Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VI No. 1 January 1997


The Makah Whaling Dance

by William Rossiter


The Whaling Dance of the Makah Nation is really many dances, and if you care about whales you should study it carefully. The core dance is fascinating and traditional, with ancient words and rituals about the honor and need to whale with skin boats and stone lances; a core symbol for some of the traditional cultural values in this ancient society, now jeopardized from decades of erosion and change.

Around this core the Makah Tribal Council is in their sham dance, for they just want to kill five gray whales the modern way, perhaps becoming commercial whalers, and for some, enjoying the international attention the issue has brought. With an insular, autocratic ignorance, and decades of experience at being suspicious of Outsiders, the Tribal Council doesn't seem to be aware of the effect they are having, on their Nation and Outside. Or they don't care.

The next ring is a terrible whirl of social ostracisms and threats within the community, with those few Makah who demand a return to whaling going to cowardly and churlish lengths to silence those who oppose the whaling. Saddest of all is the impact of this on some Makah Elders and the traditional, respectful system centered on their wisdom, as the more modern, aggressive, but younger Makah work to destroy a millennium of cultural experience in the name of power. One Elder has been threatened with being taken off the tribal rolls if she continues to speak out, taking away her health care and tribal privileges, yet her ancestor signed the treaty that empowers the Council. Many Makah may not even know what's going on, or they are afraid to speak out. Many have no concept of the issue beyond Neah Bay, and the very probable economic loss of tourism if even one whale is killed. Only a few may profit from whaling, but all the Makah will suffer for it. This is not a threat of some organized boycott; who would want to visit a place that, for profit, kills the same whales that are revered by millions as they migrate along the West coast?

Outside this ring the Outsiders are dancing, with those who can benefit from the Makah whaling providing funds and persuasion to the flattered and selectively unsuspicious Tribal Council. To Norway and Japan the dance is about the Makah getting a quota from the IWC under a redefined or new category of aboriginal whaling, greatly expanding the opportunity for the worldwide and wholesale slaughter of whales for profit. To the Clinton Administration the dance may be about concerns for many other Native American treaties, and potential legal and compensatory penalties; they certainly don't care about the whales or Native American traditions. That may account for the astonishing amount of taxpayers' money supporting Makah whaling, and may create another embarrassing performance at the IWC as the U.S. gives away to all sides, determined to do anything to get the Makah their whales.

The next ring is a giant swirl of the many nations, organizations and public who are opposed to the Makah whaling. We are all trying to reach the inner ring's core dance, for we all know that no whales need be killed to meet the Makah's needs. The Old Makah needed to whale to survive. Today's Makah do not. Even with an IWC quota they can regain all their whaling tradition and ritual, but just not kill any whales. Everyone but Japan and Norway would applaud that, and all the Makah would profit greatly. They need tribal pride, restored cultural values, and a greater independence from the impoverishing ways imposed on them from outside. They need a Tribal Council that will lead them to a secure future, not lock them in a continuing contest with nations and people all over the world. They deserve to restore and protect their culture, and display it proudly. To that end CSI is working with many other organizations in many ways. One is to promote whale watching and cultural tourism as a far better way to achieve some of what the Makah need. Another is a continuing effort to have the Tribal Council understand the implications of their actions within and beyond Neah Bay. Our goal is to simply stop Makah whaling before it starts. There is still time to prevent the dance from becoming a war.

If you want to become involved please express your views on this issue directly to: the Makah Tribal Council, Hubert Markishtum, Tribal Chairman, P.O. Box 115, Neah Bay, WA 98357, (360) 645-2201, and please tell us what you said.


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