Sunday, October 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Whales Are The Key To A Tribe's Culture But Will They Exist To Hunt Or Watch?

Special To The Times

THIS WEEK AT THE MONACO meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the Makah Tribal Council will again present its request to hunt gray whales in Washington state. But the tribe is not united on this request. Other tribal members are considering alternatives to the whale hunt, such as native-run whale-watching and educational nature adventures.

Recently, a group of Makah and whale advocates met with the hope of encountering resident whales in Neah Bay.

In a windswept coastal rain, what Jerry Lucas of the Makah Tribal Council teasingly called "our liquid sunshine," we climbed aboard the 54-foot Discovery docked at the spacious new Neah Bay Marina. We were bound on an adventure that for many of us was the first close contact with gray whales off this Northwest tip of the continent. Ancestral home of the Makah tribe for countless generations - their famous village of Ozette dates back 2,000 years - this pristine and inspiring beach is also home to a population of gray whales.

Lucas stretched his arms wide and called out over the engine, "I want you to see what Makah take for granted! Can you believe all this beauty?"

As far as the eye could see stretched luminous waves with rolling white caps. Eagles, gulls, and cormorants soared above us. Sleeping sea lions and diving osprey adorned the stony beaches and, close to shore, rose the famous monoliths of Seal and Sail Rocks. Scrawled with Makah petroglyphs of human faces and whales, the ancient rocks signaled this seafaring people that home was in sight. This stretch of pristine waters and beach is the stuff of national parks and the Makah are rightfully proud of their coastal homeland.

"All this has been a part of our Makah culture for thousands of years," Lucas said.

Alberta Thompson, 73-year-old Makah elder, sits surrounded on the bow of the boat by much of her family. "We see whales from shore," said Thompson, "but this is the first time in my life I'll see whales from out on my native waters."

Her daughter, Tracy, granddaughter-in-law, Amelia Davisson, and three of Thompson's grandsons were on this whale-watch expedition. And all three 10- to 12-year-old boys were thrilled at the prospect of encountering a whale "up close and personal," as Washington state's whale expert John Calambokidis promised. Calambokidis served as naturalist for the group and had already spotted one gray whale from shore. He directed our boat's skipper toward flat-topped Seal Rock, encircled by seagulls.

`Want to touch a whale'

One of Thompson's grandsons scanned the horizon in search of the gentle gray humped back or bright spume of breath that signals a whale sighting. "I wish I had the eyes of an eagle," he mused.

"Thunderbird," his cousin corrected. "That's what we call them . . . the thunderbird is our Makah tribe's symbol." He added after a moment's thought: "The whale, too . . . that's a big deal for the Makah." He stopped, shook his head as if confused. "Some people want to hunt them. Some people, like my Grandma, don't."

"I just want to see one real close," interrupted his cousin. " I want to touch a whale like Grandma." The boy beamed, his slicker soaked. We were all drenched but so excited we stayed out on the bow of the boat hoping for a whale. "Did Grandma tell you about touching the mama whale?" he asked.

As we rocked back and forth on our sea legs, eyes set on the horizon, Alberta told of her winter trip to Baja, Calif., to the birthing lagoons of the great grays. "Oh, my," she began softly and her grandsons leaned against her as they listened.

"That mother or grandmother whale just rose up out of those warm waters right under my hand. She wanted to be stroked and scratched - all those barnacles, you know. She looked me straight in the eye - mother to mother - and I burst into tears when I saw she had a little one with her, a baby calf. She was showing me her calf and asking me to take care of it when they made their big swim back up past Makah and on up to Alaska. She was saying. `Look after us. It's a hard journey and some of us won't make it.' "

Davisson, Thompson's granddaughter-in-law, observes: "We've come full circle. The whales we see today may be the whales we touched down in Baja." Davisson had accompanied Thompson to the Baja birthing lagoons last winter. She and other members of the Makah community are interested in setting up a native-run whale-watching operation out of Neah Bay.

All over the world - from New Zealand to British Columbia - whale-watching has transformed depressed economies into flourishing whale-watching meccas. The new Makah marina, the multimillion-dollar success of Washington-state whale-watching industry and the fact that other indigenous peoples in such places as Manila, The Philippines, have received government and corporate grants to sponsor whale-watching businesses - all this convinces Davisson and others in the Makah community that whale-watching is a promising option.

"We want to stay in Neah Bay," Davisson continued as the boat edged closer to Seal Rock. "We want to stay here with our families. It's so beautiful here and this whale-watching would be a wonderful thing to leave our children."

As our boat rose up to meet gusts of wind and wave, one of those boys yelled out: "Over there! Look."

Our boat tipped to one side with the weight of everyone rushing to see a mighty stroke of tail flukes slapping the water like a greeting. Whales breached and dived around us in four directions. We were surprised at how easily the whales accepted our presence.

"Makes sense," Calambokidis, our naturalist explained. "These whales haven't been hunted here for decades."

"Call the whales, Grandma," one of her grandsons implored as if Thompson had secret powers with the great grays. There was long quiet as we rose and fell with the boat, then a grandson whispered, "What's that? It's . . . it's . . . oh, God!"

Honor this kind of creature

A sleek gray-white belly streaked underwater right toward us in the bow of the boat. If I hadn't known it was a whale, I would have believed it a torpedo - fast and silver and massive. We all held our breath. Five feet from the boat, the great gray surfaced with a mighty glide upwards so its barnacled back was next to our handrails. As the whale rose, it turned slightly to make eye contact, a huge dark eye wide open as if to get a good look at these gaped-mouth humans. We exhaled in an explosion of shouts and high-pitched screams. We were not afraid of its size and nearness. We were absolutely exhilarated.

"He looked at me!" one of the boys shouted. "Right at me!"

"She's got a really big eye!" another added. "She saw all of us."

"I wonder if she recognized us?" Thompson asked softly, then shook her head in wonder. "Thank you," she called after the whale. "Oh, thank you."

We all felt grateful to this whale who had raised up a huge head and curiously taken us in. Was the sight of us humans welcome? I had to wonder. Or was the whale wary, wondering what we might be up to?

"That mother whale in Baja," the grandmother said. "She had a huge harpoon scar on her side. That means some human tried to kill her, probably in Alaska where they still go whaling. And yet . . ." Thompson paused to wipe a tear."And yet, that mother whale still showed me her calf . . . even though she knew my kind had tried to kill her once. Do you understand that? I don't. I just know that I have to honor it. And to teach my children and children's children to honor this kind of creature who can forgive us the way God talks about forgiveness."

As we all stood still, there was a sense of well-being, of all being well between us and the whales - a treaty and truce respected between humans and animal. As if to underscore the contentment, the sun gleamed through gray clouds.

"You see," the naturalist said "we didn't have to go very far to see whales. "That's because the waters off Neah Bay are calm and protected."

Would fill a void

The shallow and quieter waters provide even better whale-watching opportunities, not only because of their protection, but because there are many resident whales there.

"Most whale-watching operations only operate during the migration months until late spring," said Tom Frohoff, a consultant to the Humane Society and Earth Island Institute, organizations who along with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare sponsored this excursion.

Photographing a nearby whale as it breeched off our bow, Frohoff noted that "whale-watching here might even be better than other areas along the West Coast. . . because in Neah Bay, the resident gray whales offers up to nine months a year for possible encounters."

Because the highest rate of tourism in Washington state occurs mid-to-late summer, when most coastal whale-watching operations are already closed for the season, a Neah Bay whale-watching operation would fill a void and meet the needs of many tourists who equate seeing whales with seeing Washington.

"We are hoping the public will recognize that our relationship with whales has evolved," said Will Anderson of PAWS who was also on board. "After we stopped killing whales, many of us developed strong environmental, even spiritual, bonds with this other species. Whale-watching, if done correctly, can increase our understanding of whales and our shared marine environment."

Stan Butler, a representative of World Organization of Whale Watching, predicted many will come to the Makah whale-watching program and that it'll be an instant success. Butler said that whale-watching in Hawaii brought in a direct annual profit of $30 million to $35 million, and $150 million was an added in indirect revenue from whale-watching spinoffs - hotels, car rentals, restaurants, art, photography, T-shirts sales, sculptures.

"All this adds up to a highly profitable economic base for whale-watching," Butler said. But there was something unique to Makah that Butler hopes they take into consideration.

"No one knows this land and these waters like Makah," he said. "The Makah have a cultural history with the whale that would give their whale-watching more dimension than just a business venture."

Because Makah tribal history is intertwined with the natural history of the gray whale, who better to tell this interdependent story of First Peoples and whales?

At the Makah Cultural and Research Center, a world-class museum on tribal heritage, a brochure describes the tribe's whalers as high-ranking leaders who "devoted their whole lives to spiritual readiness" for hunting the great shales. Their sacred songs, whaling gear and family ceremonies go back thousands of years and are a living inheritance more valuable than any man-made currency.

For the Makah, the bond with the whale was both spiritual and substance. But few if any of today's Makah have ever tasted whale meat and their subsistence is not threatened if they do not eat the whale. Will a return to whaling really restore their spiritual tradition with the whale - or will it threaten this ancient and intimate bond?

he next generation

Intimacy implies knowledge. Before the Makah hunt the whale, they must know the whale. How many Makah have ever had the opportunity to encounter a whale as Thompson's grandsons did off Neah Bay? The sad irony is that for a tribe whose entire heritage has been inexorably linked with the whale's generations of modern Makah, except for fishermen, have never met whales on the water - only in the museum. And if this next meeting between Makah and whale is only about the hunt, what will Makah children learn about tribal and natural history besides violence? What will Makah children learn about themselves in relationship to the whale?

The Makah are no longer isolated from a global perspective and more than any short-term gain, they must weigh their decision of future generations of Makah. The prestige and spiritual respect once given the Makah's whaling ancestors, in another time and in an isolated society, will not be granted the next generation of Makah in today's world if they return to whaling. One worldwide video footage of Makah harpooning and shooting a gray whale with a 50-caliber rifle will be enough to bring dishonor to this ancient tribe as viewed by an international anti-whaling public. Makah children are growing up in a global village. They must see themselves reflected in that wider world of their ancestors.

And the Makah ancestors never encountered this: A gray-whale population almost lovingly hand-raised in Baja birthing lagoons, protected from hunting for half a century, and now so trusting they are residents of Neah Bay waters. There is nothing romantic or honorable about a hunt of trusting animal neighbors. "Like shooting fish in a barrel," a hunter-friend of mine commented about the Makah proposed return to whaling. "Hunting these resident whales would be like shooting birds in my own back yard."

How will Thompson's grandsons reconcile a gray whale their great-grandmother petted in Baja being killed and slaughtered in Neah Bay? Is this a return to hunting or is it something else - willful exercise of ancient rights, no matter the effect on humans or animals? Today, it is a different Makah and a different whale and these differences must be deeply pondered.

Everyone is watching what the Makah will do. Whaling nations such as the Japanese hope the Makah will set a precedent for aboriginal "subsistence" whaling in the absence of nutritional needs.

The Makah, unlike other subsistence-whaling tribes, do not have a continuous history of whaling in their culture. Whale advocates are hoping the Makah might seek alternatives to violating a whaling ban, which the U.S. strongly supports.

This is not about treaty rights, it is about doing the right thing for the tribe, the next generation, and the whale. The Makah Tribal Council is already going against many of its own elders, who signed a petition last year against whaling and who will be in Monaco this week to speak out for alternatives to the hunt - cultural and educational and business options not thoroughly explored by the tribal council.

"Can you imagine eco-tours here?" Davisson asked and smiled as she described the possibilities combining bird-watching, whale-watching and a boat visit to the Makah's sister village of Nitnaht across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on British Columbia's Vancouver Island. "We have so much of our culture to share."

The Makah Canoe Club and Dance Troupe have gone as far away as Germany to share the tribe's traditions, she said. "There's camping here and fishing and so much history. Our carvers and artists are among the best in the world - if we can just get people up here to visit us and the whales."

"You know, I'd forgotten how beautiful my own home waters are" Lucas added as he pointed out the jagged splendor of Slant and Mushroom Rocks. Long endangered, the sea otter is rarely seen anywhere in this country except around Neah Bay and in Northern California. Another reason to go whale watching with the Makah. "And look there," Lucas laughed as he pointed to shore. "There's Warm House, our summer fishing village . . . where I almost drowned."

As Lucas gazed at the majesty of his Makah homeland, he fell pensive.

"We don't have a supermarket mentality about this . . . about putting a monetary value on an ecosystem that has been part of our culture for thousands of years. We want the opportunity to just stay and live in Neah Bay for another thousand years."

The gray whale may well help restore the Makah who as a people are perhaps as endangered now as the whale was several years ago. And in the next generations, the Makah story may be told that through a return to an intimate, nonviolent bond, based on guardianship, the Makah and great gray whales saved each others' lives, restored each others' spirits - and that is the deepest subsistence.

Brenda Peterson is the author of three novels, and three books of nature writing, including "Living by Water," "Nature" and "Other Mothers." Her latest books are "Sister Stories" and the forthcoming anthology, with Linda Hogan and Deena Metzer, "Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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