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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform