Tribe split over reviving custom

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The Independent Online
"We want to get our culture back, and this is putting the last piece of the puzzle in place," said Marcy Parker, a leader of the Makah Indian tribe in Washington State, writes Nicholas Schoon.

That piece is the hunting of five grey whales a year, resuming a whaling tradition in the tribe that goes back 1,500 years but which died in the Twenties.

She and six other Makah from the furthest north-western corner of the United States have joined their country's government delegation to the whaling commission meeting in Aberdeen to press for a quota.

But two other members of the 1,600-strong tribe have also flown to Aberdeen to lobby against the proposed hunt, their tickets paid for by US animal welfare organisations. They say they cannot see the point of resuming whaling, and claim the support of seven tribal elders with an average age of 86.

The Makah used to hunt the Pacific grey whale with eight-man canoes, spearing the huge beasts in the water. The pursuit and the distribution of the meat and blubber were surrounded by elaborate ceremonies, now largely forgotten.

The hunt died out partly because industrial whaling made the greys almost vanish. The tribe also suffered a drastic population loss from Western- introduced epidemics, and was encouraged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take up farming.

Two events have made the tribal council press for a resumption. The US government took the grey whale off its endangered species list in 1994 because its numbers had recovered. And in the Seventies a Makah village destroyed by a mudslide 400 years ago was excavated and numerous structures and implements made from whalebone showed the tribe just how important hunting was to their ancestors.