Pacific Postcards

Historical and Cultural Context of the Makah Whaling Request (Isabela Alameda)

Gray whales have only one natural predator, the orca. Yet in 1947 they were given protection by the International Whaling Commission (IWF) and were on the Endangered Species List until 1994. This severe decline in population was not the fault of the killer whale, but rather due to the actions of hunters and traders who filled the Pacific Ocean throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As time progressed, work to protect the dwindling whale populations along the Pacific coast and across the world became increasingly important, and several anti-whaling groups formed and grew in numbers. These groups argued against the hunting and consumption of whales in the open ocean, often targeting indigenous groups, one of which was the Makah tribe. This opposition, along with federal and international regulations, forced the tribe to halt their whaling practices and begin fighting to regain their cultural right. The Declaration of Patrick DePoe, made in regards to a proposed waiver for the Makah tribe to resume subsistence and cultural whaling practices, explains that the tribe’s traditional practices have been diminished and stripped from them by regulations, which has negatively impacted the native group. However, when read alongside the works of David Igler and Joshua Reid, it becomes more apparent as to why the whale populations declined and the extent to which their near extinction has damaged a central part of the Makah identity.

The Makah Tribe is an indigenous group that resides in the Pacific Northwest Region of the United States, in present day Washington state and on the coast of Neah Bay. Known as the Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌ or “the People of the Cape”, this native tribe has a rich history within the Pacific region, not only on land but also in the coastal waters. Throughout this time, the Makahs have always had a relationship with their natural environment, and according to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the practice of whaling has been a consistent part of this relationship and of their culture for at least the past 2,000 years. They explain that not only did “whale products formed a central – and likely the dominant – component of Makahs’ traditional diet”, but the process of hunting, preparing, and eating whale products has been a crucial part of their identity as it correlated directly to specific ceremonies and rituals that help them strengthen their community ties and uphold their traditions (IWC 2021). However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the exploitation of ocean creatures, including gray whales, by European and American voyagers led to the degradation of whale populations and pushed them towards extinction. Due to the decline in whale populations along the Pacific coast, the Makah people became largely unable to practice subsistence whaling and have since been trying to regain their right to these traditions.

Despite the assurance that they would maintain the “right of ... whaling … at usual and accustomed grounds” as stated in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, the Makah people were unable to hunt grey whales for over 70 years due to the species being driven to near extinction by commercial whaling and the fact that they were added to the endangered species list in 1970. Therefore, when the species was delisted in 1994, the Makah people were eager to resume their traditional practices, and caught their first grey whale in decades in 1999. However, soon after the US government declared that the tribe needed to obtain a waiver for subsistence whaling and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “must complete a comprehensive environmental review of the hunt” beforehand (IWC 2021). Therefore, in 2005 the tribal leaders submitted their initial request for such waiver and their efforts continued all the way into 2019.

Patrick DePoe, a member of the Makah tribe and an elected official on their Tribal Council, submitted a declaration to NOAA in May of 2019 regarding the request for his people to be able to resume whaling for cultural purposes. In his statement, he briefly explains his connection to the Makah Tribe as well as the information that has been put forth by the IWC about their whaling practices. DePoe then goes on to explain some of the reasons that he believes the Makah people should be granted the waiver, including the fact that they have been “denied … the ability to exercise [their] treaty whaling right” (DePoe 2019, 2). Furthermore, DePoe states that the inability to “ engage in the ceremonies, songs, dances, and other cultural practices that are integral to whaling and the use of whale products” has been harmful to the entire tribe, especially the generations who have grown up or died without the opportunity to experience their ancestral traditions (DePoe 2019, 2). Lastly, DePoe concludes his statement by illustrating the importance that the hearing continue to move forward, as the request for a waiver had already been drawn out and pushed back for 14 years, during which time the tribe was unable to go whaling.

Although DePoe’s declaration is a valuable primary source in the discussion about Makah Whaling rights, it is not without its limitations. For example, DePoe focuses his argument primarily on politics and treaty rights that impact the tribe, explaining the new regulations and the particular steps taken to obtain the necessary waiver. He only briefly mentions the cultural impacts of whaling  and does not give much background as to why the practice is such a significant aspect of the Makah lifestyle. By centering his declaration on the technicalities of treaty violations and environmental rulings, he provides a very logos based argument in favor of subsistence whaling that relies primarily on facts, with just a few bits of emotional information tied in. However, he fails to fully contextualize the issue by not explaining the historical events that led to the gray whales’ decline, or the more complete cultural history of the tribe. Therefore, by framing his declaration in conjunction with the work of other scholars, such as David Igler and Joshua Reid, both the cause of the grey whales’ decline and the connection between the Makah people and their coastal waters become much more apparent. 

In The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, David Igler provides a comprehensive history of the Pacific region spanning from the initial arrival of Europeans in the 1700s all the way up the California gold rush in 1848. During the fourth chapter of his book, Igler goes in depth about the practice of hunting marine creatures in the pacific region in order to sell and trade the animal products with groups around the world, including in the United States, Europe, and China. Igler describes how ships like the Tiger traveled up and down the Pacific coast, from Russian Alaska all the way down to Baja California, in search of animals that they could kill and then use for trade. During the first few decades of the 1800s, these voyages “culminated in the near-annihilation of three marine mammals that held distinct historical meanings for the eastern Pacific”, one of which was the gray whale (Igler 2013, 103). Unlike sea otters or seals who were hunted primarily for their fur which could be sold for high prices in far off ports, the killing of gray whales provided ““two vital products: fuel for illumination and lubricants for fast-moving machinery” (Igler 2013, 118). With the growing industrialization of the western world, whale oil was an important commodity both in households and in factory settings. Therefore, despite the inherent dangers involved in whaling, European and American sea voyagers spent years hunting whales along the coast, often using brutal tactics that both killed adult females and left their calves to starve to death (Igler 2013, 120). 

By understanding the reason behind the decline and endangerment of gray whales in the Pacific, it becomes clear why the Makah tribe has been forced to go through the extensive bureaucratic processes that DePoe describes, in order to maintain their cultural traditions. For the nearly 2,000 in which native groups were hunting whales prior to the arrival of Europeans, there never seemed to be cause for concern about the species numbers, and the population was estimated to have 1.8 million individuals in the Pacific Ocean (Igler 2013, 118). However, between the 1830s and 1860s, non native hunters reduced the population to “a historic low of less than 10 percent its original level” and in turn, undermined natives’ ability to continue whaling for their traditional and subsistence reasons (Igler 2013, 127). These negative impacts can be felt up to the present day, as seen by the fact that Makah leaders were still advocating for their whaling rights in 2019, less than 2 years ago. 

Along with understanding the context of the plummeting gray whale populations, it is vital to acknowledge the cultural history of the Makah’s and the reasons that the ocean and whaling is so important to them. In his book The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs, Joshua Reid describes the history and culture of the Makahs and other native groups in the Pacific Northwest, all the way up into the present day. In the introduction, he briefly explains the many environmental factors that the Makah people have gained knowledge of through years of experience and observation. These include how “currents interacted with seasonally changing winds” , the patterns and changes in local species, and natural cycles and phenomena such as upwelling (Reid 2015, 5). The indigenous people had hundreds of years worth of knowledge on the natural environment in which they lived, and with each generation that information got passed down through stories, songs, and ceremonies. Central to this is the practice of whaling because “events happen when you get a whale” (Reid 2015, 271). The practice of both hunting and eating gray whales involved several ancient traditions which ground the Makah in their ancestry and “provide[] a purpose and a discipline which benefits their entire community” (Makah 2019). Therefore, the additional regulations placed on the tribe, which have forced them to go several decades without experiencing these traditions, can be detrimental to their identity as a group that is connected to the sea. 

Furthermore, Reid’s work helps to contextualize DePoe’d declaration when he discusses the Treaty of Neah bay and the specific guarantee to whaling rights in Chapter 4 of his book. Both DePoe and Reid point out article 4 of this treaty, which granted the Makah tribe the right to whale in their traditional spaces, however DePoe’s piece does not explain the significance of this article to the extent that Reid does. While DePoe focuses on the politics of the treaty, Reid provides information about the motivation behind the tribes’ push to include this part of the treaty. Reid states that “the Treaty of Neah Bay was the only Stevens Treaty to have ... [a] tribally specific condition” and the reason they negotiated for it was because they saw the marine space as their home (Reid 2015, 136). The centuries spent learning to understand the ocean around them and use it to their advantage, made it not only a significant piece of their cultural identity, but also “enabled Makahs to exploit marine resources, which provided them with the wealth and power that better positioned them when they needed to negotiate with non- Natives” (Reid 2015, 127). Reid’s commentary on this specific treaty takes a different approach than DePoe, honing in on the reasoning behind securing whaling rights, as opposed to just the specific language used in the agreement. 

The additional details that Reid provides help bring to light the ancient connection between indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest and the practice of whaling, something that was not honed in on in DePoe’s declaration. By broadening one’s understanding of the comprehension that native groups like the Makahs have of their local climate, it is easier to recognize the importance of such practices and grasp the reasoning behind DePoe’s writing. DePoe and the entire makah tribe are not requesting the waiver simply because they want to go whaling, but rather because they feel a need to. The practice of hunting whales is a ceremonial experience that is rooted in their history, and the products that it produces, such as whale oil and blubber, are a staple in their diet and lifestyle which they have been denied for many years. 

While Partick DePoe’s declaration is a vital source to help provide a first hand perspective from the Makah Tribe, there are certain contextual limitations that make it difficult to fully grasp the issue, especially in regards to the opposition, without additional information. Without synthesizing the information provided in these different sources, it is easy to see whaling as a violent and barbaric practice that has been detrimental to the species in the past. However, when looking at the request to resume whaling practices alongside the work of other scholars, it becomes clear that the criticism of these indigenous groups is not taking into consideration the fact that whaling is one of their cultural rights; nor does it consider that their loss of these rights was the fault of non-native hunters.Therefore, upon reading the work of David Igler and Joshua Reid, it is much more evident that the identity and history of the Makah people revolves around these subsistence practice, and DePoe’s motives for writing his declaration become more apparent. Unfortunately, there are still several steps that have to be taken in the process of receiving a waiver, and it could be several more years before the Makah Tribe can take part in a whaling expedition. However, it is evident that their purpose and intent behind the request are rooted in a complex history, and the native group has yet to give up hope of returning to their long-established practices.


Reference List

Curtis, Asahel. Makah Whalers Landing Whale at Neah Bay. ca. 1910. Photograph. Washington State Historical Society. 

“Description of the USA Aboriginal Subsistence Hunt: Makah Tribe.” International Whaling Commission. Accessed February 17, 2021. 

Gosho, Merrill. Gray Whale Breaching. September 2, 2005. Photograph. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

“Makah Whaling & Whale Hunt - Makah Tribe (Neah Bay, Washington).” Makah Tribe, April 4, 2019. 

“Proposed Waiver and Regulations Governing the Taking of Eastern North Pacific Gray Whales by the Makah Indian Tribe - Declaration of Patrick DePoe,” 2019. 

Reid, Joshua L. The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs. Yale University Press, 2015. 

“Treaty of Neah Bay, 1855”, Signed January 31, 1855, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

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