Pacific Postcards

Fishing Technology: Strengthening Reid's Argument (T.A.)

Throughout the colonization of the Pacific Northwest there has been an everlasting misunderstanding of the indigenous peoples. In Josh Reid’s The Sea is My Country there is a departure from the barbaric descriptions of natives, however this argument could be made stronger if Reid gave more attention to Makah hunting technologies and techniques. As Makah hunting practices are explored throughout the book, we see what the Makah really were and how they were more civil than many thought them to be. The image illustrates multiple Makah whaling ships in the Fuca Straits. Whales are also seen in the picture as a hunt is happening in the waters of the coast of present day Washington. The whale hunt depicted in the image is one of the most important parts of the entire Makah culture as these hunts are very sacred and precise. The Makahs placed “marine space at the center of their culture” (Reid 4) and this meant that many of their native traditions took place in or around the sea. The indigenous of the Pacific Northwest were initially viewed as inherently savage but as time went on their connection to the ocean was revealed, showing they were not the savages everyone presumed. Reid saw this connection and began to argue that the natives were civil, however his argument could be made stronger if he was able to incorporate an in depth look at the image along with a focus on Makah hunting techniques and technologies.  

The Pacific Northwest natives were assumed to be similar to all other indigenous populations that the Europeans previously encountered. The first encounters generally depict the natives as savage and dangerous people. The indigenous in the Northwest did not escape this premature designation. In one of the earliest encounters between the Makah and men from Meares’ ship, the longboat that the British were in was attacked by the Makah and a neighboring tribe who were loyal to Tatoosh. Meares saw this as a brutal and savage act by the indigenous peoples of the cape.  “Meares’s interpretation of the attack on the longboat exemplifies the perspective of many non-Native traders who experienced threats or violence in the ča˙di˙ borderland. Ignoring relevant details, he characterized the antagonists as inherently savage” (Reid 54).  It was easy for sailors like Meares to categorize native attacks as savage but in reality Meares had made the Chief Tatoosh mad and this attack was just in retaliation. Reid acknowledges Meares’ misunderstanding but does not make a clear designation to which side he  agrees with. In the picture, the Makah hunting the whales are only wearing one piece of clothing that acts as a skirt. Seeing this as an outsider can be appalling and can bring many thoughts into one's head. The lack of clothing can lead an settler, especially one like Meares, to just assume that the natives are savage and only know how to fight and kill. This was just an example of an early encounter between Meares and the Makah. As time went on Meares was able to further explore the Pacific Northwest and he was eventually able to take part in a name changing ceremony that tied Meares to the powerful chief Maquinna. During the ceremony “Meares inaccurately believed that these skulls and bones belonged to individuals who had fallen prey to Maquinna’s cannibal appetite. Instead, these were talismans of power that strengthened Maquinna’s whaling prowess. Bones and corpses of prominent whalers figured in ritual preparations made by Northwest Coast whalers” (Reid 46-47). Meares made another assumption about the savage nature of Maquinna and his people, however he was wrong again as the skulls he saw were very important to the ceremony. Reid once again acknowledges the misunderstanding but does not comment on whether he believes this practice is somewhat savage. By commenting and implementing examples, Reid would be able to support his argument that the natives were civil. In the image there are many whalers pictured, some of these men could one day have their skull and bones placed in a name changing ceremony if they become prominent whalers for their tribe. Reid illustrates that the colonists had misunderstandings of the savageness of the natives but he could have made a strong clear argument by comparing native practices to those of the settlers that came years later. Overall, the natives of the Pacific Northwest were thought to be inherently savage but those opinions were clear misconceptions as they were more advanced and civilized than everyone assumed. 

The indigenous of the Pacific Northwest were initially seen as savage but as more was explored about them, their deep connection to the ocean was shown through their practices and hunting techniques. As whaling and the fur trade grew the natives were seen as valuable and even became more efficient in certain processes. The Pacific Northwest has a set of currents that bring about all sorts of animals and fish. The Makah were able to read these currents and this allowed them to become extremely skilled and successful hunters. This knowledge aided them in hunting whales which were the most significant and sacred part of their culture. A successful whale hunt showed the power of the chief, provided food for the entire village and gave everyone involved in the hunt great pride and honor.  The Makah believed that the harpooner needed to acquire supernatural powers in order to successfully complete the hunt. These hunts were so important that “whalers exercised ownership and tenure responsibilities through ritual preparations for a hunt. Sometimes lasting for eight months, pre-hunt rituals were the most important aspect of preparation” (Reid 150). The hunt was a sacred and special part of tradition and if one person did not take part in the rituals they were not allowed on the boat. The picture depicts four boats full of whalers, all of the men in the boats went through these ritual practices in order to find the success that they are having in the hunt shown. Behind the main two boats, a whale is seen with harpoons already stuck in its body as it makes a dive into the sea. Once a whale was struck the ritual practices ensued. The harpooner would “sing to his prey in order to encourage it to come ashore easily” (Reid 150-151). In the image the front boat has almost struck the whale and the back one already has. The men in the back boat will now pray and sing to the whale in an attempt to bring it ashore and successfully complete the hunt. In the picture both hunting parties respected and performed the rituals and this is going to allow them to safely and effectively bring back a whale to their community. By respecting the rituals both the hunting parties depicted will bring a great feast and pride back to their people on the shore. By including this image, Reid could have strengthened his argument that the natives are not as savage as they seem. With his already in depth description and the hunt depicted in the image, his argument  of a civilized Makah could have been made that much more convincing. 

As whaling and the fur trade became very prosperous the natives became very valuable. In David Igler’s The Great Ocean it is said that the Aleuts, which were native to Alaska, were brought in to hunt otters because they were extremely talented hunters. The Aleuts were very efficient and “they remained the most successful sea otter hunters, killing them to the point of near extinction” (Igler 109). The natives were more civilized than thought because their “primitive” weapons were able to outperform and even nearly eradicate an entire population of otters. The weapons that are seen in the image such as the harpoon that the whalers are holding were not the most advanced but they were proven to work and the natives wielded them with an expertise no one could quite match. The image is dated 1887, this illustrates that the Makah had long been hunting whales and perfecting their practices which allowed them to be so efficient. Reid could have included the natives superior hunting techniques and outcomes to further strengthen his argument of the natives being somewhat sophisticated. Finally whaling became extremely profitable and this led to many countries and the native Makah to start hunting whales regularly, selling their oil for profit. When it came to the process of obtaining oil from the whale the Makah may not have had the most advanced technology but their techniques were precise which allowed them to greatly outperform settlers when it came to the amount of oil obtained from whales. The Makah were not only better at making the most out of the whales they caught, but they also hunted and killed a greater amount than the white settlers. During the peak of whaling “Makah whalers harvested more whales than non-Natives engaged in the same industry. Second, Makah women were more than twice as efficient when it came to processing oil” (Reid 174). The Makah women were by far superior when it came to processing the oil as “on average they rendered 2,300 gallons of oil from each whale” compared to the “600 to 1,050 gallons that commercial whalers averaged” (Reid 174). As seen in the image’s background, there is a beach where the Makah women would wait for the whalers to return. The two boats in the picture would bring the whales back to shore where the Makah women would work furiously, stripping the blubber from the whale extracting the most oil that they could. The Makahs on the beach were a well oiled machine when it came to utilizing the whale as hardly any part of the whale would go to waste. Reid does not directly compare the returns of the whale oil from the two separate groups, but the argument of the natives not being barbaric and savage could have been greatly strengthened if a direct comparison was used to go along with the picture and description of the beach. Overall by including direct comparisons and descriptions from the image Reid could have strengthened his argument by actually showing that the natives were more efficient and effective when it came to hunting and processing goods like whale oil. Without this direct comparison he leaves an argument that is not as strong as it could be.

In Reid’s The Sea is My Country he makes a weak argument that the natives are not as savage and barbaric that everyone believes them to be. Reid does say that Meares has a misconception of the natives and their practices but he fails to fully support the idea that they are indeed not at all savage and uncivilized. Reid could have strengthened his argument and made it clearer by bringing in certain points. He could have included the image in multiple places in order to explain the Makah rituals and practices. The inclusion of the image would have shown that the practices are very serious and the way that the Makah hunt for whales is almost more civilized than the bludgeoning that took place by the non-native hunters. By using the image to make clear connections to points he makes, his argument about the natives being civil and advanced could have benefited because it would have made it clear which side he is on. Overall the inclusion of the image and the use of clear and direct comparisons by Reid would have created a strong, complete and thorough argument that supported the idea that the natives were not the savage barbaric peoples they are so often seen as.   

Works Cited 

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Reid, Joshua L. The Sea Is My Country: the Maritime World of the Makahs, an Indigenous Borderlands People. Yale University Press, 2018. 

Primary source link

This page has paths: