How to throw a good potlatch: Just add whale
For the Makah tribe in Washington State, the revival of a centuries-old
NEAH BAY, WASH. — Mary Jo Butterfield couldn't recall anything like it: members of the Puyallup Indian nation, and the Tulalip tribe, the Hoh, the Quinault, the Yakima, the Cowlitz, the Lummi, all streaming into her reservation, canoes in tow, traditional costumes in hand, and loaded with gifts and good wishes for her people, the Makah.
All because Mrs. Butterfield's tribe in Neah Bay on the farthest tip of northwest Washington State had hunted and triumphantly returned home with their first gray whale in more than 70 years.
"Never have I seen this, not in my lifetime," Mrs. Butterfield said of the visitors.
The spectacle in this remote corner of North America offered once again a window into the clash of ancient traditions and the modern world.
Even as the Makah were celebrating their centuries-old customs and successful hunt, environmentalists were protesting the killing of the whale from boats, and much of the rest of the world looked on with a mixture of fascination and puzzlement at the ancient ritual.
From the start, the Makah believed that harpooning a whale was a way to bind together their 2,100 members and awaken in their children an appreciation of their heritage. But along the way, they gained something unexpected: declarations of friendship and support from numerous other tribes responding to public criticism of the tiny tribe.
At their weekend potlatch - a ceremony common among Northwest Indians where gifts are exchanged to celebrate significant events such as salmon catches - tribal well-wishers came from as far away as Arizona.
The day started with a parade at 9 a.m., followed by a traditional noon dinner at the high school. Then, the evening ceremony, with more food and dancing.
Since the tribe's name translates as "generous with food," banqueting arrangements were taken seriously. "We have oysters and clams and fish, even several caribou roasts," Butterfield said. "And we have gallons and gallons of huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries."
And, of course, whale. Part of the female gray whale taken May 17 had been hung to cure in a meat locker. Other chunks were smoked. Since the Makah announced last fall their intention to exercise their 1855 treaty rights to hunt whale again, a tribal committee had been studying how to cook it, interviewing elders and consulting texts.
Some of the meat was barbecued, while chunks of blubber - a treat known well in the old days - were passed around raw.
The show of unity among the Makah and other tribes did nothing to dampen opposition to the whale hunt. The most fervent dissent has come from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an environmental group that anchored two boats off Neah Bay after the Makah announced their intentions to resume whaling.
They and other protesters accompanied the Makahs out to sea, attempting to scare off whales and halt the hunt. They assert the practice could lead to renewed commercial hunting around the world, although the Makahs are barred from selling edible whale products.
Hundreds of disapproving phone calls flooded the Makah reservation before and after the kill, and a group of protesters has stood with signs just outside the reservation every Saturday for months.
But the tribe has persevered. The Makah stopped hunting whales around 1920 after commercial whaling pushed the animals to the brink of extinction. But when the population of gray whales rebounded to about 26,000 animals in 1994, from a low of 4,000 early in the century, they were taken off the endangered species list, and the tribe sought to resume their hunt.
The federal government agreed to support their request, and the International Whaling Commission granted them the right to take five whales a year through 2004.
Loud public disapproval of the Makah decision to exercise their treaty rights galvanized numerous other tribes. Several sent crews in traditional cedar canoes to paddle alongside the Makahs when the whale was brought to the beach. Others sent members to perform traditional dances at the potlatch.
"For something like this, there should be this display of support," says John McCoy, executive director of governmental relations for the Tulalip tribe. His 3,400-member tribe in Washington State is concerned more with modern-day enterprises such as casinos than hunting whales.