The 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay could not be clearer: The U.S. government agreed the Makah Tribe, natives of the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, had “the right of taking fish and of whaling.”
Yet across nearly a century, the tribe has organized just one whale hunt, a much-protested outing in May 1999. Starting in the 1920s, the Makah stood down from whaling because of global over-harvest of whale populations. With the once-endangered Eastern North Pacific gray whale population now flourishing, the tribe should be allowed to resume the traditional, treaty-guaranteed hunts around which generations of Makah built a culture.
Species survival is no longer a reason to stop the Makah from hunting whales. Researchers estimate there are almost 27,000 Eastern North Pacific gray whales today, though the Western North Pacific population remains endangered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has tracked the status of these pods of whales for years and considers the current Eastern numbers approximately the maximum the habitat can sustain.
Throughout an extensive legal process that now awaits a federal administrative law judge’s decision, the Makah have agreed to exercise their right to hunt within guidelines. The tribe has conscientiously complied with years of federal requirements to get permits to restore these traditions.
An unsanctioned 2007 hunt by five Makah members drew swift tribal condemnation and federal prosecution. The Makah have consented to important restrictions in future hunting: taking no more than 20 whales over the next decade, planning hunt details to minimize the chance of harming endangered whales and using high-powered firearms to quickly end the suffering of harpooned whales.
Makah tribe members have responded to repeated requests to publicly explain the cultural importance of hunting whales. The tribe carries no legal responsibility to justify its traditions to outsiders, especially when permission to carry them out has been codified so explicitly. But to help the greater community understand the centrality of whale hunts to their tribal identity, Makah members have provided answers.
Requests that the Makah abandon whaling because neighbor tribes have done so smacks of racism, Makah treasurer Patrick DePoe said.
“To think that we’re all the same is just …,” DePoe said, shaking his head. “Those are our brothers and sisters down there, but we’re not Quileute. We’re Makah.”
DePoe sees public hearings and a likely federal court lawsuit by anti-whaling groups as the next required steps in the tribe’s long procedural path. After years of fighting the battle in court, even a hope the tribe’s next whale hunt will happen in 2021 seems optimistic, he said.
The treaty is clear. The obstruction should stop. Ever since federal courts ruled in 2004 that the Makah must follow federal policy to get whaling permits, the tribe has been a good-faith applicant. Opponents’ emotional attachment to protecting whales must not block this tribal right further. Archaeological evidence shows that generations of Makah have harpooned whales for centuries. Their descendants should be free to carry on this treaty-guaranteed tradition.