The International Whaling Commission allows tribes to hunt whales for "aboriginal subsistence" if they have a continued tradition of whale hunting. The tribe has not hunted whales for over 70 years, and few tribal members remember how. But in 1997, the Makah government argued successfully to the commission that a whale hunt was necessary to the tribe's cultural survival.
Under an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the tribe is now permitted to kill up to four gray whales each year, provided that whale products are sold only as traditional handicrafts.
Not everyone is cheering. "We're just wondering when people are going to wake up and realize this isn't about native rights," says Lisa Distefano of the Sea Shepherds Conservation Society. Opponents say the Makahs and their supporters are bending the definition of subsistence, opening the door to larger-scale - and possibly for-profit - whale hunts by tribal groups.
"This could literally be the shot heard round the world," says Distefano. "The ramifications are far and wide."
Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission, says the tribe is focused on problems closer to home. "We believe the problems that are troubling our young people stem from lack of discipline and pride and we hope the restoration of whaling will help to restore that," he wrote in a Seattle Times opinion piece. "But we also want to fulfill the legacy of our forefathers and restore a part of our culture that was taken from us."