The Makah Indian Nation’s proposal to hunt gray whales has fewer negative impacts than five of six alternatives considered in a draft federal study released May 9. The National Marine Fisheries Service conducted the study of the possible impacts of Makah resuming gray whale hunts, in response to the nation’s request for a waiver of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is accepting public comment on the study until July 8.
The Makah are a Southern Wakashan people that are closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulth and Ditidaht peoples of the West Coast of Vancouver Island, who live across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in British Columbia, Canada. Their territory is around the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington.
The Makah Indian Reservation on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula includes Tatoosh Island. They live in and around the town of Neah Bay, Washington, a small fishing village along the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it meets the Pacific Ocean.
The Makah people refer to themselves as Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx , which, depending on the source, translates to “the people who live by the rocks and seagulls,” “the people who live on the cape by the seagulls,” or “people of the point,” as well as several other similar phrases.
In 1936, the Makah Tribe signed the Makah Constitution, accepting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and establishing an elected tribal government. The constitution provided for a five-member Tribal Council. Each year the council elects a Tribal Chairperson. The Council develops and passes laws for the Makah Reservation.
Tribal census data from 1999 show that the Makah Tribe has 1,214 enrolled members; some 1,079 live on the reservation. The unemployment rate on the reservation is approximately 51%.
The Makah tribe hosts its annual major public gathering, Makah Days, in late August. It features a grand parade and street fair as well as canoe races, traditional games, singing, dancing, feasting, and fireworks.
Many Makah tribal members derive most of their income from fishing. Makah fish for salmon, halibut, Pacific whiting, and other marine fish. They are one of the few Pacific Coast Tribes who traditionally hunted whales, and still have whale hunts today, as is allowed by their treaty agreements. Archaeological records and oral history indicate a significant number of humpback whales were historically hunted, as well.
Makah oral history relates that their tradition of aboriginal whaling has been suspended and re-established several times. Most recently, the practice was suspended voluntarily in the 1920s because the commercial whaling industry had depleted the stocks of humpback and gray whales and all whale hunting was called off.
After the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List, the Makah re-asserted their whaling rights. With the support and guidance of the United States government and the International Whaling Commission, the Makah successfully hunted a gray whale on May 17, 1999. According to federal law, the Makah are entitled to hunt and kill up to four baleen whales, typically a gray whale, each year.
In 2007, after waiting three years to receive approval for the yearly whale hunt guaranteed by treaty rights, 5 Makah men took matters in their own hands and killed a whale as an act of civil disobedience to draw attention to the issue. They used a .460 caliber rifle, similar to that used in hunting elephants, despite court-imposed regulations governing the Makah hunt. The whale died within 12 hours, sinking while heading out to sea after being confiscated and cut loose by the United States Coast Guard.
The Makah language, also known as qʷi·qʷi·diččaq (qwiqwidicciat) is the only Wakashan language in the United States. Other tribes speaking Wakashan are located in British Columbia, Canada, immediately across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and northwards as far as that province’s Central Coast region. The Makah language has been extinct as a first language since 2002, when its last fluent native speaker died. However, it survives as a second language. The Makah tribe is working to revive the language, and has established preschool classes to teach its children.
Makah History and Culture
Archaeological research suggests that the Makah people have inhabited the area now known as Neah Bay for more than 3,800 years. The ancient Makah lived in villages, inhabiting large longhouses made from western red cedar. These longhouses had cedar-plank walls. The planks could be tilted or removed to provide ventilation or light. The cedar tree was of great value to the Makah, who also used its bark to make water-resistant clothing and hats. Cedar roots were used in basket making. Whole trees were carved out to make canoes to hunt seals, gray whales and humpback whales.
The Makah acquired much of their food from the ocean. Their diet consisted of whale, seal, fish, and a wide variety of shellfish. They would also hunt deer, elk, and bear from the surrounding forests. Women also gathered a wide variety of nuts, berries and edible plants and roots for their foods.
Much of what is known about the way of life of the ancient Makah is derived from their oral tradition. Abundant archeological evidence excavated at the Ozette village site (see below) has provided great insight into the lives of the Makah.
In the early 17th century, a mudslide engulfed part of a Makah village near Lake Ozette. The mudslide preserved several houses and their contents in a collapsed state until the 1970s, when they were excavated by Makahs and archaeologists from Washington State University. Over 55,000 artifacts were recovered, representing many activities of the Makah, from whale and seal hunting to salmon and halibut fishing. Artifacts included toys, games, and bows and arrows. The oral history of the Makah mentions a “great slide” which engulfed a portion of Ozette long ago.
Archaeological test pits were excavated at the Ozette site in 1966 and 1967 by Richard Daugherty. However, it was not until 1970 that it became apparent what was buried there. After a storm in February 1970, tidal erosion exposed hundreds of well-preserved wooden artifacts. The excavation of the Ozette site began shortly after. University students worked with the Makah under the direction of archaeologists using pressurized water to remove mud from six buried long houses. The excavation went on for 11 years.
It produced more than 55,000 artifacts, many of which are on display in the Makah Cultural and Research Center. Opened in 1979, the museum displays replicas of cedar long houses as well as whaling, fishing, and sealing canoes.
In 1834, a dismasted, rudderless ship from Japan ran aground near Cape Flattery. The Makah took the three survivors of the broken ship and cared for them, holding them as slaves for several months before taking them to Fort Vancouver. From there, the United States transported them by ship to London and eventually China, but they never reached Japan again.
On January 31, 1855, representatives of the Makah tribe signed the Treaty of Neah Bay with the U.S. federal government, ceding much of their traditional lands. The treaty required the Makah lands to be restricted to the Makah Reservation and preserved the Makah people’s rights to hunt whales and seals in the region. The Makah language was not used during the negotiation of the treaty, and the government used the Salish name for the tribe. Makah is an incorrect pronunciation of a Salish term meaning “generous with food.”