradition of "counting coup," in which the warrior simply touched his opponent instead of taking his life. This simulated whaling would satisfy cultural and social tribal traditions, while also distinguishing the renewed Makah bond with the whale as a unique environmental and ceremonial tradition.

More than a museum, this mock-whaling would be a living history and might be performed like many of the Plains Indians seasonal dances. Some of the mock-whaling ceremonies would of course be reserved only for the tribe itself; other rituals might be open to the public who would flock to Neah Bay to witness such a remarkable and revitalized tradition. Already, Neah Bay's museum is a world-class tourist attraction and there is a renewal of tribal arts with such internationally reknowned carvers as Aaron Parker, Bill Martin and Makah elder Frank Smith masterfully portraying the traditional bond between Makah and the whale.

The Japanese connection

But if what the world witnesses of the Makah is only their whale hunts - the modern non-native technology of harpoons that explode inside the whale - what effect will this have on the future of the Makah? The tribe will be allies with the Japanese, who have all but wiped out their own indigenous people, the Ainu, and also participated in the extinction of the only other distinct gray whale population, which used to migrate between Siberia and Korea. The Japanese have one of the world's worst records of environmental abuse.

Many of the younger Japanese are so shamed by their country's devastation of natural resources, both in Japan and internationally, they are turning back to nature. Henry Thoreau's "Walden" is a best-seller in Japan and ASLE Japan (Associates for Literature and the Environment) reports hundreds of university students signing up for nature-writing courses. Japan's International Cetacean Education Research Centre (ICERC) is working with ex-whaling captains who are now finding lucrative work leading whale-watching tours.

Though whale meat can be found on restaurant menus in Japan (where it sells for over $200 a pound), many Japanese are now questioning their country's pro-whale-hunting policies.

Will the Makah align themselves with the old world of Japanese whaling or a new generation of Japanese environmentalists?

Thompson has a terrible vision if her tribe begins whaling again. It is a picture that would surely make the evening news worldwide: "If the Makah go whaling," she promises, "then some of us will be out on the boats as they try to protect the whale from slaughter." The prospect of Makah on whaling ships fighting against Makah on protective boats with the great gray migrating whales in between is a nightmare that the tribal council may well stop to consider before they return to the IWC this summer with their whale-hunt request.

A noted historian said that if someone from the mid-1800s were to suddenly find himself in today's 1990s, the astonishment would not be over technology, or air travel, or telecommunications - it would be the discovery that a wolf, a coyote, even a whale might have its own lawyer speaking out for its rights in the ecosystem that we share with other species. These lawyers might argue that the whales are not just elders of our own species, they also demonstrate a significant and alien intelligence, a complex social system of pod-families, a remarkably nonviolent community, and communication skills we have yet to fathom.

As of yet, there are no lawyers speaking out for the sovereign nation of whales, these ancient mammal kin to our species. But there are human elders speaking out for the great gray whales. Some Makah elders are speaking at personal risk and for no gain. No one is going to pay them a million dollars a whale, as some say the Japanese have promised the tribal council.

Chamblin's tribal ancestors include Chief Sealth, who said, "all things are connected." Do the Makah want to be connected to the great gray whale only by death? There is so much to celebrate and respect about the traditional bond between Makah and gray whale. Indeed, there are many other indigenous traditions that teach us how to respect our kinship with these magnificent marine mammals.

In New Zealand, a Maori tradition is to take the children out into the ocean for their initiation into the wisdom of the whale nation. The children float in the water while all around, humpback whales sing their lullabies. In Australia, there are petroglyphs praising the human-whale bond; in these petroglyphs, the first humans are drawn emerging from the blowholes of dolphins.

The Makah have other allies, other indigenous peoples they can turn to for talk about the whales. This is really a dialogue much deeper than treaty rights; it is about the connections we make between ourselves, other species and our living world. Let our connection with the whales - from Baja to the Bering Sea - be the human hand and heart, not the harpoon. As we begin a new century, why not listen again to the Makah elders, because these grandmothers are speaking bravely and eloquently for other elders of a species more ancient than our own.

Brenda Peterson is the author of three novels and two books of nature writing, "Living by Water," and "Nature and Other Mothers." Her most recent book is "Sister Stories: Taking the Journey Together." Peterson lives on Puget Sound.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


Get home delivery today!