Should the Makah tribe resume whaling?

Will Anderson, who was the lead plaintiff in the 2002 case that triggered the current lawsuit, still opposes the manhunt. He now runs a Seattle-based nonprofit called Green Vegan, and says his reasons are related to animal welfare, species conservation, and his personal connection to them. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anderson spent several winters in the Baja California lagoons where gray whales give birth.

“I would go out with my kayak and float alongside them. I listened to them at night. I woke up and fell asleep to the breath of whales just 15 meters from me,” she says. “Grey whales and whales in general opened me up to broader environmental issues, which became my life. »

Thanks to the “Save the Whales” campaign, the numerous reports about whales and their culture and the growth of the whale watching industry, the latter have become sacrosanct, while not all other hunted animals in the country, such as the moose and the salmon. Many opponents of whaling are also opposed to any form of whaling and see their opposition as simply the right thing to do to protect animal welfare.

However, other opponents consider whales to be different from other animals. Public comments on the Makah whaling project are replete with examples: “These whales have a name, have been studied for years by many marine biologists, and are loved by many people around the world,” wrote one commentator. According to another, they are “the smart and gentle giants of our oceans.” A third also wrote: “Please protect these whales, they are special.”

It could also be argued that by creating a conservation movement through a demonstration against whaling, conservationists now have an obligation to protect the Makah from the return of the flames when they want to hunt a population that is no longer in danger.

In recent years, some non-profit conservation organizations have begun to do so, publicly supporting the Makah’s demand to resume their traditional activities. In 2021, the Sierra Club wrote: “While the Sierra Club generally opposes hunting and harassment of marine mammals, we recognize the importance of supporting the subsistence hunting of indigenous peoples. Whaling is an essential part of Makah cultural identity and is necessary for the tribe to fulfill its ceremonial, spiritual and subsistence needs. »

In 2020, Sally Jewell, interim CEO of the Nature Conservancy and former US Secretary of the Interior, wrote: “The Makah people have been good stewards of their resources: forests, coasts, and the Pacific Ocean. for thousands of years. I respectfully ask that you honor the Makah Tribal Nation’s treaty right to hunt gray whales.”

“We’re very happy that we’ve reached a point where they’re really willing to support us in writing,” says Greene, who wants the public who are advocating for social justice to also support Makah rights. “If you truly believe in racial equality and environmental justice, these treaties must be honored,” he argues.

Nowadays, talking about tribal sovereignty gives conservationists a good image. But genuinely supporting the right of Indigenous nations to run their own affairs means doing so to the very end, even when they do things they wouldn’t accept, like killing and eating an extremely charismatic and popular marine mammal.

The Makah ask for permission to practice a cultural hunt for just a few whales a year. In 1855, when chief Ćaqa·wiƛ made sure to reserve the right to hunt whales, he was not doing so for purely spiritual reasons.

According to Reid, who studied the history of the tribe for his book The sea is my country: the maritime world of the Makahs published in 2015, “the Makah were selling [plus de 100 000 litres] of whale oil to non-natives a year in the 1850s, and they kept [100 000 litres] additional resources for their own use and for trade with neighboring tribes. That’s about twenty-six whales a year. This is what Ćaqa·wiƛ thought he was protecting.

More broadly, treaty-making government officials have made racist assumptions about their negotiating partners, viewing all Native Americans as living in “subsistence” economies. The treaty rights were therefore interpreted as protecting “subsistence” harvest levels. But many tribes, including the Makah, were regional economic actors, harvesting enough for themselves and for trade or sale. They didn’t live on little. They were doing fine. “They were taking enough to have a good life,” says Reid.

Tribes generally collected more resources than just the “subsistence” level, but not so much that they could not continue to harvest in the future. “They were doing it under a totally different system, based on relationships: if we take care of them, they will feed us,” explains Reid. “I imagine that at some point in history there was a steep learning curve to get to this system of reciprocity. » A more “originalist” interpretation of many treaties would be to understand that they protect the rights of exploitation commercial natural resources. But the Makah absolutely does not seek no hunting whales for commercial purposes. Their goal is simply to be themselves.


The new NOAA report, which is technically a “Complementary Environmental Impact Study Project”, builds on a previous project, incorporating information about an “unusual mortality event” that occurred in 2019 that saw more than 100 gray whales. appear and die on the west coast of the United States. It also takes into account a ruling recommended by administrative law judge George J. Jordan, released in 2021 after a 2019 hearing on the matter. In his decision, Jordan recommended that NOAA grant the tribe an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Capturing such a limited number of whales would have, the judge said, “no significant impact” on the gray whale population in question and “little effect on the ecosystem”.

Now that the report has been released, a public comment period will be followed by a final Environmental Impact Statement and then the final decision. The whaling license will likely need to be renewed every three years, and the entire process repeated every ten years for the exemption to remain valid. The tribe would like to see a legislative exemption added to the law, like the one already in place for Alaska Native communities, which allows them to hunt marine mammals for subsistence or “for the purpose of creating and selling authentic Native crafts and clothing.”

At the end of the Shi Shi Trail, I emerge from the forest and discover a crescent of sand and logs and, beyond, the sea: a vast expanse of blue-green, the skin of a cold kingdom of algae, halibut and whales. If it was once the undisputed country of the Makah, it is now a place where values ​​on human relations collide: between nations, but also between species.


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