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.

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