October 21, 1998
JIM COMPTON: It is the very northwestern corner of the United States. As isolated as it is beautiful, the 27,000 acre Makah Indian Reservation occupies a craggy point of land that juts out into the Pacific. It is a land of misty woods, tall Douglas fir, and ancient cedar. Historically, the Makah were people of the sea, who surrendered the claim to some of their land in 1855 in order to get a treaty guaranteeing extensive fishing and whaling rights. Whaling was banned early in this century, and in recent decades catches of salmon and halibut have dwindled. With unemployment hovering around 50 percent, half of the reservation's families have incomes before the poverty level.
Now, a return to whaling has been seized as a way to economic and spiritual recovery. The Makah are the only tribe that preserve the right to kill whales in their original treaties. And through the first decades of this century whaling was a principal source of subsistence and income. The Makah favored Humpback whales to eat. Gray whales were harvested for both meat and oil. And at the peak of the whaling thousands of barrels of lamp oil were sent East from Neah Bay each year. Whaling ended in 1927, and the tribe shifted its attention to fishing and logging. The Makah claimed their ancestors have been whaling here for a thousand years, but it's been 70 years since anyone has gone on a whale hunt, and no one alive has been whaling. It was only when the gray whale came off the endangered species list that some in the tribe said time to start again. The annual Makah Day celebration this year was unusually festive as the tribe celebrated the news that it had won the right to resume whaling.
The International Whaling Commission, in a much disputed decision, allowed a whale hunt to proceed but without voting official approval. And now groups of Makah are practicing in their huge cedar dugout canoes on Neah Bay. One man will be chosen to hand harpoon the whale and another to kill it, they hope with a single shot from a huge 50-caliber rifle. They would be permitted to harpoon or wound up to nine whales to capture their quota of five. Micah McCarty is a 27-year-old Makah man training for the hunt.
MICAH McCARTY, Makah Tribe: To me, it's a hereditary right, and, you know, to me, as a part of the Makah nation, it's a treaty right that every Makah individual has. You know, we think of that as like a title to a car. We own it, and we can drive it, and we can do what we want with it.
JIM COMPTON: Dozens of environmental and animal rights groups have condemned the proposed hunt, led by the militant anti-whaling organization Sea Shepherd. Aboard the group's 178-foot retired Norwegian research vessel Sea Shepherd head Paul Watson sounds the call to defend all whales.
PAUL WATSON, Captain, Sea Shepherd: The whale represents an intelligence that we're just on the very threshold of discovering, and I find it absolutely amazing that just when we're so close to the possibility of inter-species communication with another species we're on the threshold of wiping them out.
JIM COMPTON: Sea Shepherd claims it has sunk whaling ships in Norway and Portugal. The organization recently added to its fleet a retired Norwegian submarine that will be used to prevent killing of whales by the Macah.
PAUL WATSON: Artist George Sumner will be painting this sub to look just like an adult full-grown killer whale, and we will be running through water broadcasting orca sounds so that the gray whales will see something that looks like a killer whale, sounds like a killer whale, and hopefully will react accordingly and flee the area.
JIM COMPTON: It is not disputed that the gray whale population - an estimated 23,000 animals - migrating up and down the Pacific Coast -- can stand the loss of 5 whales. Gray whales were once harvested to near extinction, but conservation measures have brought populations back dramatically. Fred Fellman is a marine biologist and whale specialist.
FRED FELLMAN, Northwest Director, Ocean Advocates: Five whales itself is not my concern, but because these are special organisms that we should be very concerned about the size of the precedent that is set, and I would hope that we could get a legally binding opinion on the International Whaling Commission so that we're not talking hearsay. Is this door firmly closed behind the Makah, or is it left wide open?
JIM COMPTON: The tribe, itself, is not unanimous in support of renewed whaling. Tribal elder Alberta Thompson.
ALBERTA THOMPSON, Makah Tribe: They use the word "tradition" so much, we couldn't go back to it because we don't it. It's gone. If we wanted to go back to it, we would have gone back to it 20 years ago. What made me angry was the commercializing that they had spoke of, and I can't see killing - again - something so gigantic and wonderful as a whale for money.
JIM COMPTON: The Makah Tribe has said publicly it will not sale whale meat or oil. But some who are doing whaling do foresee the eventual marketing of whale meat. Gray whales weigh up to 45 tons and are considered among the most difficult and dangerous to subdue. The oil and meat from a single whale can be worth $1/2 million.
JIM COMPTON: You're saying that if a way could be found to sell it legally, you would sell it?
MICAH McCARTY: That's something that, you know, we can't necessarily rule out. If it will benefit our people and it can be done in a just way, then I don't see why not.
JIM COMPTON: To John McCarty, whose grandfather was a chief and a whaler, there is no way mainstream America can grasp the depth of feeling about whaling.
JOHN McCARTY, Makah Tribe: The whale was given to them by the Creator. This whale belongs to the Makahs. The white society - I don't know if they really love that whale as much as they claim they do - they are using it as a symbol, not their deep feelings like probably what I got.
JIM COMPTON: As the time for the whale hunt nears, the reservation has had an uncomfortable introduction to environmental politics. When there are rumors that 20,000 anti-whaling demonstrators would show up for Makah Days, Washington Governor Gary Locke mobilized 800 National Guard and the little town of Neah Bay was virtually cordoned off by state, county, and federal officials. There were no demonstrations, no demonstrators, and tribal council members said they were angered at the artificial excitement. But the test will come when Indians actually set out to whale. The Coast Guard has ordered a five hundred yard exclusion zone to keep media and protesters away from the whalers when they hunt. Paul Watson says that his organization will stay back as ordered unless it can overturn that regulation in court.
JIM COMPTON: But do you ever foresee a time when this boat might confront a Coast Guard vessel or confront a dugout canoe?
PAUL WATSON: No. We have total respect for the United States Coast Guard's rules and regulations, so I don't see - I don't anticipate us getting into a scuffle with a U.S. Coast Guard vessel at all.
JIM COMPTON: But in your previous operations you have sunk whaling ships?
PAUL WATSON: We have sunk pirate whaling vessels. Vessels have been operating in blatant violation of international regulation, and we've always made ourself available to the authorities if they should choose to prosecute us. They haven't chosen to do so, because to put me on trial for doing that would mean to put themselves on trial internationally for their - for the illegal whaling activities. J
OHN McCARTY: Well, it's probably none of their business, but they're doing it for just one purpose, because there are a lot of people in the world, environmental people, that gives them money to do what they do. It's that simple. So they get rich. The more - the more they go against the Makahs, the more money they get. It's simple.
JIM COMPTON: For now, the training and practice go on. Sixty-three-year-old John McCarty hopes that his son, Micah, is in the canoe that kills the first whale.
JOHN McCARTY: That would complete the whole circle of my life. I'm too old to get the whale. My son can get the whale. But that would mend that link that was lost.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|