Showdown over tribal tradition Whaling: The first legal hunt off the American mainland in 70 years could begin at any time. But protesters are determined to keep whales from falling victim to the Makah harpoon.

Sun Journal

October 14, 1998|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEAH BAY, Wash. -- The moon is low on the water and the silvery barnacled back of the whale slides by the boat only for a moment before sinking back into the deep. You can smell him, though, the rank salt odor of bottom slime hanging on the wind.

The men in the canoe slip their oars into the water and press forward. "They say the gray whale can turn like a cat and attack like a dog," says Wayne Johnson. "We got stealth, though. And we also have the .50-caliber."

In the end, the hunters back away, leaving the whale to press on toward Mexico. But there's another one out there, and that's the one Johnson and the others think of when they're bathing down in the river, praying in the sweat lodge, sleeping on a wild beach next to the canoe, imagining the union of harpoon and whale.

"We're getting into our spiritual potential now, starting to fast, bathing in the creeks and the rivers and the ocean," explains Donnie Swan, 22, one of the younger members of the whaling crew.

The midnight practice hunt was but one of many oceangoing trials the Makah Indians will make in the coming days before finally lodging a harpoon in the back of a gray whale, marking the first legal whale hunt off the U.S. mainland since the leviathans nearly disappeared from the oceans in the early part of the century.

The hunt, which could begin at any time, will not go unmarked. Someone recently mailed a photograph of Makah Whaling Commission Director Keith Johnson with red-inked blood flowing out of his eyes. Someone else telephoned and fired off a gun.

The blustery waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca off Neah Bay are growing into an uneasy battlefield as a swelling flotilla of anti-whaling boats joins vessels from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service working to aid the hunt.

Whale enthusiasts from as far away as Germany, Australia, Scotland and Israel have come for the showdown. Some enthusiastic young women have vowed to throw their bodies in front of the whale's, rather than see it fall victim to the Makah harpoon.

On this tiny reservation -- slung on a windy cape that marks the northwesternmost reach of the continental United States -- there is confusion and more than a little resentment about the growing international outcry over a tradition the Makahs have practiced, with 70 years' interruption, for about 15 centuries. It is a tradition whose renewal, they hope, will undo the effects of a century and a half of forced assimilation, of land given up and of the modern-day ills of drugs, alcohol and a 50 percent unemployment rate.

The historic paintings and baskets of the Makah nearly all depict stark geometric arcs and lines around a black center, the dark eye of a whale. Songs, dances and stories recount the exploits of the Makahs who set out on wooden canoes and harpooned the mighty humpback whale.

While commercial whaling has been banned in most parts of the world since the 1930s, the Makahs, who fall into a small exception granted aboriginal hunters, are the only U.S. tribe with a recognized treaty right to hunt whales.

There is hardly a spot on the U.S. mainland so remote and so wildly lovely. By ferry and car, it is a four-hour trek from Seattle.

Rising over a small fishing marina, the town of 2,000 Makahs is little more than a general store, a VFW hall, a school, a cafe and several streets of makeshift housing. The closest movie theater is a 1 1/2 -hour drive away. It's three hours to the nearest mall.

The Makahs scratch out a living fishing and logging. But many of the hills are cut bare, and stocks of salmon that were once plentiful have crashed. In the best of times, when the boats are out and the few tourists are trickling in, half the town has a job. In the winter, unemployment hits 75 percent.

A community food bank serves 500 people a month -- a quarter of the town's population. Now the food bank has a large freezer ready to receive whale meat.

The aboriginal quota of five whales per year was granted to the Makah by the U.S. government last year as part of the worldwide quota authorized by the International Whaling Commission.

Unlike Eskimos in Arctic Alaska who hunt the bowhead whale for physical subsistence, the Makahs are seeking to whale on the basis of cultural subsistence -- the survival of their culture, its traditions and social structure. It is an exemption that opponents of the hunt view as particularly onerous, because they fear it could open a loophole for nations such as Japan and Norway to effectively reopen commercial whaling disguised as aboriginal whaling.

A half-mile or so off the outer breakwater wait an old fishing vessel equipped with a high-powered water cannon and a one-man submarine painted to look like a killer whale. Binoculars are trained onshore for any sign that the Makah canoe and chase boats are heading to sea.

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