Editor’s note: Because the Makah reservation is closed to outsiders, tribal members reported their experiences by phone and provided their own photos and video from behind the barricade.
The coronavirus quarantine checkpoint went up at the entrance to the Makah Indian Reservation March 16: For the Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx or People who Live by the Rocks and Seagulls, it was time to protect themselves once more from the outside world.
Numbering about 5,400 before contact, diseases brought by Europeans began ravaging the Makah as early as about 1775, and a smallpox epidemic beginning in 1853 killed three quarters of their people, historian Joshua Reid reports in his book, The Sea is My Country. Now, with not a single ventilator or hospital bed on the reservation, isolation is the tribe’s only protection against this newest pandemic. As other governments dithered over the virus, the Makah tribal council imposed the first stay-at-home order in the state, and backed it with a $500 per violation fine. That was after they shut down the public dock, and closed the reservation to outsiders, 24/7.
“MAKAH REZ CLOSED LOCALS ONLY” say the lights of the highway sign rolled into place by the side of the two-lane road, the only way in or out of the reservation. Security staff stop every vehicle to determine if the trip is allowed. Is it essential? Is it an authorized delivery or repair? The name of every traveler and purpose of each trip is recorded in a log.
Neah Bay is a small fishing village fringed with basic RV parks and modest homes. About 1,700 of the tribe’s 3,000 members live here. There isn’t a single elevator or traffic light on the reservation. The town quickly gives way to forests, and the sea stacks and sea caves of Cape Flattery, where the Pacific crashes into the westernmost end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While always a place of remove, with the council’s orders the reservation suddenly became even more isolated.
By phone, nearly a dozen Makah tribal members talked recently about their lives behind the line for more than a month now — and with the stay-at-home order in place until at least May 15, probably longer. By now, old habits of self reliance have new meaning. Many also said while closing the reservation has its hardships, there is a sweetness in once again having their home lands and waters to themselves. Theirs is a fortress of sea and sky and natural plenitude. It always has been.
“I want the sea. That is my country,” a head chief told U.S. treaty negotiators in 1855, Reid recounts. Living on a remote finger of land jutting into the Pacific since time immemorial, people here are long used to going it alone. It is not uncommon for windstorms barreling in from the Pacific to topple trees or mudslides to close the only road in and out.
Families seem to be taking the stay-at-home order as well as the barricade deadly seriously. Birthday parties, Sundays spent with grandparents, big ceremonial gatherings for namings, memorials — all are canceled.
Gone too are the tourists that normally would flock to enjoy the beaches, surf, pack the RV parks and motels, and pound over the waves in search of halibut and other sport fish.
The RV parks are deserted, and the fishing boats all still tied up in the harbor. As if it were still winter.
With all that has changed in everyone’s world, much about being here is the same as always: The sound of the wind and waves rolling in from the Pacific, the rituals of gathering sea urchins and mussels from the beach, and cutting firewood for the elders. The hypnotic tolling of the bell buoy in the harbor, and the snick of a carver’s knife through cedar.
At the heart of the tribal council’s order was the urgency of protecting Makah elders, the community’s source of leadership and cultural continuity.
“I would rather be allowed to have a discussion with an elder in the future and know that it was because of our sacrifice that I am able to have that conversation. That is how I am looking at it,” said Greg Colfax, a nationally known carver who right now has more time than usual for his work.
His wife has decamped to her cabin on the Bogachiel River, to ensure at least one of them survives if the disease strikes. The motel and wood-fired pizza restaurant they own is closed because of the pandemic. “It is just something all of us have to do,” said Colfax, 72.
He fully supports the council’s decision to close the reservation. “To sacrifice a little bit now to help everyone else is our duty. Life is worth more than a job,” Colfax said.
It seems to be working: so far not a single case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has been reported on the reservation.
“Our isolation has really been one of our great strengths,” Colfax said. “We carried the burden of having lost so many people. But we survived and we were able to thrive. We never left the ocean. And I think that is one of our great strengths as well.”
Food has been at the center of the community’s security during this pandemic. Gathering it, cooking it, and sharing it.
Isabell Ides grew up spending time with her grandmother, and learning how to smoke fish, can and preserve food and gather traditional medicines. “We have preserved our cultural and traditional ways enough that we go pick nettle, dig clams, and get mussels,” Ides said. “Those are just normal things we do here.”
Her grandmother, a legendary basket weaver, lived through tuberculosis. “She was an incredibly strong woman, and that is what’s really held me together through this,” Ides said. “That is what’s true for a lot of our community members, they remember that inherent strength, we have that, we were taught it by our elders.”
For school superintendent Michelle Parkin, the closure means house-to-house distribution of both breakfast and lunch for more than 400 students.
“We really looked at our kitchen as Ground Zero,” Parkin said of the community’s schools. Providing meals was a way to promote the shelter-in-place order, so families with a child in the home would not have to go out for food, Parkin said. “We wanted an environment of continuity for the children. In a world that was changing we wanted to make sure they knew that delivery bus was coming through.”
Anthony Rascon was teaching geometry to seventh-graders when all the schools closed.
Teaching remotely on a reservation with little broadband outside the center of Neah Bay has been challenging, Rascon said. Teachers have had to scramble to remake lessons and pre-load them on tablets for some students without an internet connection. But this is a community that knows how to take care of its own, said Rascon, whose great grandparents gave the land the school sits on.
“We are in a great place for a pandemic, so far away from any civilization,” Rascon said. “Surviving without any support is what we have done for millennia and we have a whole ocean to harvest if we need to. Our freezers are always full, if we have to we can always eat salmon and halibut. Oh, darn.”
Turning back the clock
For many, the reservation right now is a lot more like they remember it when they were kids. When he finishes a day of meetings over the internet, tied to the computer screen all day, tribal chairman Timothy Greene is grateful to walk Hobuck Beach and find it quiet, with just local families.
“We certainly appreciate the jobs and the income from the tourism,” said Greene, whose father brought him back to the reservation when he was 3 years old. “But for us to be able to connect to those areas that we have given up to visitors, that has been truly remarkable and special to a lot of people in the community, I am one of them.
“That is what we are seeing now. There is an economic loss but there is that much greater cultural and social gain for the community.”
Other Washington tribes also have sinceclosed their reservations to visitors, including the Hoh, the Quileute and the Quinault. But few have the advantage of geographic isolation quite like the Makahs. An isolation that has always been critical to the tribe in maintaining more of the old ways, and exercising its sovereignty.
“Being able to limit visitation is something we can do,” Greene said. “That is what it came down to for our people. They understood we live in a unique place and we have a bounty of natural resources and when we return to normal, we can get things back up and running.”
Carver Micah McCarty recently moved back to the reservation from Olympia, and is working as a full-time artist and living in his late father’s house out by the beach, with his wife and five children.
“I am trying not to be a starving artist. There are no galleries, no festivals to sell at, a huge part of my market has disappeared,” said McCarty, carving a kingfisher from red cedar as he spoke on the phone. He had just hassled through an online payment, now that all his sales are over the internet. He is feeling the economic hardship of the closure — but also thinks nothing is more important than the community’s safety. All the Makah living today are descended from the survivors of the last time disease stalked their people.
His late father’s house stands at the Makah village of Ba’adah. “If you go over the gene pool from the five villages, the smallest one, with hardly anyone left was Ba’adah.” McCarty said.
“All those beaches is where the Ba’adah people walked to die. I just pray we all get through this well.”