Should the Makah tribe resume whaling?

Will Anderson, who was the lead plaintiff in the 2002 case that sparked the current process, still opposes the hunt. He now runs a non-profit organization called Green Vegan and based in Seattle, and explains that his reasons are related to animal welfare, species conservation and his personal connection with them. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anderson spent several winters in the Baja California lagoons where gray whales give birth.

“I would go out with my kayak and float alongside them. I listened to them at night. I woke up and fell asleep with the breaths of whales just 15 meters from me,” he says. “Gray whales, and whales in general, opened me up to broader environmental issues, which became my life. »

Thanks to the “Save the Whales” campaign, the numerous reports on whales and their culture, and the growth of the observation industry of these mammals, the latter have become sacrosanct, whereas it is not is not the case with all the other animals hunted in the country, such as elk and salmon. Many opponents of whaling also oppose any form of whaling and see their opposition as simply the right thing to do to protect animal welfare.

However, other opponents consider whales to be different from other animals. Public comments on the Makah’s whaling project are filled with examples: “These whales have a name, have been studied for years by many marine biologists, and are loved by many people around the world,” wrote a commenter. According to another, they are “the intelligent and gentle giants of our oceans”. A third also wrote “Please protect these whales, they are special”.

It could also be argued that by creating a conservation movement through a rally against whaling, conservationists now have an obligation to protect the Makah from the return of flame when they want to hunt a population that is no longer in danger.

In recent years, some nonprofit conservation organizations have begun to do so, publicly supporting the Makah’s demand to resume their traditional activity. In 2021, the Sierra Club wrote “While the Sierra Club is generally opposed to the hunting and harassment of marine mammals, we recognize the importance of supporting subsistence hunting of native people. Whaling is an essential part of Makah cultural identity and is necessary for the tribe to fulfill its ceremonial, spiritual and subsistence needs. »

In 2020, Sally Jewell, acting CEO of the Nature Conservancy and former United States Secretary of the Interior, wrote : “The Makah people have been good stewards of their resources: the forests, the coasts and the Pacific Ocean have shaped their culture and sustained it for thousands of years. I respectfully request that you honor the Makah Tribal Nation’s treaty right to hunt gray whales.”

“We’re very happy to have gotten to a point where they’re actually willing to support us in writing,” says Greene, who wants members of the public who are advocating for social justice to also support Makah rights. “If you really believe in racial equality and environmental justice, these treaties should be honored,” he argues.

Nowadays, talking about tribal sovereignty gives a good image to conservationists. But genuinely supporting the right of Indigenous nations to manage their own affairs means doing it all the way, even when they do things they wouldn’t accept, like killing and eating a hugely charismatic and popular sea mammal.

The Makah ask permission to practice a cultural hunt of only a few whales a year. In 1855, when Chief Ćaqa·wiƛ made sure to reserve the right to hunt whales, he was not doing so for purely spiritual reasons.

According to Reid, who studied the history of the tribe for his book The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs published in 2015, “the Makah were selling [plus de 100 000 litres] of whale oil to non-natives per year in the 1850s, and they kept [100 000 litres] extra for their own use and for trade with neighboring tribes. That’s about twenty-six whales a year. This is what Ćaqa·wiƛ thought it was protecting.

More broadly, treaty-making government authorities made racist assumptions about their negotiating partners, viewing all Native Americans as living in “subsistence” economies. Treaty rights have therefore been interpreted as protecting “subsistence” harvest levels. But many tribes, including the Makah, were regional economic players, harvesting enough for themselves and for trade or sale. They did not live on little. They were doing well. “They were taking enough to have a good life,” Reid says.

Tribes generally harvested more resources than just the “subsistence” level, but not so much that they could not continue to harvest in the future. “They were doing it under an entirely different system, based on relationships: if we take care of them, they will feed us,” Reid explains. “I imagine at some point in history there was a steep learning curve to get to this system of reciprocity. » A more « originalist » interpretation of many treaties would be to understand that they protect the rights of exploitation commercial natural resources. But the Makah absolutely do not seek not to hunt whales for commercial purposes. Their goal is simply to be themselves.


The new NOAA report, which is technically a “Supplementary Environmental Impact Study Project”, builds on an earlier project by incorporating information on a “unusual mortality event” occurred in 2019 that saw more than 100 gray whales stranded and died on the west coast of the United States. It also takes into consideration a ruling recommended by Administrative Law Judge George J. Jordan released in 2021 after a 2019 hearing on the matter. In her decision, Jordan recommended that NOAA grant the tribe an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Taking such a limited number of whales would, according to the judge, have “no significant impact” on the population of gray whales in question, and “little effect on the ecosystem”.

Now that the report has been released, a public comment period will be followed by a final Environmental Impact Statement and then the final decision. The whaling license will likely need to be renewed every three years, and the whole process repeated every ten years for the exemption to remain valid. The tribe would like to see a legislative exemption added to the law, like the one already in place for native Alaskan communities, which allows them to hunt marine mammals for subsistence or “for the purpose of create and sell authentic native crafts and clothing.

At the end of the Shi Shi trail, I emerge from the forest and discover a crescent of sand and driftwood and, beyond, the sea: a great blue-green expanse, the skin of a cold kingdom of kelp, halibut and whales. If it was once the undisputed country of the Makah, it is today a place where values ​​on the relations of humanity clash: between nations, but also between species.

Should the Makah tribe resume whaling?