This fall, members of the Makah tribe of northwestern Washington state plan to do something they haven't done for decades: kill a whale. The ceremonial whale hunt, set to begin in October, will mark the restoration of rights promised in an 1865 treaty between the Makahs and the United States.
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
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."