American Times - Neah Bay, Washington: Whale gives Indians a taste of their heritage

AT ABOUT 5pm on Monday, under a Pacific drizzle, the hunters returned triumphant to Neah Bay from the open ocean. Their 30ft trophy, attached by nylon ropes to a small motorboat, bulged pathetically from the waves, mottled with barnacles and the scars of its final battle. This was their gray whale, pledged to them by treaty with the United States government.

Dragging the bloodied carcass on to the beach took an hour. The sheer weight had defeated the groaning horsepower of a retired army lorry drafted for the job. Finally, 50 souls from the delirious welcoming committee waded into the water and hauled it out with their bare hands.

Then, as dusk approached over the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the whale was on dry land and the celebrations could begin. There was chanting and song. Prayers were said to send the soul of the vanquished creature back out to the seas. Then the butchering started With rolled-up sleeves and shining knives, they peeled away an inch of blubber to reveal the vivid red meat.

Thus, the honour of the Makah Indians was restored. This tribe, whose 2,400 members call the windswept Olympic Peninsula their home, had for 75 years relied only on memories of a tradition that for centuries before had defined them. Now, at last, their hunters had made a kill and the Makah were proud.

So too, perhaps, are their ancestors. As in earlier times, these modern hunters had gone to sea before daybreak in a hand-hewn cedar canoe with carved paddles and prayers in their hearts. Their first claim to the whale's life was made with two 11ft harpoons, hurled from the canoe into the back of the prey, spotted just beneath the surface.

Some contemporary technology stole into the scene as well. Once the harpoons had been attached, another of the hunters pursued the kill with shots from a high-velocity rifle. The dark waters quickly gushed red and the female gray, estimated to be three years old, was dead in 10 minutes. Other members of the tribe circled the canoe in the motor boat. Not far above in the leaden sky, helicopters from television stations in Seattle pointed their cameras and filmed the hunt live for viewers in the city.

And thus, also, a most contemporary controversy has been born. The Makah tribe, with strong support from the Clinton administration, was given permission by the International Whaling Commission in 1997 to hunt a limited number of gray whales - no more than 20 - between now and 2004. The deal was hailed as a rare gesture to restore a measure of dignity to the American Indian community.

The Makah had stopped their whale hunts in the Twenties, when the gray whale was already on its way to extinction because of exploitation by man. The population recovered and the whale was removed from America's list of endangered species in 1994, paving the way to the authorisation given to the Makah by the Whaling Commission. About 26,000 gray whales now roam the Pacific.

The Makah had their right to hunt whale enshrined in an 1855 treaty signed with the US government. "The Makah made history today," declared a jubilant Ben Johnson, the chairman of the tribe. "We exercised our treaty right. We have ourselves a whale."

Keith Johnson, chairman of the tribe's whaling commission, echoed the sentiment. "We are bringing our tribe, our heritage, our identity as whalers into the 21st century," he declared. "Our identity for young people for generations to come is now set."

But environmentalists fear Monday's slaughter will mark the end of decades of restraining man's appetite for gray whales. Several groups in boats tried to disrupt earlier outings by the tribesmen, and two arrests were made last weekend. No protesters were at Monday's kill. But Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said: "There is nothing traditional about what they're doing out there. Their ancestors would certainly be ashamed of what they're doing." Lisa Distefano, international director of Sea Shepherd, said: "It's just the beginning. Anybody who thinks it stops here is dead wrong. This is really the shot heard round the world."

Nobody among the 500 Makah on the beach on Monday night shared such concern. The celebrations of the kill are just beginning. Some of that red meat stripped from the carcass will be cured in preparation for a feast that will probably take place this weekend with a guest list restricted to tribe members and guests only.

Then the Makah will gorge on a meat none has savoured before. And what they will taste will be their own heritage and history.

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