Q: Why do the Makah want to whale? A: The Makah people have hunted whales for more than 2,000 years. The tribe voluntarily suspended that...
Q: Why do the Makah want to whale?
A: The Makah people have hunted whales for more than 2,000 years. The tribe voluntarily suspended that tradition in the 1920s after worldwide hunting by Europeans and other non-Indians put the mammals at risk of extinction.
In the 1970s, an archaeological dig unearthed thousands of artifacts from the tribe’s whaling past and resuscitated the tribe’s interest in its history and culture. Some Makah now suggest the tribe would benefit from whaling because it would provide discipline, while whale meat would be a healthy part of the tribal diet.
Q: Do they have a right to whale?
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A: The Makah are the only Indian tribe in the country whose right to whale is explicitly written in a treaty. In 1855 the tribe ceded most of its ancestral lands to the U.S. in return for certain rights, including the right to fish, hunt and whale in its usual and accustomed areas. The tribe accepted a relatively small reservation, in part, because it was on the sea that provided much of its food.
Q: Are there rules governing Makah whaling?
A: Makah whaling is governed by tribal, federal and international laws.
• A tribal management plan restricts where and how whales may be hunted. Whalers who killed a gray whale Sept. 8, 2007, broke the restrictions: They didn’t have a permit; they used a motorboat instead of a canoe; they hunted in an area set aside for resident whales. They also did not quickly kill the whale. Instead, the animal, harpooned and shot multiple times, took about 10 hours to die.
• In a deal with the U.S., the International Whaling Commission has set a quota of five gray whales a year — totaling no more than 20 over five years — for Makah subsistence hunting. The Makah may not sell the meat commercially and must demonstrate a shortage of whale meat on the reservation before each hunt.
• The federal government has an agreement with the tribe that prohibits killing mother whales or suckling calves, among other restrictions.
Q: If the U.S. government is anti-whaling, how did it wind up managing whale hunting?
A: The U.S. rests its support for Makah whaling on three pillars: the treaty, the tribe’s whaling culture, and science. Killing five whales a year is not believed to harm the overall population of gray whales, which were removed from the endangered-species list in 1994.
The tribe first asked the federal government for support in obtaining a quota of gray whales from the International Whaling Commission in 1995. The tribe in 1999 legally hunted its first whale in more than 70 years.
However, because of a court decision, the Makah now need an exemption from the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to whale legally. The tribe is still pursuing that waiver and has voiced optimism that it will get it.