Sunday, September 09, 2007

Of whales and heritage

[Photo courtesy Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News]

-- by Dave

While I've never eaten any part of any whale myself, I've talked to people who have, including native people for whom whale meat is part of their traditional subsistence diet, as well as some Japanese consumers of the stuff. And the truth about gray-whale meat is that it tastes like shit. Almost literally, I'm told.

This could be because grays tend to get their food from the sea bottom, often close to shore amid the muck. In contrast, humpback whales -- whose meat is indeed considered remarkably tasty -- mostly eat some distance from shore, their diet consisting largely of krill (tiny shrimp) and small fish.

So one of the dirty little secrets of the Makah Tribes' successful 1999 hunt, when they managed to harpoon and eventually kill a gray whale and bring it back to shore for butchering, was that most of the animal (like one that had been accidentally killed a few years before) ended up in the local landfills. According to my sources, most people took a few bites, maybe served a few meals of the stuff, but hardly anyone actually ate their full share of the whale meat. Most folks stored it in their freezers, and then eventually tossed it out after awhile.

In other words, the hunt may have proved a point, but they also wasted that animal -- which, as far as I understand these things, is somewhat the antithesis of the "cultural traditions" the hunt was supposedly intended to revive.

Now it's happened again, after two rogue whaling boats harpooned and killed a migrating gray whale who happened to pass near shore yesterday morning; it wandered off and sank somewhere in the Pacific after authorities intervened. The hunt was neither permitted by the federal government nor was it sanctioned by the tribe. What seems to have happened is that some of the yahoo elements involved in pushing for a hunt decided they had a right to kill the whale even without such sanction -- and perhaps were trying to push the envelope in order to get some progress on their long-negotiated return to whaling.

Well, it's certainly true that the Makah Nation has a treaty right to hunt and kill whales. It's one of the very few American tribes that does. As I explored in my 1998 piece for Salon on the situation, the Makahs' whaling push is occurring at an unusual nexus of the fight over treaty rights and the desire of some nations to resume whaling as a commercial enterprise. But that doesn't mean any tribesman has the right to go out and kill himself a whale.

The tribes have pushed hard to go hunt another whale, but it's occurring in an environment in which scientists are increasingly concerned about the health of the eastern Pacific gray-whale population, whose numbers have been declining amid signs of malnutrition. Killing another gray whale at this juncture probably is an environmentally irresponsible thing to do in such a context, especially for a creature that only recently has climbed off the endangered-species list. (Humpbacks, which in fact were the Makahs' traditional whale-hunt object -- though grays apparently were harvested in lean years -- actually pass by Neah Bay much farther offshore and are still very much an endangered species, so hunting them is out of the question.)

Much of the push has come as advocacy for reviving the tribe's heritage as whalers, which seems a reasonable, even admirable enough objective: the evisceration of their heritage has played a significant role in the oppression of native peoples in America since they came into contact with whites. Reviving that heritage has been an important part of many tribes' efforts to combat the poverty and alchoholism that afflicts so many modern reservations.

And the resumption of a ritualistic tribal hunt did have at least some palliative effect on the tribe, as Robert Sullivan rather richly describes in his book about the 1999 incident, A Whale Hunt. To what extent it actually revived the tribe's cultural heritage, however, remains something of an open question.

As I noted in my 1998 piece:
Traditional Makah whalers -- who were chosen braves from a few select families -- underwent rigorous preparation for the hunt that included long steam-lodge sessions and enduring nettle treatments. But only a few of the modern Makah hunting group are partaking of such rigors; they were chosen mainly for their strength. Several enjoy party-animal reputations, guys in desperate need of something constructive to do -- but hardly the leading young men of the village.

There is a reason the old Makah hunters were considered so heroic: The hunts were extraordinarily dangerous, requiring the highest level of skills as canoeists and harpoonists. None of the current group of Makahs has displayed any of these skills. In fact, they are such poor canoeists that they plan to have the traditional cedar canoe towed by powerboat to the whale's vicinity -- at which point they plan to row out to meet the beast, armed with their paddles, harpoons ... and, of course, the traditional high-powered rifle that will perform the final dispatch.

The Makahs' defenders explain away their variance from original traditions as a necessary accommodation to modernity, saying that modern Makah have the same right to modern weaponry as anyone else. Be that as it may, it's also clear from descriptions of traditional hunts that the whole enterprise was bound up with an appreciation for, even a love of, the animal being hunted. Warrior purification, according to these accounts, was about making a man worthy of taking the life of such a great beast; and when a whale was caught, they believed it gave itself up to them as a gift to the tribe, and it was honored at the subsequent feast accordingly.

This was mostly lacking at the 1999 hunt, and it was strikingly absent from yesterday's whale killing. The perpetrators -- a number of men working in two boats -- did nothing to honor this whale when they shot and harpooned it. They just wasted it.

They may have believed they were standing up for their rights as Makah, but all they effectively did was demolish whatever moral high ground the tribe may have occupied by claiming the hunt was about their tribal heritage. It was a simple act of provocation and hooliganism, the kind of act that historically has always rebounded against native people.

What will happen, of course, is that this killing will play into the hands of the Makahs' many critics, including the execrable Paul Watson, who charged like a grandstanding bull into the china shop of the situation in 1998 and drove the tribes into a rigid defense of their right to kill a whale. And their decision to do so had much less to do with reviving their heritage than with defending their legal rights.

Because whatever one may say about reviving tribal heritage, those goals remain fuzzy and amorphous at best. The one really concrete aspect of any tribe's efforts to improve the daily lives of its people, however, lies within its treaty rights.

Treaty rights, which have the binding power of constitutional law, are the cornerstone of any tribe's economic and social well-being, as well as their ability to defend and restore their proud heritage. The environmental activists involved in the situation in 1998-99, when the sides were taking shape in this battle, focused on dismissing the tribes' cultural concerns while ignoring the very real matter of the Makahs' treaty rights -- and thus earned a fully deserved reputation on the reservation as arrogant and disrespectful.

The Makahs are not a wealthy tribe. Because they are stuck in the most remote corner of the lower 48 states -- driving to the reservation can be a real ordeal -- their ability to partake in the recent casino bonanza enjoyed by so many other of their fellow Northwest tribes is virtually nonexistent. (It must also be something of a blow to their traditional pride; the Makahs were a powerful and wealthy tribe, in no small part because of their superior skill as mariners, before the white man's arrival.)

And you can't help but see, when you drive around the reservation lands, that they are just as susceptible as anyone else to economic demands; over the past generation, they've allowed large tracts of their traditional forestlands to be utterly wiped out in clear-cutting operations that are noteworthy for their lack of sound conservation practices, but which no doubt have provided tribal members with some form of incomes. Tribal heritage is cheap talk compared to the need to put food in people's mouths.

Still, there is nothing good to be had from wasting animals, particularly not one so sentient and graceful as a gray whale. That alone should give tribal members pause, especially now that one has been wasted so wantonly.

There is middle ground to be had in this fight, but it requires the whales' advocates to acknowledge that the Makah treaty rights are the critical factor in this situation, as they are in the case of Inuit whale hunts as well (which seem not to draw the same kind of protest, mostly because those are true subsistence hunts). Those treaty rights are a real economic asset and not to be lightly dismissed.

And it will require the tribes recognizing that they live in a big world in which the killing of a great sentient beast like a whale sharply conflicts with the values of their neighbors.

Finding that middle ground, I suspect, will require coming up with a way to allow the Makahs to exercise their right to hunt, and to do so in a way that benefits them economically and socially -- but perhaps nonlethally for the whales. That, however, will also require coming up with real economic incentives to do so.

Whether the warring factions ever come to such terms is speculative at best, and under the current circumstances, it's unlikely. The death of this gray whale could become an opportunity for a change in the dialogue -- or it could become just another notch in the escalating conflict at our northwesternmost corner.

And as always, it seems that innocents, like unsuspecting migrating whales, are the victims of the crossfire.

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