Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 4 October 1999


Makah Whaling Also A Political Issue

By Peter Walker

Assistant Professor, University Of Oregon


In the debate over the recent killing of a gray whale by the Makah Tribe of Washington state, both animal rights advocates and defenders of Native American culture present strong moral arguments. But the debate has largely ignored the important political implications of the hunt. Specifically, will the Makah hunt be used as a wedge to break international protections against whaling? And what does the Makah hunt say about the role of "tradition" and culture in our social choices?

No reasonable person denies that the Makah have suffered deep cultural losses, nor that the whale is an important part of their culture. The question is whether killing whales is indispensable for revitalizing Makah culture and whether this goal outweighs the moral and political costs.

There is much more at stake than the five whales per year that the Makah have permission to kill. Makah whaling provides a powerful tool for Japanese, Norwegian, Icelandic and Russian whalers who want to expand whaling globally. At the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission that opened last week, Japan accused the U.S. government of hypocrisy for endorsing the Makah hunt and even subsidizing it with a $310,000 grant while rejecting Japan's petition to allow "traditional" Japanese whaling.

The two are not the same: The Makah have a responsible management plan based on cultural needs, whereas Japan barely disguises its commercial motives. But these distinctions are lost in the global politics of whaling. The Makah hunt plays perfectly into the hands of the Japanese and other whaling countries who use loopholes such as "scientific research" to continue commercial hunting. The whaling nations believe the Makah case will add "cultural need" to the list of loopholes they can exploit. That's why the Japanese offered financial support for the Makah hunt (which the Makah, mindful of being perceived as pawns of the Japanese, declined).

Moreover, the Makah hunt is being used by the Japanese and others as evidence that whale populations globally are strong enough to end the ban on commercial whaling (scientists disagree). Japan and others have lobbied hard for "managed" commercial whaling. These management plans send shivers down the spines of those who have seen the same kind of "management" contribute to the decimation of Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon populations.

In addition to this political fallout, another question raised by the Makah case is how "tradition" should shape our public choices. Proponents suggest that the cultural needs and traditions of the Makah outweigh political and moral objections.

But traditions and political rights have always had an uneasy relationship, and for good reasons. Europeans had a long tradition of slavery until society declared it unacceptable. The Chinese bound and crippled women's feet. Some African societies practice female genital mutilation. These are practices that our society condemns, regardless of their being traditional. Many people believe that whales are such intelligent, social beings that their killing cannot be justified by tradition. The time for whaling, like these other traditions, has passed.

Defenders of Makah whaling will reject the comparisons, but they should not dismiss the fact that killing whales is profoundly offensive to many people. Those who take a stand against native whaling are easy targets for charges of racism and neocolonialism. We must respect Makah culture, but we also should not devalue, in the name of cultural correctness, the deeply held views of millions of Americans.

Moreover, the passionate defense of Makah "tradition" by some non-Makah is naive and even demeaning to the Makah themselves. All cultures change. The Makah have not actively whaled since the turn of the century. Pre-European Makah culture cannot be re-created, nor is that necessarily desirable. The Makah take offense at those who want to make them "museum pieces" to fit a romanticized vision of the Native American.

Recognizing that cultural change is inevitable calls into question the idea of an unbreakable, unchanging cosmological circle between whaling and Makah culture. Some Makah, including many of the tribe's elders, believe that times have changed and that there are better ways to revitalize Makah culture.

Non-Makah cannot tell the Makah what to do. The disrespectful behavior of some anti-whaling activists has only deepened feelings of hostility. But we can hope the Makah will recognize that today they are key players in the global politics of whaling. Gray whale populations are strong, but others are not. A voluntary suspension of Makah whaling would be a powerful blow against those who will surely exploit Makah tradition for their own profit and would bolster the precarious international sanctions that stand between whales and extinction. The Makah should have faith that they can be a proud culture without killing whales. The whales, on the other hand, may not survive without help from the Makah.

Peter Walker is an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. Originally published in the Eugene, Oregon, "Register-Guard", 2 June 1999.


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