Some may find it difficult to fault the Makah tribe of western Washington for beginning a hunt for whales this month.
The Makah are in an economic box canyon. Unemployment on their Neah Bay reservation is 55 percent. With their social fabric tattered by substance abuse and poverty, the Makah are desperate for any thread of hope.
Now comes the cavalry - the US Commerce Department - to "save" the Indians. Commerce has given the Makah free legal counsel, the protection of the FBI, three .50 caliber antitank weapons, and a plan to shoot whales.
But things aren't as they appear. Hidden agendas and false promises prevail. The enthusiastic support given to the Makah by Commerce seems more a commitment to free trade than to the welfare of the tribe. If the Clinton-Gore administration's intention is to end-run US conservation laws, override the global ban on commercial whaling, and allow US trade partners Japan and Norway to recommence whaling on a large scale, it hardly could find a better way.
Makah fishermen accidentally snagged a juvenile gray whale in their nets in 1995. And tribal enthusiasm for whaling suddenly soared when Japanese whaling interests offered $1 million for the whale. But an international treaty and US law prevent them from selling whale products at all.
Leaders of the Makah whaling council, whose salaries are paid by Commerce, now say that the ritual killing of whales will somehow revitalize their culture, restoring their pride and purpose.
Whether the Makah succeed in killing a whale or not - and they've been prowling the Puget Sound and the near-shore waters of the Pacific daily - the simple act of hunting, with the support of the US Government, will compromise US ability to oppose renewed commercial whaling. It will expand the definition of subsistence whaling and throw open the door to commercial whaling by Japan, Norway, Iceland, and other countries with whaling traditions.
US law provides for trade sanctions against countries that violate the international whaling ban, agreed to by 41 nations in 1986. The ban has confined Japan to limited "scientific whaling." It also kept Norway out of whaling for several years - until 1993 when Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office.
Despite its defiance of the ban, Norway has not been punished by economic sanctions. Without any protests from Washington, Norway took 162 minke whales in 1993. And the death toll has risen each year - to 600 whales taken by Norway so far this year.
Mr. Clinton told Congress then that US "objectives can best be met by delaying the implementation of sanctions until we have exhausted all good faith efforts to persuade Norway to follow agreed conservation measures."
In meetings in 1993 with Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, Mr. Gore signaled US willingness to restart commercial whaling. Published accounts of one of these meetings quoted Gore as saying that "While the US will continue to oppose commercial whaling as a national policy, we are willing to join you in good faith within the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to complete all aspects of the Revised Management Scheme in 1994 and present a scientifically based, observable regimen to the (IWC)." Gore cemented his commitment to Ms. Brundtland to overturn the IWC ban on commercial whaling saying: "This strengthens my argument for a need for a scheme that will allow resumption."
US representatives have operated behind the scenes at the IWC to devise an acceptable Revised Management Plan (RMP). Without an agreed RMP, full-scale commercial whaling cannot resume. Thus far they have failed to find a convincing scientific basis for such a plan.
A direct US attack on the whaling ban would be as unpopular as caging Keiko, the star of "Free Willy." The administration's solution was to dispatch the US commissioner to the IWC, Commerce Undersecretary James Baker, to outflank whale-protection interests. He submitted a request for aboriginal subsistence whaling rights to the IWC for the Makah in 1995. This move created an international furor because the Makah, having lived for 70 years without whaling, do not meet the requirements for subsistence hunting. Under fire from pro-whale forces,including most IWC member nations, Mr. Baker withdrew the proposal.
Last year he negotiated an agreement with Russia to trade some of US Eskimos' bowhead whale allotment for 20 whales allotted to aboriginal Russian natives' subsistence quota of gray whales.
Then he proposed to the IWC a new definition and procedure for aboriginal subsistence whaling. The IWC granted the quota but turned down the Makah request to hunt gray whales on the grounds that the tribe did not meet the definition for aboriginal subsistence.
These actions make clear the administrations' true priorities. The Makah have been misled - there is no future in the ritual killing of gray whales. To proceed will only bring the Makah negative publicity and protests from around the world.
If the White House had real concern for Makah welfare, it would encourage the renewal of positive aspects of the whaling tradition, reverence for whales, and the development of economic prospects appropriate in today's world, such as whale watching.
The Makah are being manipulated to serve the free trade agenda. If the Makah succeed in shooting their first gray whale this month, it will usher in a new era of commercial whaling. We should stop this precedent-setting kill.
* Stan Butler is director of Whales Alive, a conservation group based in Washington State. He is working, under a grant from the Bullitt Foundation, to develop ecological and cultural tourism for native Americans.