Makah Tribe in US hopes for rights to resume sacred tradition of gray whale hunting
Washington state is debating wether to grant a special waiver after the tribe fought a lengthy legal battle to try to resume the historic practice
Hunting gray whales has long been a sacred tradition for the Makah Tribe, dating back thousands of years. But in recent decades, the practice has faced severe scrutiny from conservationists, and the tribe, located in Washington state, has fought a lengthy legal battle to try to resume the historic practice.
Now, the situation could be finally gearing up to a resolution.
On Saturday, a public comment period is set to close, opening the doors for a key determination by the National Marine Fisheries Service on whether to grant the tribe a special waiver.
The granting of such a waiver would set Makah Tribe members on a path to finally resume the sacred whaling practice that dates back at least 2,700 years.
The comment period came after a recent recommendation to the US Department of Commerce in support of awarding the tribe a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bars the killing of marine mammals.
Administrative law judge George J Jordan stated in his recommendation that the eastern North Pacific gray whale stock “will not be disadvantaged by the issuance of a waiver” and the authorized take “will not meaningfully affect its distribution, breeding, or migratory habits”.
According to a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), such a recommendation could have a major influence on the final decision.
Jordan’s recommendation included proposed regulations, such as allowing Makah tribal members to hunt for only four months beginning on 1 July on odd years, and strike up to two eastern North Pacific gray whales. During even years, they would be allowed to hunt for six months beginning on 1 December and strike no more than three.
In the ensuing weeks, community members and environmental groups submitted over 100 comments in response to the recommendation. The majority, based on an examination by the Guardian, were against whaling, with some claiming the tribe no longer needed whales for sustenance, while others argued the creatures needed to be protected. Some that did support the waiver, cited the tribe’s sovereign rights and long history of whaling.
Noaa Fisheries’ decision on whether to grant a waiver – the timing of which is unclear – is expected to be based on such documents as the judge’s recommendation, submitted comments and a forthcoming supplement to the 2015 draft environmental impact statement.
The Makah Tribe, which today includes about 3,100 enrolled members, features the sentient creatures in their dances, songs, visual arts and family crests, explained the Makah tribal council chairman, Timothy J Greene Sr. At the same time, whale hunting has long been completed through a process of giving thanks and acknowledgment for a gift given to them by the Creator. And if the hunts were successful, according to Chairman Greene, tribal members used virtually every part of the creatures, from their bones and meat to their intestines and baleen.
“We acknowledge the life of the whale in the process and ceremonies,” he said. “We give that life the respect that it deserves. We believe that that life isn’t taken by us, but that the creature chooses to give its life to us to sustain us and carry out our connection with the ocean and with that part of the natural world.”
In the Treaty of Neah Bay of 1855, the tribe gave up hundreds of thousands of acres of land, while explicitly securing the right to whale in “usual and accustomed grounds and stations”.
In the 1920s, with commercial whaling and a clear decline in the whale population, the tribe voluntarily paused the hunts.
Chairman Greene said the tribe’s most recent successful hunt was in 1999, soon after gray whales were removed from the endangered species list. The lead-up to the hunt involved community members praying and fasting, as well as intense training and other preparation by the whaling crews.
The hunt “was a moment that really brought joy to the community, it brought the community together in a way that I haven’t seen since”, he said.
But there was also intense pushback from conservation groups, including from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit marine conservation organization based in Washington state. A spokesperson for the organization declined the Guardian’s request for an interview.
Now, after years of working through the legal process of trying to return to whaling, tribal members will probably soon see a key decision made. But even if the waiver is granted, there are more steps involved before they could actually go out and hunt, including the tribe having to apply for a hunting permit.
DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, which opposes the Makah Tribe resuming gray whale hunting, said it was impossible to humanely kill such a large creature. He said their opposition also stems from the decline in the eastern North Pacific gray whale population since 2019 due to an unusual mortality event, as well as concern that the endangered western North Pacific gray whales could be mistakenly hurt or killed.
“While we respect the Makah, we respect their culture and their traditions, and we firmly believe that they should continue to celebrate whales through dance and song and storytelling and so on and so forth, we simply disagree with them as to whether or not it is legally or scientifically or ethically appropriate to hunt gray whales,” said Schubert.
Chairman Greene compared the community no longer hunting whales to a member of the Catholic church being denied communion.
“It’s that deep,” he added.
John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA oceans campaign director, said in an email that whether or not the Makah assert their treaty rights and continue their tradition of whaling should be up to the tribe.
He said: “Subsistence hunts by Indigenous peoples have a long history, and have never put entire populations at risk … As we think about the major course corrections that humanity must undergo today, we might benefit from seeing what we can learn from Indigenous communities that have been much more successful at living in balance with nature than those who colonized their lands and waters.”