The Great American Whale Hunt

As a Washington state Indian tribe prepares to revive a whale-hunting tradition, multiculturists and environmentalists fight over whether it’s more important to save whales or Indian culture, and a 30-year global trend against killing whales will likely end. The reasons? A quest for cultural identity, the allure of foreign money, and political friends in high places.

Image: Karen Moskowitz

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During the summer of 1996, in Neah Bay, off the northwesternmost tip of the United States, a member of the Makah Indian tribe named Dan Greene hauled in a baby gray whale that he said had drowned in one of his fishing nets. Greene towed the 15-foot whale to a local beach, where Makah families poured out of their homes to take a look.

It was a fortuitous time to catch the whale, since the Makah, at the urging of Greene and a handful of others, were planning to start hunting them. Or, more accurately, restart hunting them, since the Makah had whaled up until the early 20th century, stopping after commercial fishing had made the whales all but extinct. Now they have decided to start again, and a few of the tribe’s more enthusiastic members wanted to use this opportunity to practice eating their catch.

There was just one problem: None of the Makah knew what to do with a dead whale. Eventually, an Eskimo visiting from Alaska showed the men how to peel back the whale’s skin and blubber before carving the meat beneath. Soon enough, a hefty package of whale meat was given to every member of the tribe who wanted it. Depending on whom you ask, the meat was either eagerly consumed or discreetly discarded in the town dump.

Now the Makah are preparing to send a canoe of eight men into the bay this October to hunt the Pacific gray whale during its fall migration. One hunter will carry a gun that shoots massive, .50-caliber bullets and will put the harpooned whale out of its suffering. Tracking the Makah’s every move will likely be a swarm of media helicopters, a flotilla of protesters, and an even larger phalanx of law enforcement and government officials trying to ensure that whales are the only ones that get hurt. Away from the desolate bay, the hunt, which is being challenged in court by a Washington state congressman, also raises questions about whether it will lead to an erosion of international bans on whaling, and about the White House’s curious role in supporting — and funding — it. This year the government gave the Makah $75,000 in aid for the hunt, adding up to a total of $335,000 over the past three years.

All this from a tribe that wants to whale but doesn’t even know how.

The road to Neah Bay, Washington, five hours west of Seattle, is filled with wicked curves and abrupt turns and ends at the reservation, which is dominated by wooded cliffs, a long beach, and a seemingly peaceful bay. With a population of about 2,000, the town of Neah Bay is dominated by prefab homes and trailers. Unemployment on the reservation hovers around 55 percent. Drugs and alcohol are also nagging problems, along with the kind of juvenile petty crimes that afflict any small town where tedium can mutate into violence. But conditions are not as bleak as they are on many Indian reservations. There is no abject poverty. There are Federal Express deliveries, two cafés, two small motels, a modern supermarket, and a roadside espresso stand.

It’s estimated that the Makah have lived in Neah Bay for at least 4,000 years, but Alberta Thompson, a Makah elder, says simply that the Makah have been there “forever.” Thompson is 74, and these days she feels her age. Arthritis has settled into her joints, and when she walks she steps gingerly, like a woman on a ledge. She wears glasses and is almost blind in one eye. Thompson is one of the few Makah — perhaps the only one — willing to speak out against the whale hunt. “I have been harassed time and time again,” she says, criticized by fellow Makah in the press and pressured not to talk to outsiders.

For most of their existence, the Makah hunted whales. They used the meat for food, the blubber for oil, and the bones to make tools. The last Makah whale hunt, according to a 1974 book by Ruth Kirk and Richard D. Daugherty, titled Hunters of the Whale, took place in 1910. But others say 1926, and the date will probably remain uncertain, since there are no Makah alive who can remember it, and written documentation of Makah history is scant.

In 1994, the tribe’s petition to remove the gray whale from the endangered species list was finally accepted by the government, after the Makah pointed out that while there were only 12,000 gray whales in the world when the animal was placed on the list in 1969, the whale population had since grown to more than 22,000. By 1995, the Makah Tribal Council, the tribe’s five-member ruling body, informed the U.S. government that the Makah intended to start hunting again.

The tribal council pointed to an 1855 treaty in which the Makah ceded thousands of acres of land to the United States but explicitly retained the right to whale — the only American Indian tribe to possess that right. “We had our treaty,” says John McCarty, the former executive director of the tribe’s whaling commission. “And our treaty gives us the right to whale.” Noting that whale meat is a delicacy in Japan, Greene told tribal leaders, according to Thompson, that a single gray whale could be sold to the Japanese for $500,000, a substantial amount of money for the small tribe.

“Selling the whale was a thought,” concedes McCarty. “And I’ll be honest with you. Selling the whale could be very, very advantageous to the tribe.” Thompson says the whale hunt was Greene’s idea: “He decided that we should go whaling because there would be money in it.” Greene did not return phone calls for this story.

So the Makah told the U.S. government of their plans to hunt. And, surprisingly, they found an ally.

The fight to save the whales is supposed to be one of environmentalism’s great successes, and it has become such a cliché you can’t even find it on bumper stickers anymore. But the battle over whaling has really never been won, and has certainly never ended. As whale populations have started to rebound, whaling nations have argued that modern hunting can be more scientific, that whale “takes” could be managed and sustainable.

This line of reasoning leaves whaling opponents with a more philosophical argument: The whale is a higher form of animal, too intelligent and communicative to kill. That also doesn’t wash with the whalers, who respond that whales are like any other animal, and opposition to hunting them is an example of Western cultural imperialism. Is killing a whale so much worse than fattening, drugging, and confining a calf in a stall so that restaurants can offer a tender piece of veal? Such arguments have anti-whalers on the defensive. “Things are deteriorating,” says Gerry Leape, legislative director for Greenpeace.

The organization at the center of the worldwide fight over whaling is the International Whaling Commission, founded by whaling nations in 1949 to manage the “harvesting” of whales. It didn’t work: The world’s whale population shrank until several whale species were nearly extinct. As the populations dwindled, the number and influence of anti-whaling nations within the IWC grew, and its emphasis shifted from whale hunting to whale preservation.

The United States has long been one of commercial whaling’s most ardent and eloquent foes; it was largely because of U.S. pressure that the IWC passed a worldwide commercial whaling moratorium in 1986. It was a huge victory for environmentalists, but an incomplete one. The moratorium, for one thing, didn’t end all whaling. Norway exploits a provision that allows it to kill hundreds of minke whales annually. Japan also kills several hundred whales a year, feeding a booming demand from upscale restaurants for whale meat by classifying certain hunts as “scientific whaling.”

The only other exceptions granted were for “aboriginal subsistence,” which exempted specific aboriginal peoples, such as Alaskan Eskimos and Siberian Chuktchis, who have a history of eating whale meat and a clear need for the food. Even to environmentalists who hated the thought of any whales being killed, the logic was hard to refute: These aboriginal communities couldn’t take enough whales to harm whale populations, and they needed the meat to survive.

At the turn of the century, the Makah would surely have met the IWC criteria for an aboriginal whaling quota. But at the moment, they clearly do not. First, the Makah have survived for most of this century without whale meat. Second, the traditional IWC definition of aboriginal subsistence whaling requires that a community have a “continuing” tradition of hunting and eating whales. The Makah have had at least a 70-year period without such activity. Surely, they don’t qualify for the exemption.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the Commerce Department, helps set U.S. policy toward whaling and represents the United States with the IWC. For decades, it has been sympathetic to anti-whaling groups, working closely and sharing information with their representatives at annual meetings.

Yet NOAA was receptive to the Makah’s request — with just one qualification. “We made it very clear from the very beginning of their discussions that we could never support any proposal that had a commercial element,” says D. James Baker, the head of NOAA. The Makah agreed to the stipulation: They would not hunt whales in order to sell the meat — though they insist they have the right to do so, and might revisit the prospect in the future.

With the profit motive moot, the Makah’s stated rationale for the hunt shifted to historic preservation. Explains Makah tribal chair Ben Johnson, “The whale hunt will not only bring the community together, but it enriches our culture.”

Once the Makah agreed not to sell the meat, Baker granted the tribe $200,000 in NOAA funds to help establish a whaling commission and prepare for the hunt. And, in the summer of 1996, Baker traveled to Aberdeen, Scotland, to argue at the IWC meeting that the Makah should be allotted an annual whale quota on the basis of subsistence need and cultural survival.

IWC meetings are usually contentious, but that year’s meeting was reportedly feistier than most. If the Makah had a subsistence need, opponents said, then so did aboriginal peoples around the world who also had not whaled for decades. Already, representatives from Canadian tribes were proclaiming that they intended to follow the Makah’s lead. The United States, environmentalists pointed out, was broadening the definition of aboriginal subsistence whaling in a way that could undermine the whale-hunting moratorium.

The IWC’s dryly written meeting report speaks volumes about the extent of opposition to the United States’ plea: “France… asked how subsistence requirements could arise after 70 years of non-whaling.… The Netherlands expressed concern at the widening of the scope of whaling activities…. The People’s Republic of China…regretted that the request was not completely in accordance with the IWC definition of aboriginal subsistence…. Oman asked why the Makah, who had survived without whaling for 70 years, could not continue to survive without whaling…. Australia questioned whether IWC nutritional subsistence criteria had been met…. Chile expressed its doubts…. The People’s Republic of China and New Zealand had similar concerns on continuity and need, a position shared by Mexico….”

Japan, however, “commended the USA’s presentation and expressed understanding of the welfare of the Makah.” Meanwhile, the reported coziness between the Makah and the Japanese delegation aroused the suspicions of the anti-whaling groups — Sea Shepherd, PAWS — that believed the Japanese had either put the Makah up to the hunt, or were covertly backing them.

After all, in 1996, the year of that conference, Japan and Norway had kicked in at least $20,000, according to the Seattle Times, to help start a pro-whaling group, the World Council of Whalers, just across the strait from Neah Bay in British Columbia. Even if the Japanese couldn’t immediately buy the Makah’s whale meat, the hunt was one more assault on the whaling moratorium.

Opposition to the U.S. was so vehement that Baker withdrew the Makah proposal, announcing that he would bring it up at the next IWC meeting, in Monaco in 1997.

Why had NOAA decided to support the Makah hunt in the first place? Whaling, Baker says, “has always been a part of their culture.” Even though they haven’t whaled for more than 70 years? “They have occasionally come upon stranded whales and have had no problems dealing with those, butchering them, and sharing them with various members of the tribe,” Baker insists, incorrectly. In any case, is the memory of the whale in a tribe’s artistic culture enough to satisfy IWC requirements for aboriginal subsistence whaling, including the criteria for continuing nutritional need? Baker says yes.

What is clear is that the Makah’s treaty right allowing them to whale put the government in an awkward position, torn between an international moratorium and a historical treaty. Which took precedence? NOAA didn’t want to test either one. Challenge the whaling moratorium, and the agency would ignite international fury, not to mention the wrath of domestic environmental groups. But contest the Makah’s treaty, and it would risk a political firestorm from all American Indians, all of whom live under similar treaties with the federal government. Says one source close to the U.S. delegation at the time, “One hundred percent of the U.S. decision to back these guys was based on the U.S. not wanting to be in court.”

The issue was sensitive enough for Baker to seek a sign-off from the White House — specifically, according to several sources, the Council on Environmental Quality in the office of the president. Elliot Diringer, spokesman for the council, confirms that “the vice president was kept apprised.” According to Diringer, “The way things generally work is that agencies proceed and keep us advised of what they’re doing, and if somebody feels a course adjustment is needed, they let it be known.”

So Baker proceeded with what became NOAA’s strategy: the argument that, in fact, there is no conflict between the Makah’s treaty right and the moratorium on whaling because the Makah are a legitimate candidate for the aboriginal subsistence exemption.

At the IWC meeting in Monaco in 1997, the U.S. tried again, this time succeeding. In a “fact sheet” handed out by NOAA, the agency presented its case: “Subsistence hunting includes far more than physical survival. It is a way of life that includes historical practices and is the cultural ‘glue’ that holds the Tribe together.” That definition surprised many who were present.

“If you set a precedent that changes the standard for the meaning of aboriginal whaling so that it becomes simply a cultural need, where do you draw the line?” asks one American observer. “Somebody tells me that Japanese whaling is not cultural? Bullshit. Of course it is. This [precedent] was what the whalers wanted.”

Under pressure from the American delegation, the IWC accepted a secretly negotiated plan under which the Makah would be allotted a kill of up to four whales a year, out of nine attempts.

When the Makah heard the news, McCarty says, the tribe erupted in celebration. “People stopped all their work, they got in their cars, honking their horns like someone got married. It was like winning the Super Bowl.”

This is a fight that has shattered traditional political alignments. Liberals in Washington state have been quiet about the Makah hunt, perhaps finding it uncomfortable to criticize an Indian tribe that claims to be fighting for its cultural survival. Greenpeace says it opposes the hunt but doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it. A spokesman for the Sierra Club says, in the tortured language of politics, “At this point, the Sierra Club has decided to take a position of not opposing the whaling rights of the Makah tribe.”

But the Makah are still exposed to attacks from one of their longtime foes, Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.), who has filed suit in the District Court of Washington, D.C., to stop the hunt, challenging that NOAA’s new policy violates the government’s own environmental laws.

Metcalf, however, is an unlikely environmentalist — he’s a supporter of the “property rights” movement and receives low ratings from green groups in Washington, D.C. And Metcalf does have a long history of opposing American Indian rights. “The United States government,” Metcalf says, “[is] biased in favor of giving Indians special rights. I just disagree with that.”

His beliefs can be traced to his childhood. Metcalf’s father was a commercial fisherman who bought land on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, east of Neah Bay, just before the Depression hit, and then had to work 18-hour days to keep it. Metcalf grew up and became a public school teacher with some ardently conservative — some would say far-right — beliefs (he has, for example, written a book calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve).

Metcalf, 70, and his wife of 50 years, Norma, built their house on his father’s land, using trees from the property. Pulling into the driveway of that home, which they have converted into a bed-and-breakfast, it’s easy to pass right by the congressman. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, he is bent over, hoeing a row of corn. Lanky and white-haired, Metcalf ambles over and offers a dirty hand through the car window.

Elected to Congress in 1994, he was the oldest member of the Republican freshman class of ’94, and among its most conservative. In 1996 he retained his seat by a narrow margin, and this year he’s running against a bona fide political celebrity: Democrat Margarethe Cammermeyer, a former officer expelled from the Army for being a lesbian whose story became a TV movie starring Glenn Close. Cammermeyer’s Hollywood connections — Close and Barbra Streisand have thrown fundraising bashes for her — are helping her amass a campaign war chest likely to top $1 million.

Metcalf’s aides admit that they hope the Makah issue can peel away some Democratic voters disaffected by her noncommittal stance. According to her press secretary, J.R. Baker, Cammermeyer “really hasn’t taken a position” on the hunt. “It’s a hot-button issue, and we’re trying to stay away from hot-button issues,” Baker explains, pointing out that the Makah aren’t even in Metcalf’s district.

Asked why he’s fighting the Makah, Metcalf tells a story of how once, as a young man, while fishing with his father, they drifted among a pod of orcas. (Later, while doing a news database search, I found the same story, almost verbatim, in several other articles.)

Walking along the beach, Metcalf talks about the fishing he loves when, without warning, he bends down and plunges his arms into the wet sand up to the elbows. Burrowing with his hands, he throws chunks of sand behind him, like a kid building a sand castle. Finally he reaches out, holding up a shrimp, 5 or 6 inches long, with one short pincer and one long one waving frantically. Couldn’t eat them, he says, though the flesh makes good bait. He then gives the shrimp a yank with both hands and tears it in half to show its pulpy meat. Without breaking his stride, he tosses the two halves onto the beach; the top half continues to squirm on the sand as he strolls away.

“The whaling would certainly relieve the boredom of a few young Makah people,” Metcalf says. Even if his suit fails, he believes the Makah will face a backlash. “In the long run, the tribe will lose.”

On one wall of the Makah Cultural and Research Center sits a small glass case that contains whaling tools — hooks and rope — and a plaque describing how the Makah used to hunt whales. The Makah men, “noted for their ability as fishermen and hunters,” are even “more noted for their exploits as whale hunters.”

In the past, young men underwent special rituals to purify themselves, and would then set out in long cedar canoes. “Whale hunting utilized almost every technical skill possessed by the Makah.” When a whale was sighted, the bowman would stand and throw a 16-foot-long harpoon, hooked with two barbs at the end so that it could not exit the whale’s flesh without causing great gashes. Attached to each harpoon was a rope connected to a sealskin bag, a flotation device to track the whale and make it harder for the animal to dive. Once the animal died, a Makah would dive into the water and sew its mouth shut, so that it would not fill with water and sink before it was towed back to land.

Today, hunting methods are different. The .50-caliber gun was the suggestion of a veterinarian advising the Makah on how to be as humane as possible. “The bullet is from the tip of your thumb to the end of your fingernail, and if you’ve got a big thumb, it’s as round as your thumb,” says McCarty. “One time there was a beached whale and he wasn’t very old, like 23, 26 feet, only a day or two after he died. A really fresh one. And we shot the whale with this big gun, and we’d dig into the whale and see what happened. There were a couple bullets we couldn’t find and a couple shattered bones and the one [bullet] in the skull [made] a big cavity that was 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep. The veterinarian said that would either stun or kill the whale immediately.”

Of course, the Makah don’t want to resuscitate all of their heritage. Nowhere at the Cultural and Research Center does it mention, for example, that the same 1855 treaty that preserved the tribe’s right to whale also prevented them from owning slaves, which they had up until that time. It’s easy to romanticize the story of their ancestors conquering the whale, of primitive man slaying the wild beast.

McCarty’s 27-year-old son, Micah, will be among the eight hunters, and he says that, to prepare, he has been canoeing several hours a day for months and participating in rituals he won’t describe to an outsider. He grew up living on and off the reservation, attending high school in Olympia, Washington. “I never felt that my soul could be happy participating in that arena,” he says. “I couldn’t see myself going to work knowing that my earnings will go to an establishment that is trying to destroy our culture.”

At 19, Micah returned to Neah Bay and has lived there ever since, designing tattoos and carving Indian-themed gifts. Yet even on the reservation, about as removed from American society as any culture existing on American soil can be, he feels the need to resist the “white man’s” world and believes that the whale hunt, somehow, will help keep it all at bay. “Bringing this whale back into the culture,” he says, “will save us from being swallowed up.”


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