Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 1 January 1999


Makah Whaling: A Tangled Web

by William Rossiter, CSI President


As 1999 begins the Makah have not killed a gray whale. If you have a wish left over from the New Year wish fervently for this to continue, for the whales, the Makah Tribe, what's left of U.S. credibility and honor in the IWC, and to prevent an explosion of commercial whaling cloaked in cultural needs. What will happen if even one whale is killed is beyond anyone's rational prediction today; the situation has little clarity or reason. By many accounts the only clarity left in Neah Bay after the chaotic, churning circus of events since November 1st is the determination of the current Makah whaling captain to kill a whale by any means. He says he doesn't need the ceremonial canoe, harpoon, or any other spiritual aids or purposes. A modern powerboat and the big gun are quite enough. Given a calm day and a reachable whale the Makah whalers may succeed, and everyone who cares about the Makah and the whales will have failed. One whale is too many. Killing just one gray whale by the Makah will be a violation of the IWC Treaty, an infraction subject to the investigation and ridicule of other nations. The U.S. will go to the next IWC meeting as an illegal whaling nation. What credibility will the U.S. have to negotiate to save other whales? Are all the "like-minded" nations and NGOs like CSI supposed to ignore what the U.S. has done?

The salient truth washed over by a media flood is that the U.S. government has simply lied when saying that the IWC "adopted a quota that allows a five year aboriginal subsistence hunt by the Makah" and "recognized the cultural and subsistence need of the Makah Tribe". We could say that this is simply not true, or a misrepresentation, or an artful interpretation of the facts, but it is simply a lie. The Makah have understandably believed this lie because it served them well, in spite of generations of twisted words from Washington that should have made them wary. While decrying the public for protests against the killing, or resorting to racial interpretations of any dissent, the Makah seem to have ignored that in the end it is they who will be held responsible for what their government has led them into.

Far too much repetitious drivel has been written about the Makah whaling, yet it is such a dramatic spectacle and pivotal mark that many investigative books will be needed to uncover all the machinations and turmoil that have brought these honorable people to this brink. The Makah have a Treaty right with the U.S. to hunt whales, but the U.S. and all its citizens must also abide by the Treaty with the International Whaling Commission. The IWC has not accepted the Makah whaling proposal. The Makah tribe was not allocated a quota of gray whales. The IWC allocates quotas for actual stocks of whales, and cannot directly give the "right" to whale to any one group of peoples or countries. Any indigenous group that wants to be exempt from the general moratorium on commercial whaling must demonstrate that they meet the IWC definitions and requirements. The Makah have not. In a revised schedule amendment on the taking of gray whales from the Eastern stock in North Pacific the IWC specified that the only aboriginal people who are authorized to whale on this stock are those native peoples "whose traditional aboriginal subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized". The majority of delegations to the IWC have stated that the Makah proposal did not meet the aboriginal/subsistence whaling requirements of the IWC, which has defined aboriginal subsistence whaling as "whaling for purposes of local aboriginal consumption carried out by or on behalf of aboriginal, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, familial, social and cultural ties to a continuing dependence on whaling and the use of whales." The Makah have not maintained a continuous tradition of subsistence, nor is the tribe dependent on whales for subsistence purposes.

Why has the U.S. government unilaterally acted to allow the Makah to kill gray whales? What has motivated the U.S. government to convince the Makah that they had a right to whale in today's world, and support them with hundreds of thousands of dollars, an avalanche of influence, and an orchestrated puppet show of official comments? Have the Makah been led on by the administration for the proverbial "national interest" that needs a wide and winking eye to understand? The international trade ramifications have attracted State Department influences, always heavy-handed towards whales. At least one military installation on the Makah reservation is important enough to have the Department of Defense involved. The DoD considers Native tribes significant to national security because a higher level per capita are willing to serve in the armed forces than any other ethnic groups in the U.S. Tribal sovereignty allows for defense facilities unconstrained by some federal regulatory processes such as NEPA, unless demanded by the tribe. That's why reservations are superb for DoD hazardous waste sites, microwave towers, and facilities needing limited public scrutiny. These and other high level interests have trickled down to officials in NOAA, where some have denied to NGO friends for several years that they knew of Japanese and Norwegian interest in the Makah and proposals to develop a marine mammal processing plant on the reservation, as well as an international commercial market for whale products. It's as if there is an official marching order from on high, and everyone had best stay in step.

There may be many reasons why no whales have been killed by the Makah. Of course it all should have stopped before it began on the advice of the Makah or U.S. government attorneys, who failed to point out that international commercial trade in whale products is illegal and the IWC didn't condone the hunt. Unfortunately, there was no delay from the only legal challenge to date: a District Court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the legality of federal approval for the Makah whaling. An appeal has been filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and an Amicus filing is due soon. Perhaps some delay came from the respected and wise Makah Elders empowered by traditional Makah ways, who have perceived that whatever happens must help all the Makah people, not just a few. To many Makahs some delay was needed to sort out internal Tribal problems. But for over two months the Makah whalers were confronted with the exhausting and sacrificial efforts of hundreds of protesters who endured long days at sea or in camps, backed by many thousands of supporters. Although few are still near Neah Bay they are ready to return on short notice. Some delay came from often secret negotiations by others who have sought a win-win solution for the Makah so long as no whales were killed. All those negotiations seem to have been stymied after a tumultuous Tribal meeting at the end of November where all attempts to provide significant and practical economic assistance to the Makah were rejected. It seems naive to hope that throughout there has been some unofficial persuasion from honorable officials who can't stand by while our government sets the Makah up to kill whales in contravention to the IWC treaty. In the end there is something definite: in recent weeks the weather has been terrible, and the whales have slipped by too far offshore to reach.

May the fervent wishes by many thousands of us keep the whales safe from the Makah whalers, and grant the Makah success in every other way.


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