Makah oral history relates that their tradition of aboriginal whaling has been suspended and re-established several times. Most recently, the practice was suspended in the 1920s because the commercial whaling industry had depleted the stocks of humpback and gray whales; all hunting was called off.
After the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List, the Makah re-asserted their whaling rights. With the support and guidance of the United States government and the International Whaling Commission, the Makah successfully hunted a gray whale on May 17, 1999. According to federal law, the Makah are entitled to hunt and kill one baleen whale, typically a gray whale, each year. Archaeological records and oral history indicate a significant number of humpback whales were historically hunted as well. They had gone over 70 years without catching a whale.
The Makah whaling technique is difficult and labor-intensive. The men hunt from cedar canoes, each seating six to nine people and more recently, from small fishing vessels. They take these into the Pacific Ocean adjacent to their reservation territory. Various traditional criteria are used to determine the best whale to harvest. By counting the whale’s exhalations, the hunters determine when the whale is about to dive, and determine from this the best time to strike. Approaching the whale’s left side, the hunter strikes when the whale is 3–4 feet deep, to avoid the force of the whale’s tail. The harpoon is 16–18 feet long, composed of two pieces of yew wood spliced together. Historically, hunters used a mussel shell tip, in conjunction with barbs from elk horns.
Since the late 20th century, hunters have used a steel “yankee style” head, but they have retained the yew wood shaft because of its flexibility, water resistance, and strength. Held fast to the whale, the harpoon shaft comes loose, to be recovered later, and a line is thrown from the canoe with seal skin floats attached, to provide drag to weaken the whale. In the past, a series of smaller lances were used to repeatedly strike the whale, gradually weakening and killing it, often over a period of hours, and in some cases, days. Recently, hunters have adopted use of a big game rifle after the harpoon strike, to ensure a more efficient kill. The International Whaling Commission permits four cartridges in whaling: .458 Winchester Magnum, .460 Weatherby Magnum, .50 BMG, and the .577 Tyrannosaur, which the Makah fired in the 1999 hunt.
Once the whale has been killed, a crew member called the “diver” jumps into the water and cuts a hole through the bottom and top of the whale’s jaw, to which a tow line and float are attached. This holds the whale’s mouth shut and prevents the carcass from filling with water and sinking. Hunters tow the whale to shore, where it is received by members of the village.
Traditional ceremonies and songs are performed to welcome the whale’s spirit. Following this, the whale is divided in a precise and traditional fashion, with certain families having ownership of particular cuts. The “saddle piece” located midway between the center of the back and the tail is the property of the harpooner. It is taken to his home where a special ceremony is performed. The meat and oil are distributed to community members, and a great deal of it is consumed during a potlatch.
The Makah assert that their right to whaling is guaranteed in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, which states in part: “The right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the United States.”
On September, 2007, five members of the Makah tribe shot a gray whale using a .460 caliber rifle, similar to that used in hunting elephants, despite court-imposed regulations governing the Makah hunt. The whale died within 12 hours, sinking while heading out to sea after being confiscated and cut loose by the United States Coast Guard. The tribal council denounced the killing and announced their intention to try the individuals in tribal court.
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