Makah Have Another Way To Hunt And Honor Whales

IT was the first time a whaling crew member had agreed to sit down and talk with two representatives of whale conservation groups. Micah McCarty, the contemplative man many Makah expect to be "chosen by the whale" to throw the first harpoon in 70 years, invited marine mammal biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff, wildlife activist Ben White and myself into the home of his father, John McCarty, recent executive director of the tribe's whaling commission.

We walked in at the exact moment a nightly news clip showed Micah and his fellow whaling crew members vigorously paddling the cedar canoe, the Hummingbird, in training for their imminent whale hunt.

The news reports of expected protests and violence during the since-held Makah Days darkened the mood in that living room bright with late August sunlight. "Look," Micah said, noting that the face of one of the whaling crewmen was blurred on the screen. "He asked them not to show his face," Micah told us.

There have been death threats. And the Makah are only a short time away from the threats that have plagued this country's Native Peoples - from government-sanctioned massacres to smallpox, lost homelands, languages, children, cultures.

"This is going on today," Micah said, "because at the time of the treaties (in 1885) it was only three years after a major smallpox epidemic. A village of our people was obliterated. Stecowilth, his name means gray whale, said, `I want the sea. That is my country.' And so we got our fishing, seal, and whale hunting treaty rights."

It is impossible for those of us who are non-Indian to fathom the fear that a living history of genocide has left even in today's generations. But now fear is something all sides share as a hunt begins in which there is a great deal at stake, both for humans and for whales.

Micah McCarty is the great-grandson of the last Makah whaler, Hishka, whom his father John remembers telling stories of the hunt. "It goes back to the great famine," Micah told a story very few outsiders have ever heard. "We were here before the last Ice Age. A man went to a mountain to pray for starvation to come to an end. That's when Thunderbird brought the whales to all the beaches. This changed the Ice Age, brought warmth back to the land. The whales beached themselves for us. They saved the people from death by hunger."

A week before this, at a Port Angeles meeting against the whale hunt, there had been a Makah who shouted out, "But we're hungry!"

In her fierceness, the middle-aged woman was talking about a hunger deeper than physical subsistence. Perhaps, like many modern Makah on the reservation driven by unemployment, drug abuse and despair, she was talking about a hunger for pride, for tribal identity and respect. Maybe she was half-remembering that once the whales had put an end to all hunger and might once again save her people, this time from a cultural starvation.

"Is it the whale meat you really need?" someone in the audience asked the Makah woman. "Or is it the whale?"

The woman turned on him and cried out, "We're just hungry, that's all! And we don't make friends with our food!"

"Wait a minute," it was Ben White who spoke to her then, in a conciliatory voice. "What I learned about nature I learned from your people. You taught me a way to look in the animal's eye - there's a person in there. After I saw that, I couldn't kill animals, I had to protect them."

"Haven't you heard about the food chain?" the Makah woman asked.

"And haven't you heard us asking to please meet with your tribal council?" someone answered.

As the meeting devolved into a shouting match, some of us kept talking openly. It was this quiet circle who met now a week later in the McCarty kitchen.

Ben White is a tall, weathered man who has risked much of his life in defense of other species. Where White has the passionate and philosophic stance of a spiritual warrior, Micah is that and more - he is also a statesman. With his long, brown hair pulled back, Micah has a dignity and authority that belie his 27 years. He is calm and mature, listening graciously to Ben's words.

"This is a tragedy that we're at odds with the Makah when we share so much," Ben said. "We're all being used here, suckered, while big business and big governments make deals that have more to do with the U.S. free-trade with Japan and Norway than with caring about either the Makah or the whales."

"We see the whales as beings," Micah replied. "We even have ways of addressing the whales, and their ancestors, too. So many of the old whaling songs and dances have been lost. We have tried to remember them and I want us to be one with the whale in spirit.

"I will tell you that I don't know what I will do when we get out there and I look into the eye of the whale. If I see that our crew is not in the spirit, not cleansed and ready in the old ways to take the whale - I don't know what I will do."

When agreeing to this meeting, Micah had said, "We are among the more moderates of the tribe." And when I asked John McCarty whether printing this story might jeopardize him or his son within his own tribe, John said simply, "We are who we are."

"I have seen things within my own tribe that make me sad," Micah said now in the behind-the-scenes camaraderie of the kitchen table. "We have suffered so much. And we still are oppressed. Many people cannot forget or see past this. They only see an ongoing retaliation, a brutal drive by outsiders to assimilate us and tell us what to do." He spoke of past tribal council corruption and politics.

I thought of my friend, the elder Alberta Thompson, who has bravely spoken out against the whale hunt, saying that many other elders and some tribal members are terrified to speak, lest they lose their jobs and be stricken from the tribal rolls. In August, Alberta was, in fact, fired from her job at the Senior Center by a tribal council memo citing her helping another elder make telephone contact with a representative from Sea Shepherd as grounds for her dismissal. "My family has been threatened," Alberta had said, her voice shaking. "The tribal council has violated my American constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech."

As Micah spoke on, I wondered if one day after he'd completed his environmental law studies at the Northwest Indian college in Bellingham, he might be welcomed back to his own tribe as a future leader like his father. He certainly has the vision and intelligence to grasp the complexities of government. He also has the compassion. "We're losing so much," he continued. "Our fisheries are in bad shape so that many fishermen are not making ends meet."

He fell silent, then said, "I've really been thinking about the common ground between us. I, too, share your concern for the Mitsubishi salt mines in the Baja gray whale birthing lagoons. I'd also like to see the wild wolf returned to the Olympic Peninsula and see Phase II of the Boldt decision to allow co-management of watersheds and surrounding timberlands. And I'm really concerned that the timber companies should contribute to help save salmon and restore watershed. They owe it not only to Native people, but to all of us."

Both Makah and conservationists identify with the whale, but from different traditions. Yet, as we talked together face-to-face, we found ourselves considering this alternative to the hunt:

One big boat that carries Makah and conservationists sails out this October. We follow the Makah whaling canoe from a respectful distance. On board our boat is an elder such as John McCarty, telling the stories his whaling chief grandfather had given him. McCarty might share some of the non-secret songs and dances of his ancient Makah culture.

As we on the boat watch the practiced strokes of the Makah canoe crew, their culture comes alive, revitalized by this ancient ceremony between whale and People of the Whale. And as the gray whale surfaces, so accustomed to boats, the Makah who is chosen by these great elders of the sea, stands and balances the canoe. With a prayer and a sure aim, he hurls the harpoon.

It hits the huge, barnacled body. Instead of a deadly harpoon, an indelible ink mark will show this living whale to all who watch it surviving through many more migrations, that this being is once again what Micah calls "an honored guest," in the Makah village.

Then a Makah conservationist will talk about the extraordinary return of the gray whale from the brink of extinction, and the return of a tribal culture which now flourishes again because its spiritual hunger is each year satisfied by the ceremonial hunt of this whale.

The annual Makah ceremonial hunt may become as successful as the September salmon homecoming powwow and celebration, which has attracted over 60,000 people, a majority of them tribal peoples from all over the country.

At this Makah ceremony, the people will "polish their names," increasing their proud reputation: that the Makah are not the killers, they are the Keepers of the Whale.

"I have had this vision," says Micah softly.

And there are more people - both Makah and whale conservationists - who are now taking part quietly in this peace-seeking dialogue. One of them said, "Oh, if we can just give ourselves more time to get to know each other before our history of war overwhelms us." Seattle writer Brenda Peterson's latest book is "Intimate Nature" and with Art Wolfe, "Pacific Northwest: Land of Light and Water."

Thompson, who has bravely spoken out against the whale hunt, saying that many ------------------------------- Seattle writer Brenda Peterson's latest book is "Intimate Nature" and with Art Wolfe, "Pacific Northwest: Land of Light and Water."