Elementary Level: Makah Whaling

  • Posted 3/07/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10739
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The culture and lifestyle of the Makah Indians is based on the sea. Their homeland is on the Olympic Peninsula in northwestern Washington, along the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. They have hunted gray whales for thousands of years. The tribe used every part of the whale as food, to make all sorts of needed items, and to trade. When Makah leaders signed the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, they were promised that they could continue to fish and hunt for whales. But professional whalers hunted gray whales until they were almost extinct. The gray whale was placed on the Endangered Species list and the Makah were not allowed to hunt it. In 1999, Makah whalers conducted a traditional whale hunt and landed a whale. Many in the tribe had not tasted fresh whale blubber before. Since then, the whale hunts have been stopped until new studies on the environment can be completed. (This essay was written for students in third and fourth grade who are studying Washington State History and for all beginning readers who want to learn more about Washington. It is one of a set of essays called HistoryLink Elementary, all based on existing HistoryLink essays.)

People of the Cape

For many generations, the Makah Tribe has lived on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Their homelands once stretched from Cape Flattery -- at the northwest tip of the peninsula -- south along the Pacific Coast and east along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In their language, they were called the "people of the cape."

Makah culture and lifestyle is based largely on the sea. The discovery of a long-buried Makah village at Ozette near the northern tip of the peninsula provided a lot of information about how the Makah people lived for more than 2,000 years. Discoveries there, along with the traditions passed down by tribal elders, confirmed that the Makah depended on whales and other resources from the sea for most of their needs. According to oral tradition, Ozette was buried by a mudslide about 500 years ago.

Makah whale hunters were selected from leading families in the tribe. They were trained carefully so that they could carry out this very important job. They learned the techniques needed to hunt, harpoon, tire out, and kill a whale so it could be towed back to land. Each man also went through steps to purify himself spiritually before hunting. Generally a whaling canoe carried eight men -- a harpooner up front, one to steer the canoe in the rear, and six paddlers. Makah whalers used large cedar canoes that were carefully carved from the trunk of a single tree. They hunted and fished in the sea 30 or 40 miles from the shore. Sometimes the whalers paddled out as far as 100 miles.

When a whale was brought back to shore, there was much celebration. The whale was carved up and pieces of meat and blubber were given to the members of the whaling crew and their families, as well as other tribal members. Nearly every part of the whale was used by the tribe. The oil, blubber, and flesh were eaten. Sinews were used to make rope and bowstrings. The stomach was dried and inflated to hold oil. Even the bones were sometimes used in building houses. If there was more of the whale than the tribe could use, they traded it other tribes and early settlers.

The Makah suffered greatly from their contact with settlers and explorers. More than two-thirds of the Makah population died when they caught diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza. In the 1850s the Makah Tribe was pressured to sign a treaty with the U.S. government. According to the treaty, the government would pay them $30,000 for their land. The government also promised to build a school so the children could learn farming and other skills and to provide medical care. Makah leaders agreed to the terms of the treaty as long as they could keep the land near Cape Flattery for their reservation. And they wanted to continue to fish and hunt for whales. By signing the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, the U.S. government and the Makah Tribe agreed to these terms.

Makahs continued to hunt whales until the 1920s. But by this time the gray whales that migrated past Makah territory every year were almost gone. The lagoon where gray whales gave birth to their young near Baja California had been discovered. Men who hunted whales for a living crowded into the lagoon and nearly wiped out the whale population. Eventually the gray whale was placed on the Endangered Species List. Next, the United States and some other countries convinced the International Whaling Commission to stop commercial whaling but to allow certain Native groups to continue to hunt whales. This worked and the number of gray whales began to grow again.

Return to the Hunt

For many years, the Makah and other tribes worked to renew their culture and regain their treaty rights to hunt and fish. In 1970, the buried Makah village of Ozette was rediscovered. This important discovery provided additional inspiration for Makahs to renew their traditions. Makah whalers wanted to hunt whales as promised in the Treaty of Neah Bay. The tribe planned to take five whales a year. Some people and groups agreed with the Makah decision and did not think that taking five whales would make a difference in the gray whale population.

But there were many people and groups who did not want the Makah to start whaling again. Some thought that other Native groups would also want to hunt. Still others said that killing any whale was wrong. It was not until 1997 that the Makah Tribe received permission from the International Whaling Commission to resume hunting the gray whale. Some who opposed the hunt went to court to try to stop it. When that did not work, they planned to go to the Makah Reservation and physically block the hunt.

The Makah whalers wanted to hunt the whale according to their tribe's tradition by harpooning it from a cedar canoe. The only difference in the hunt would be that they would use a rifle to kill the whale after it was harpooned. This would keep the whalers safe from the struggling whale and it would keep the whale from suffering.

The first Makah whale hunt in more than 70 years took place on May 10, 1999. Whales were sighted but the man who threw the harpoon missed his mark. The hunt was interrupted by protestors from the Sea Defense Alliance Group. The whalers tried again five days later but did not harpoon a whale.

On their third day of hunting, May 17, 1999, the Makah whalers prayed together in their canoe. They spotted a 30-foot gray whale, which they harpooned and killed. The whale was towed back to the beach where a potlatch feast was being prepared. Following tradition, eagle feathers were sprinkled over the body of the whale. This was the first time that most of this generation of Makahs had ever eaten fresh whale blubber. Tribal members celebrated the safe and successful hunt. Makahs viewed this hunt as a big step in rebuilding their culture.

The following year, the Makah whale hunts were stopped again. Opponents had appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and it ordered a new study on the environment to be done. The court wanted to be sure that hunting whales along the Washington coast would not have a negative effect on the gray whale population. Makahs believed that the treaty signed 150 years before should protect their right to hunt whales. After many years of appeals and public hearings, some Makahs grew impatient. On September 8, 2007, a Makah whaling team harpooned a gray whale. Since they had acted without permission from the tribe or the U.S. government, the Coast Guard seized the whale, which sank before it could be used according to custom.

Even though several years have passed, there is still no official decision about Makah whale hunting. The tribe agreed to the Treaty of Neah Bay believing that it would allow tribe members to keep their traditions. But it is still uncertain if the Makah people will ever be able to hunt whales as their ancestors had done for thousands of years.


This essay is based on the following HistoryLink essays: "Makah Whaling" (Essay 5301), "Clallam County -- Thumbnail Essay" (Essay 7576), "Makah leaders and Territorial Governor Stevens sign treaty at Neah Bay on January 31, 1855" (Essay 5364), and "Treaty of Neah Bay, 1855" (Essay 2632). It is one of a suite of essays (called HistoryLink Elementary) thatĀ focus on important people, places, and events in Washington State History, and that align with elementary school textbooks and state academic standards. All the HistoryLink Elementary essays are included in the HistoryLink People's Histories library, and the HistoryLink Elementary suite and related curricular activities can also be found on HistoryLink's Education Page (http://www.historylink.org/Index.cfm?DisplayPage=education/index.cfm). The HistoryLink Elementary project is supported in part by Heritage 4Culture's Special Projects Program.

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