Staring out at Tatoosh Island off the coast of the Makah Reservation, it is easy to imagine that the voices of all the men who ever hunted gray whales a-re being carried at once to the shoreline in rhythmic waves; that the endless, "hush, hush," offers no more advice to the new generation of Makah whalers than the gentle command to, "listen, listen to the sea..."
It was there every winter, on this wind carved island, out of the sight of the Indian agents who forbade it, that whaling men continued to sing their own family's song and dance their own private dances in personal preparation for the whale hunt which lasted until the early 1900s. Now, after four generations of voluntary abstaining from whale hunting, a new breed of men will once again take up their harpoons and face the gray giant of the sea but this time it will be in front of the world.
"We are whalers. It is how we are defined between all American tribes,' said Ernie Cheeka, a fourteenth generation member of a whaling family. Mr. Cheeka's tribal name is Kolchote, inherited from his ancestor by the same name, one of the sub chiefs who signed the 1855 Stevens Treaty guaranteeing the tribe's right to whale. It is the only U.S. treaty ever to do so.
"By returning to hunting whales, the Makah are literally reaching their hands back and touching ancestors who negotiated the right for them," said Al Ziontz, spokesman for the Makah Whaling Commission.
Today, just as it has always been, it is only the sons of whaling families that will hunt whale. And also as before, every aspect of it - from the spiritual and physical preparation of the whalers, to carving the dugout canoe, to hunting and landing the whale, to preserving its blubber and meat-will be done with the utmost skill, discipline and respect for the whale, said Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission. "But because the world is watching, it will be a tribal hunt, not a family hunt," he said.
Two representatives from each of the 23 whaling families are training for positions in the whaling canoe, Mr. Johnson said. Only 16 to 18 men will be selected for the actual hunt. "How they've prepared individually, whether they have shown up (for canoe drills), what teams work the best together, that's how the (whaling) commission will certify a crew," he said. Which means no one man is leading the rest.
That's because, as in the past, each family knows who their own best hunter was, said Mr. Johnson. And most have already gained their skills as paddlers on previous canoe ventures such as the famed Bella Coolia (British Columbia) canoe trip or with their own Makah canoe racing teams.
And despite the fact that the Makah hired a veterinarian that specializes in humane killing to train them in where to shoot the whale for the instant kill point, Mr. Johnson said that the marksmanship of the rifleman still depends only on the skill of the marksman himself. "There's no Skipper 101, no harpoon or Rifleman 101 class here," he said.
Mikah Vogel, a mask carver who helped to build the Hummingbird, the canoe that the crews presently practice in, is relying on his former canoe racing experience and his skills as a fisherman and seal hunter when competing for a spot in the whaling canoe.
Standing on a layer of cedar shavings created from the mask he was carving, Mr. Vogel said, 'My (great-great) grandfather, Chief Peter Brown, was one of the last whalers before me. Now I'm training for the skipper position,' he said. A large Makah man of 24 years, Mr. Vogel explained that the skipper makes most of the decisions, and also sits to the rear of the canoe to steer. "The men are arranged from the heaviest in the back to the lightest in front," he said.
Spiritually preparing for the whale hunt is another responsibility of individuals and their families, said Mr. Keith, "The tradition of whale hunting was a secret. That was (the hunter's) strength," said Greg Colfax, Makah carver and mentor to many younger carvers such as Mikah Vogel. Mr. Colfax is also a member of the whaling commission.
"How they got ready, how they prayed, even where they went to pray, all was sacred information kept within the family," said Mr. Colfax. In fact, each family 'owned" their own song and their own dance and no other family had rights to it, he said.
But when the Makah chose to give up whaling after stocks became depleted from over harvesting by other countries, many of the elders whose fathers danced in secret on Tatoosh Island, spent their own childhood in schools that did not allow the speaking of their own language, let alone the practice of old spiritual ways.
Fortunately for the tribe, the Makah Cultural Research Center has a collection of recordings made of individual family songs and interviews done before many of the elders passed on.
Neither a representative nor a mouthpiece for the whaling commission, the MCRC none theless manages all their collections according to traditional Makah values, and the interviews with whalers, done man-to-man only, are no exception.
"People who know about women know (during active whaling times), they weren't at the forefront," said Janie Bowechop, director for MCRC. They played an important role such as preserving and cutting the meat, she said. "But women were never privy to the details of the hunt. Today (the recordings) don't need to be privy even to me," she said.
Included also in the sacred preparation of the Makah whale hunt is the building of a dugout whaling canoe. The craft is being constructed from a single cedar tree felled over a year and a half ago inside a Makah forest reserved for tribal wood carvings. Over 30 feet long, the canoe is being built by a Makah carver and his assistant inside a traditional long house. But because he is adhering to strict traditional spiritual discipline, the carver asked that he not be named.
Also according to tradition was the request that although a reporter, as a woman, I not view the actual craft while it is being made. ICT photographer, Jim Waldrip, was allowed to enter (but not to take pictures) the long house where the partially carved log lay in honor of traditional ways, he did not take any pictures. Mr. Waldrip, also a carpenter, was impressed with the undertaking of making the hull of the boat that would hold nine men, from a solitary piece of lumber. 'It was the most beautiful tight, straight grain wood I've seen," he said.
Everywhere you look in this small town from the world-renowned cultural center to the busy fishing wharf, from the 200 plus employee tribal organization to the forest filled with tall stands of evergreen trees - you see the Makah demonstrating that tradition and contemporary knowledge need not conflict. By following traditional preparations for the whale hunt, the Makah are pulling forward from the past long dormant values and interweaving them with modernized humane techniques and economic efficiency.
Greg Colfax said it best. however, when he described the experience of looking into the face of a contemporary mask: 'When a piece is done well, you can look at it and see its echo.'
The same must be true of the faces of an entire people.
It is ironic, sad, and appropriate that I find myself leading the fight to oppose plans by the Makah Tribal Council to slaughter four California gray whales in the waters of Washington.
A few weeks ago, a protester - a white person- yelled at me and demanded to know why I cared so much about four whales? 'Where were you," the person demanded, .,when they were shooting Indians at Wounded Knee?" "I was there," I answered. It was at Wounded Knee in 1973 that I received my life's mission to protect the great whales. Serving as a medic for the American Indian Movement (AIM) it was I that held the other end of the stretcher when a U.S. Marshall's bullet struck down medic Rocky Madrid as we ran through a hail of lead. I assisted Leonard Crow Dog in removing the bullet.
I became a warrior brother to the Ogalala Lakota Nation and was given the name Gray Wolf Clearwater. In a sweat lodge ceremony, I had a vision, a dream where an arrow struck a buffalo. The arrow had a long string attached to it. The buffalo spoke of me and asked for my help and I broke the string and chased the hunter away. Wallace Black Elk interpreted my dream. "Your mission is to help the buffalo of the sea - the whales. It will not be easy."
Two years later I was in a zodiac as Bob Hunter and myself became the first men to place our bodies between a whale and a harpoon. It was the first Greenpeace whale campaign and we confronted the Russian whaling fleet 60 miles off the coast of Northern California. That day changed my life forever. The Russian fired an exploding harpoon over our heads. The missile slammed with a sickening thud into the backside of a fleeing sperm whale as a.shiower of hot blood spouted into the air and the whales heart wrenching scream ripped through the air. As a deep scarlet stain spread over the dark blue of the sea, another whale rose and dove, his tail pointing skyward before plunging into the abyss.
We had been warned that the large bull, the male sperm would protect his pod and ft was with a great gut-wrenching anxiety that we waited there for 50 tons of very angry animal to attack our trail craft from beneath. Suddenly, the ocean erupted. We turned to see the whale hurl himself from the sea straight towards the Soviet harpooner. Nonchalantly, without a flicker of mercy, the Russian squeezed the trigger of his massive harpoon cannon. A thunderous explosion delivered a grenade tipped harpoon at point blank range into the head of the leviathan. A second scream, of rage and sorrow, swept over us as the hot blood spurted in fountains into the air, raining down upon the water. The great whale fell back in painful convulsions and rolled and writhed upon the turbulent waves as we watched transfixed with horror and shame.
I saw the whale's eye emerge from the sea and gaze upon me. The whale turned and dove as we watched a trail of blood and bubbles marking his torpedoing advance towards us. The whale rose up as if in slow motion, a cascade of brine and blood showering down upon us as his titanic body angled over and above us. He was so close I could have reached out and closed my fingers around a six-inch tooth. His hot breath washed over us and I found myself gazing into the eye the size of my fist. In that eye that reflected my own image back at me, I saw an intelligence and I perceived that the whale understood what we had tried to do. The easiest move for the whale at that point was to let his body crash forward and crush us, or he could have seized us in his mighty jaws. He did neither. Instead, slowly and deliberately, the whale began to sink backwards. His eye held my eye locked to his gaze as that intelligent orb sank beneath the waters and disappeared into the blue. My eyes filled with tears. I saw something else in that solitary eye. I saw pity. Pity not for myself nor for his kind, but pity for us that we could commit such a blasphemous act of cruelty. The Russians were killing sperm whales for the purpose of securing highly heat-resistant lube oil for the construction of ICBM missiles. To slaughter such a magnificent, intelligent species to obtain oil to make weapons to slaughter human beings was incredible insanity. That day changed my life forever.
The whale had spared my life and that is a debt that I have endeavored to repay every day since by devoting my life to protecting and serving the cause of cetacean conservation.
Whale wars have been long and stressful but after 25 years We have almost succeeded in ending this slaughter. In 1982, a global moratorium on whaling was proclaimed by the International Whaling Commission. To take effect in 1986. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on the Environment ruled that the IWC is the body that is authorized to regulate whaling. Since 1986, Japan, Iceland, and Norway have schemed to devise ways to over tum the moratorium. Despite the moratorium, these three nations have illegally slaughtered over 16,000 whales worldwide. Many more have been slaughtered by unflagged pirate operations, the meat sold through the black market to Japan. DNA analysis of whale meat bought at random in Japan has revealed butchered Blues, Fins, Humpbacks and Orcas, all endangered and supposedly protected.
U.S. laws like the Packwood Magnuson Act and the Pelly Amendment provide for sanctions of fish products from nations that whale illegally. Unfortunately, President Clinton has decided to ignore the regulations for fear of upsetting trade relations with these nations, Throughout our history, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has intervened only against illegal whaling activities as defined by the IWC. You don't see us opposing the IWC-sanctioned bowhead hunt in Alaska, so why are we opposing the Makah hunt? The answer is that it is both illegal and a fraud.
The IWC has not given approval for a Makah hunt. The Makah are hunting on a quota approved by the IWC for the Russian Eskimos. The U.S. traded a quota of endangered bowheads to the Russians for a quota of grays. The Russians benefit by trading one on-one and receiving endangered and valuable bowheads. The fact is that this is a Russian hunt and not a Makah hunt. A Makah hunt does not fall within the criteria established by the IWC for aboriginal hunting for two reasons. The Makah have not killed whales for three-quarters of a century and they do not have subsistence requirements. The Makah will be killing the grays for the benefit of the Japanese. Even if the meat is not sold to Japan directly, the Japanese whaling industry will profit enormously, because the Makah will turn the key to overturn the global moratorium on whaling. If the Makah succeed in changing the basis for aboriginal whaling to cultural need as opposed to subsistence need, the Japanese, Icelanders and Norwegians will claim the same right.
Last year at the Monaco meeting of the IWC, Tadaio Makamura, representing the Japanese Whaling Commission, asked, "What is the difference between cultural necessity for the Makah and cultural necessity for the Japanese?" If cultural necessity becomes a reason for whaling, the slaughter will be unrelenting. We are not investing this time and expense, using our entire fleet, to oppose a tribal whale hunt of five whales. Our opposition is headquartered in Tokyo and Oslo. If the Makah kill their whales, the harpoon cannons of the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Antarctica will be pouring the blood of thousands of whales into the sea. I started my quest to protect the whales off the coast of California in 1975 where we opposed the pelagic hunter killer fleet of the Soviet Union. Never did I dream that I would be returning home to defend the whales once again in American waters, this time from Americans. Aboard our Sea Shepherd ships will be Native Americans, including Makah elders. This is not an issue of race. It's an issue involving global whale conservation. The U.S. has been a great whale conservation nation for three decades. Will we throw it all away so a few Makah whalers can "traditionally" blast a beautiful, intelligent whale from the water with their .50-caliber guns. The result will be tons of whale meat rotting on the beaches of Neah Bay, wounded gray whales attacking whale watchers or kayakers, an international black eye for Washington and the U.S., boycotts of Washington apples and other products. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, the boardrooms of the Japanese Whaling Industry will be pleased to know that they have recruited the U.S. Into the ranks of the whale killing nations.