Harpoon in the moral underbelly

In the name of tradition, a Native American tribe plans to hunt whales again. How does the liberal world react?

Seattle's trendy coffee-houses serve whipped latte to the cream of Nineties North America - a young, Internet-ready professional elite pre-programmed to respond correctly on all lifestyle issues. But this month something tougher than organic spinach is up for discussion. A nasty conflict of interest has broken out between two West Coast counter-cultural icons - the marine mammal and the Native American.

For the first time in 70 years, migrating grey whales off the Washington coast at Neah Bay are to be hunted and killed by a local Indian tribe, the Makah, under an ancient treaty right. For white, liberal Seattle, all this simply does not compute.

Ecology is a natural faith for Sierra Club types gazing from the decks of their condos over the glorious horizons of the Pacific NorthWest. Now they face a dilemma that their New-Age belief systems cannot resolve. On the one hand, there's this oppressed, non-white minority trying to restore pride to a unique culture through the revival of an ancestral tradition. On the other, there are these freaks going out in a canoe to harpoon the guiltless, gentle giants of the ocean, and butcher their bloody corpses on the beach. What to think?

These are troubled waters, and votes are still mostly floating on the issue. In the local media, debate has been raging all summer, for the facts in the case are not as simple as they appear. Under the Treaty of Neah Bay, signed with US federal authorities in 1855, the Makah negotiated the right to continue hunting grey whales, as they had always done. But by the Twenties, grey whales were almost extinct in the Pacific, and the tribe went after fur seals instead. When the seals were gone, they abandoned their canoes and spears, and began to live on government handouts. The treaty became an irrelevance.

Today, the Makah are trawlermen, working from a fine government-financed marina at their little settlement (pop 1500) on Cape Flattery. They chase tourist dollars as well. With federal help, they built a large museum to house the wealth of tribal artefacts recovered from an archaeological dig close by, and constructed a wooden eco-walkway on the cliff-edge of the Cape, with views of eagles and sea-otters. But Neah Bay is far from Seattle, and visitors are scarce outside the summer months. The Makah elders wanted something new to keep their young men busy and away from drink.

So last year, citing a "cultural need", and with US-government support, the Makah lobbied the International Whaling Commission for permission to hunt a "subsistence" quota of five grey whales a year. Whale numbers in the Pacific have been recovering. In 1994, with a population estimated in the tens of thousands, the grey whale was removed from the endangered species list. And whales are still hunted legally by Eskimo bands in the Arctic. So, under US-government pressure, the IWC brokered a deal for the Makah. In a bizarre asset-swap, five bowhead whales remaindered from an existing Alaskan Eskimo quota were traded by the Americans for five greys already reserved to the Russian government for its own Chukchi Eskimos in Kamchatka.

The Makah have paddled skilfully through the upswell of criticism. Early boasts about the terrific potential income from the sale of whalemeat proved counter-productive, and were withdrawn when the tribe retained the services of a good Seattle PR firm. In their place came press releases about warriors' dreams of fulfilling the legacy of their forefathers in carved canoes sanctified by immemorial rituals. Meantime, tribal elders travelled to enlist the support of Japan and Norway, both keen to open more "aboriginal loopholes" to undermine the whaling moratorium and legitimise the trade in whalemeat. A delighted Japanese delegate noted: "There is no difference between cultural necessity for the Makah and cultural necessity for the Japanese."

The Makah have even managed to get the local law on their side. A federal judge upheld their treaty rights in court, the National Marine Fisheries Service offered technical assistance, and the Sierra Club itself elected to ignore the issue.

In August, the Seattle Times published the "Makah Manifesto", a defiant apologia by the head of the tribe's whaling commission, a teacher called Keith Johnson. He wrote: "I can tell you that all of the Makah whalers are deeply stirred by the prospect of whaling. We are undergoing a process of mental and physical toughening now. I feel the cultural connection to whaling in my blood. I feel it is honoring my blood to go whaling."

After much agonising, the Seattle Times published a supportive editorial of its own. "The hunt," it proclaimed, "embodies restrained stewardship after a species' triumphant comeback." Unfortunately for the would-be whalers, this has not been the end of the matter. Neah Bay may be remote, but it's not in the Arctic - and the Makah are hardly aboriginals in desperate need of whalemeat. Indeed, when a young whale killed in a fishing accident was brought to Neah Bay in 1996, most of it ended up in the town dump because no one knew how to cut it up.

Press and TV crews who have descended on Neah Bay since the beginning of October have been quick to detect a scent of inauthenticity about the Makah's preparations for the hunt. Some 300 animal welfare organisations worldwide have begged the Makah to desist from the whale hunt. Paul Watson, head of the radical Sea Shepherd organisation, has more aggressive plans. He is now patrolling offshore at Neah Bay with a small armada of protest vessels, including a mini-submarine painted black and white to resemble a killer whale and scare away passing cetaceans.

The Makah's encounter with the whales will be an odd spectacle. A hand- carved dugout canoe with eight men aboard will be paddled out to the Olympic Marine Sanctuary, where ordinary US citizens are forbidden to take or harm so much as a herring. The warriors will manoeuvre alongside a passing whale, and throw a harpoon in the prescribed ritual manner. Then one of several supporting powerboats will blast the creature with a .50 calibre anti-tank weapon (to relieve its suffering), before securing it with ropes.

Once ashore, the whale will be cut up and its meat stored in tribal freezers. "The whales know they journey to their destiny, and will only offer themselves to bless a people they have long been a part of," says one tribal spokesperson. In case the whales fail this bond of honour, the Makah have negotiated the right to strike up to 30 animals during their hunt, although only five whales are permitted to be dragged ashore.

Mindful that favourable public opinion might not survive close-up news footage of their operations, the Makah have enlisted the local coastguard to secure a 500 yard "safety zone" around the whale-killing grounds. On shore, the tribe's privacy is being respected thanks to squads of National Guardsmen, state troopers, US Marshals, Fish and Wildlife Agents, sheriff's deputies, tribal police and an FBI SWAT team. All this costs money.

In Seattle, it is only just beginning to dawn on people that their taxes will have paid for the whole charade - from the travel expenses of the IWC lobbyists to the electricity bill for storing several tons of frozen whale. But perhaps the tide of local opinion will only turn against the Makah when the foodies of the city realise that the tribe intend to cook and devour the whales they catch - all of them. And, as everyone knows, it cannot possibly be healthy for people to eat so much red meat.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz