Just over 20 years ago, the Makah Indian Tribe asserted its treaty rights by hunting a gray whale off the Washington coast. Although the whale hunt was successful, it was followed by an unsuccessful hunt the next year, and by a “rogue” (federally unauthorized) hunt in 2007, which led to arrest and jail terms for Makahs who were involved. Approval of another authorized hunt has been tied up in the courts and the environmental permit process since then.
The whale hunt has been problematic for the U.S. environmental movement, which tends to see whales as iconic animals that deserve to be treated as equal to human beings, and, on the other hand, promotes an image of traditional Native American culture in exemplary harmony with nature.
Les Beldo, who describes himself as “a cultural anthropologist specializing in morality, science, and the environment,” interviewed various Makah tribal members in 2011. In his initial chapter, he gives a sense of the complexity of the issue for the Makahs. While whaling is projected as a spiritual revival for the Makah Tribe, Makah spirituality is by nature personal and private, and varies among tribal members. Historically, many Makah families were not whalers, and many Makahs initially opposed reviving the whale hunt. Because of this, Beldo argues that the idea that “the revival of whaling represented a ‘return’ to traditional practice and a ‘reaffirmation’ of Makah identity” is “overly simplistic.”
However, Makahs who initially were not supportive of whaling came to defend the whale hunt as an expression of their hard-won treaty rights. The right to fish had been ignored by the state government and fought by white fishermen in Washington until the Boldt decision in the 1970s affirmed that right. Similar opposition to Makah whaling united most of the tribe — because it was important to defend their treaty rights and to make their own decisions about exercising those rights.
Beldo gives an appearance of impartiality in his description of Makah culture and the range of their spiritual and practical feelings about whaling. However, his descriptions of the culture of anti-whaling activists are clearly weighted toward the positive. His understanding is mostly based on only two leaders of the anti-whaling protests, Margaret and Chuck Owens, who live in Joyce, Washington — in contrast to the variety of Makahs he interviewed. Beldo sees the Owens’ activism as rising mainly from their beliefs in the intelligence and “majesty” they see in whales, rather than them being “moved to act by racist impulses or by misguided ideas about cultural authenticity.”
Beldo doesn’t explore the question of whether white activists using political protest and legal actions (rather than, say, respectful discussion and negotiation) against a colonized and dispossessed Indian tribe is itself evidence of a colonial mentality. Do white people have a right to decide for the tribe how they express their culture? If the U.S. treaty with the Makahs gives them the right to hunt and eat whales, what moral standing do white Americans have in opposing that treaty right, especially since the ability of the Makahs to hunt whales is already circumscribed by federal regulations?
Beldo’s treatment of the “state,” to him embodied by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), is even more problematic, and, based on the language he uses, is quite hostile. He describes the NMFS’ attitude toward whale management as a “harvest mentality” — in that it uses words such as “stock” and “harvest,” rather than discussing whales as subjects or individuals. While there’s much to complain about in “scientific” approaches to environmental issues, particularly in the way they tend to minimize some environmental impacts, the use of scientific terms and discourse by agencies like the NMFS does provide a common ground of basic facts to discuss polarized political issues, something that has been lacking in much recent political discourse.
Beldo further criticizes the NMFS for refusing to address anti-whaling activists’ moral issues with whaling, forcing them to fight the issue on the question of whether the local population of gray whales is threatened by the hunt, rather than on whether whales have an intrinsic right not to be hunted.
The Makahs, of course, also have to adapt their spiritual and political beliefs about whales and whaling to NMFS’ discourse, but, as Beldo points out, the fisheries management model (which is also used by NMFS to discuss whales) is actually fairly compatible with the Makahs’ approach, which seems grounded in an intimate understanding of the natural systems around them.
In an elliptical and somewhat poetic way, Beldo wonders if the gray whale could ever become a subject, rather than the object of conflict, and speak for itself. An impatient reader might have the impulse to refer him to a wildlife biologist, or to discuss whether Makahs killing an occasional gray whale is worse than the havoc wrought by orca whales on the gray whale migration every year, not to mention the impacts on whales caused by our own industrial civilization. “Contesting Leviathan” provides some interesting details about the controversy, but its approach to the issue ultimately obscures more than it illuminates.
Read the full Mar. 4-10 issue.
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