Patronizing the Makah Indians or portraying them as somehow not real Indians isn’t going to stop them from hunting gray whales. A more respectful approach would be to make them a better offer.
With the Makah Indian whale hunt back in the news this past week, also back is the flood of advice for the tribe.
The lecturing, finger-wagging advice.
“The tribe’s culture should evolve,” read a letter that ran in this newspaper. “Honoring whales through arts and storytelling is fine; sinking harpoons or bullets into protected marine mammals … is not.”
That was one of the nicer ones. Sort of a pat on the head compared to the typical comments posted online:
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“Wake up in your teepee, put on your buffalo skin, paddle out in your canoe and stick it with a wooden harpoon,” said one. “Until then, spare us the ‘spiritual existence’ nonsense.”
“Where in tribal heritage do casinos fit?” asked another.
“What is ceremonial about a 50-cal elephant gun, motor boats, winches, pickup trucks, chain saws and freezers?” read another.
Let’s set aside the ignorance and racist stereotyping (the Makahs didn’t use teepees and don’t have a casino — surprise, not all Indians are alike). What has always rankled me about the great Makah whaling debate isn’t that people are missing some easy right or wrong answer, but that it always seems to devolve into non-Indians telling Indians how to live.
I have sympathy for the argument that whales should no longer be hunted and killed. If society is moving to where it will no longer keep elephants in zoos, then it’s easy to see how whale-killing might not be with us forever.
There’s got to be a way to make this save-the-whales case without attacking the Makahs’ genuine cultural interest in hunting them. Or the tribe’s obvious right to adapt its traditions to the modern age.
Why do the Makahs have to pretend it’s 200 years ago when hunting whales? Nobody is demanding white people hunt pheasant with muzzleloaders.
Plus, if Washington state wildlife agents can go around shooting at wolves from helicopters — mistakenly killing the alpha wolf, as happened recently — then who are we to lecture anyone on the proper way to hunt?
Years ago, I spent a week with the Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska, during their fall bowhead whale hunt. They said this insistence by “outsiders” that they conform to some exotic savage image was a constant irritant in Native life.
“Why can’t we hold on to our traditional ways, but also take the best the Western world has to offer?” one Eskimo whaling captain put it to me. He had recently returned from New York City, where he had been overseeing a bond sale.
When I met a 9-year-old Inupiat boy who had just shot a polar bear, I admit I had difficulty squaring the intense animal-killing culture with my Seattle sensibilities. Shooting a polar bear is not something I would ever do, or let my own son do.
But as long as the hunting is regulated and not degrading the species, on what grounds do I object? Before or after I pick up my shrink-wrapped T-bone steak at the grocery store?
This is the conundrum of the Makahs’ gray whale hunt. It may feel wrong. But unless we start rolling back animal-killing elsewhere, then the animal-rights argument feels hypocritical. There’s no big biological issue, as gray whales are doing fine. So people either beg the Indians to change, or worse, scold them about their perceived cultural failings.
It’s a dead end. There is a contract — a treaty signed by the U.S. government that grants this one tribe, alone in the Lower 48 states, the right to hunt whales. When you’re in a binding contract you don’t like, you have two choices: Go along with it, or try to renegotiate.
The tribe gave up 450 square miles of land in that treaty — equal to about six Seattles. So no doubt the price would be dear, if they’d trade away whaling for any price.
But the patronizing of the tribe is a disgrace. Either we make good on the deal they were forced to sign. Or try making them a better offer.