Whaling Standoff in Neah Bay

Conservationists are posted off Washington coast as the Makah tribe prepares to hunt.

The battle of two good things has come to an awkward impasse.

The beleaguered people who are gladly reviving their history, their customs, and their spiritual practices are waiting.

The dedicated people who are willing to risk their lives to protect internationally endangered mammals are waiting, too.

In Neah Bay, in the upper left-hand corner of the country, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca empties out into the Pacific Ocean, the Makah Indian tribe and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are waiting for the first whale hunt in about 70 years. The conservationists have vowed to stop the hunt, which they claim is illegal, while the native Americans prepare to follow the Treaty of 1855, which preserved the tribe's right to hunt whales.

Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, says the International Whaling Commission did not approve the hunt because the Makahs do not qualify as "aborigines whose traditional aboriginal subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized." The tribe stopped hunting whales in the 1920s, when, according to Mr. Watson, they voluntarily turned to seal hunting. But the Makahs argue that their tradition was broken only because no gray whales remained after East Coast hunters emptied the Pacific of them.

About 30 years ago, the damp, heavily forested land itself revealed secrets about the long-standing importance of whales to the tribe. A major archeological dig unearthed the remains of five long houses that had been buried in a mudslide 500 years ago. "Here is hands-on evidence, a link to the past, that we were whalers. We had paddles, harpoon points, all of the stuff related to whaling," says Keith Johnson, president of Makah Whaling Commission. When the gray whale was removed from the United States Endangered Species List in 1994, the Makahs prepared to rekindle their customs.

Following the traditions, training requires spiritual bathing and use of medicines passed down from their families. Whalers' wives may follow the tradition of lying very still during parts of the hunt. "The belief was that whatever she would do could affect the conduct or behavior of the whale," Mr. Johnson says.

But modern technology is not excluded. In addition to a harpoon, whalers plan to use a powerful .577 caliber sporting rifle.

Since late September, nothing much at all has moved in Neah Bay, a dingy town with a population of 916, five hours by ferry and car from Seattle. But the standoff clearly has the potential to become ugly.

On Nov. 1 Lisa Distefano, a leader of the Sea Shepherd group, jumped to the tribe's dock from an inflatable boat to meet with Alberta Thompson, a Makah elder who has objects to the hunt. Makah police arrested Ms. Distefano, and another Sea Shepherd member was injured in the scuffle. Watson says Makahs threw rocks at the conservationists and the police chief did not stop them. Tribal police also confiscated the inflatable boat, and Ms. Thompson went into hiding briefly.

The incident infuriated Watson. "The Makahs are always talking about their treaty rights, but the fact is that the treaty is between the Makah and the US, and our treaty rights are being violated," he says from aboard one of the group's boats. "The Makahs are not able to damage or destroy the property of US citizens. They attacked our people ... and they stole our property."

Watson warns that a Makah hunt could open floodgates for commercial whaling. "If the precedent is set here, for cultural necessity, that means the Japanese, the Norwegians, and the Icelanders will all claim the same right of cultural necessity, and thousands of whales will be killed," he says. "Our concern is really Oslo and Tokyo, not Neah Bay."

Johnson disagrees. "The Japanese have been trying to do this for 15 years, and they've hit roadblock after roadblock .... It will never happen because of the Makahs," he says. "The US supported us because they are going to stand behind their word to defend and honor the treaty."

Even as the standoff continues, Johnson has noticed changes on the reservation, where about 55 percent of the people live below the poverty line. "Our children and our tribe ... won't be lost in the computer world of the 21st century, because we have strong sense of who we are," he says. "It's placing us on solid ground."

Offshore, Watson says his group is prepared to stay for the duration of gray whale migration, into December, waiting to interfere with the hunt. "So far we've prevented it by just being here, patrolling the coastline," he says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.