The Survival of Washington Indians

Makah whale hunts are a time-honored, spiritual custom. Whaling began at first light, when the Makah boarded canoes. They spotted their target at sea and monitored its breathing, preparing to strike. As the gray whale surfaced, a barb from the harpoon struck its shoulder blades. Sealskin floats secured to the harpoon line expanded. The great animal’s speed slowed; eventually it tired. After the final kill with a lance, a Makah sewed the whale’s mouth shut to keep the mammal from sinking. Upon its ceremonious return to the village, every part of the enormous creature would be used and celebrated—its oil, meat, bone and gut.

The only treaty in the United States that protects whaling was secured with Makah Indians in 1855. In 1929, the population of gray whale diminished and the Makah ceased its hunting. Then, on May 17, 1999, tribal members harvested their first whale in 70 years. The hunt triggered a backlash and court cases.

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On the beaches of Neah Bay ca. 1910, Makah capture a giant of the sea. The prized gray whale symbolizes the heart of Makah culture and a long history. In 1970, archeologists began an 11-year dig at the tribe’s ancient whaling village of Ozette. They uncovered 56,000 artifacts, including hunting equipment and whale bones dating back 2,000 years.