If words were harpoons, the Makah Tribe of the Olympic Peninsula might well suffer the same fate as the young gray whale killed on national television early last week.
So hostile has been the protest to the hunt that Makah tribe members have put their reservation, inundated with death threats, in a state of war-time alert. Bomb threats have evacuated Indian schools. Airwaves and editorial pages across Western Washington have carried anti-Indian vitriol not heard or seen since the Boldt Decision a quarter century ago.
The Makahs have been called savages, drunkards and laggards. Protesters have entreated people to "Save a whale, harpoon a Makah." Calls for a return to killing Indians like in the Old Wild West have appeared in Internet chat rooms and in newsletters.
"The hatred surprises me," says Ann Renker, an anthropologist specializing in Makah culture who is married to a Makah. "I was thinking there would be more `Poor whale.' The violence being expressed toward the human beings involved in the hunt - `Shoot an Indian, bomb them, harpoon them!' - this absolutely surprises me."
The Times has received hundreds of letters and phone calls. By one count, protesters outnumbered Makah supporters 10-to-1. They ranged from well-articulated objections to visceral outrage.
Protesters fell into three broad categories: those who decried the killing of the whale, those who disapproved of how the whale was killed, and those who seemed to harbor a resentment, even hatred, toward the Makahs in particular and Indians in general.
Most respondents fit into the first two categories. The third group was small, but big enough to warrant attention. Their letters are the kind seldom printed, partly because of an assumption they don't represent a large number of people. That assumption, many would argue, is wrong.
At the same time, it's often impossible in heated conflicts involving race and culture to distinguish racist language from simple rage. When are rage and racism the same thing? When does protest become oppression?
The lines between these can be fuzzy to begin with. When you throw into the core of the conflict a creature of exalted status such as a whale, then stir things up with fight-to-the-death conviction on all sides, the result is a complex and incendiary stew.
Blood has spilled, and a door has opened to all manner of incivilities. The public discussion has become a free-for-all. Political correctness, for better or worse, has gone out the window.
You be the judge
Here are some samples of the third category. You judge whether they are racist.
Ernie Denney, Everett: "(To the Makahs) Maybe you can try just as hard at getting an education as you did training for the kill. Why don't you start a new tradition: take pride in yourselves . . . and work for a living instead of finding your courage in the death of a defenseless mammal or at the bottom of a bottle."
Mark Morin, Redmond: "I have a very real hatred for Native Americans now. It's embarrassing, but I would be lying if I said it wasn't the truth. What do you think will be my private thoughts deep inside my brain when a Native American drops off an application for a job with me?"
Steve Grimwood: "These people want to rekindle their traditional way of life by killing an animal that has probably twice the mental capacity they have. These idiots need to use what little brains they have to do something productive besides getting drunk and spending federal funds to live on."
Wendy and Erica (mother and daughter): "Hey, I think we should also be able to take their land if they can take our whales. Publish this article but don't use our last names. We wouldn't want to lose our scalps."
John and Edna Zawyrucha: "Natives were often referred to as`savages,' and it seems little has changed. God Bless America and all those members of the Makah tribe who once again were successful in resurrecting latent feelings of racial hatreds!"
Dave Ferguson, Bremerton: "If the Makahs are so stuck in the past . . . perhaps we should allow them to stay in the past and take all modern conveniences and luxuries away from them and see how long they last."
Phillips Wylly, Pebble Beach, Calif.,: "I am anxious to know where I may apply for a license to kill Indians. My forefathers helped settle the west and it was their tradition to kill every Redskin they saw. `The only good Indian is a dead Indian,' they believed. I also want to keep faith with my ancestors."
Michael Christophersen, Seattle: "They are a modernized welfare race. I personally hate the Makah Tribe. I hope and pray for a terrible end to the Makah Tribe, very slow and very painful."
`The language of genocide'
Dave Wellman, a research sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Portraits of White Racism" (Cambridge University Press), said he wasn't surprised by the violent reaction to the hunt. He had no hesitation in calling some of the reactions blatantly racist.
"When you start hearing language that it's time to hunt Indians again, you have to realize that's the language of genocide," Wellman said. A necessary presupposition is that Indians are subhuman, "huntable" like animals. "You don't hear people saying it's time to hunt white people when a couple of white men drag a black man behind a truck in Texas."
Violent racism is almost never recognized as racism while it's happening; it's called something else, Wellman said. The Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews was called The Final Solution. The Indian wars of the 1800's were called Manifest Destiny or White Man's Burden or Winning the West. The Indians were savages, and whites were bringing Christianity to save them. Decades passed before portions of society realized what was done to the Indians was genocide.
Racism is built in to the foundation of this country and it has never gone away, Wellman said. It simply doesn't get articulated during periods of quiet when there's no conflict. "It's in moments like this when the racism comes out into the open. But it was always there."
One of the most vocal and articulate opponents of the Makah hunt, Will Anderson of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, agreed that racism has surfaced - "It's a reflection of a certain percentage of our society that we all know exist" - but he cautioned against labeling as racist all anger toward the hunt.
"People are in shock. They're in a stage of unfocused anger," he said. "When there's such an emotional issue at stake, and so much work is at stake, it pushes people to the edge, and that's what we're seeing."
Anderson said most of the organized protesters he knows have tried hard to separate the deed from the doer, have acknowledged the wrongs done to natives in the past. But the Makah Tribe, like any other political entity, "and like the Constitution and state and federal laws, are fair targets for challenge."
Many supporters of the Makahs tolerate no criticism toward the tribe, are convinced any protest against any aboriginal group must be racist, he said.
"I've been called racist many times. It's a knee-jerk reaction. It's a form of hiding instead of dealing with the true nature of the issue, and I reject it."
`I was out of line'
Much of the reaction has come as a result of the whale's very public death on television, said Tom Colonnese, director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of Washington, and a member of the Santee Tribe of the Dakota Sioux Nation. The television image of the whale being harpooned and shot twice with a large-caliber rifle stirred up strong emotions.
"If people watched a film of someone killing an elk, or someone at a meat-packing plant slaughtering a steer or a lamb or a calf, they would be similarly appalled," Colonnese said.
Media-savvy anti-whaling activists, such as Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, have said all along the best strategy against the Makah hunt would be to let the world see the actual killing. Whatever people believed intellectually would be overpowered by the sheer drama of a public slaughter.
Some who wrote inflammatory letters to The Times, when challenged, denied any racist bent but admitted writing out of pure emotion. Steve Grimwood, who made derogatory remarks on the intelligence of Indians, later wrote: "I can see I was out of line. I was angry and reactionary. My apology for that. But they (the Makahs) need to be stopped. It sickens me to hear of this practice."
Jerry Rasmussen who wrote that he might don a U.S. Cavalry uniform to hunt Indians, later said, "I responded quite emotionally and without much thought."
Others, like Mark Morin of Redmond, however, said: "Yes, my comments are racist. But when the entire race of Indians support the killing of a whale, I guess anybody who opposes the hunt . . . suddenly finds themselves being a racist. I guess being a racist is not that bad when I consider the alternative."
And one writer who identified himself only as Tony said: "While it would bother me to be termed a racist, it bothers me more that whaling has resumed in the Pacific Northwest. If the Makah wish to label me a racist then I guess most of the country is racist against them."
Ted Kerasote, author of "Bloodties: Nature, Culture and the Hunt" (Random House), said the reaction to the Makah hunt reveals a particular hypocrisy in American culture. Many Americans publicly espouse diversity and multiculturalism, and even mouth support for the renaissance of indigenous cultures. But the moment a native community does something that "doesn't fit into our preconceived notions of who we want aboriginals to be," we threaten our wrath - the wrath of the majority.
One way to show wrath is by using stereotypes as a weapon of ridicule or rebuke. References to scalping and loincloths and tomahawks have gone unchecked in many public forums.
"Certainly some of the negative reactions have been expressed in terms that reveal the speakers' or writer's stereotypes of Indians, which are the foundation of racism," said Alexandra Harmon, assistant professor at the UW American Indian Studies Center. "There is an astonishing degree of insensitivity and ethnocentrism in one critic's claim that any culture that regains its pride by killing this way is displaying bloodthirsty savagery.
"Again and again in American history," said Harmon, "non-Indian Americans have demanded that Indians act or live in some way other than Indians have chosen. The current Makah story is a lesson about how hard it is to recognize and resist that same ethnocentric impulse today."
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