NINETEEN Identity and Consequences

We moored now off Neah Bay, the most north-western tip of the United States and part of the Makah Reservation. The Captain is of the view that my sitting below reading The Waste Land day after day is changing who I am – so I have been dragged up. Nice though it is on deck and sunny, I have a worry. The Captain invested heavily in maple syrup before we departed Seattle and I am sure that the slight tilt in the deck is not unconnected. Still, we have a continent to explore and the concentrated energy – around 270 calories per 100 grams – will come in handy.

But the Captain is right. To immerse oneself in poetic constructs as powerful as those of TS Eliot is to risk losing a sense of self – the value of which is being demonstrated daily by the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainians. For my own part, being of Welsh heritage and schooled by the Urdd Gobaith Cymru, I have seen inside one struggle for nationhood, culture, and language. The many Tribes of indigenous America, oppressed, dispossessed and persecuted as Manifest Destiny took their lives and their lands have – and are – fighting their own long battle for their identities.

(In parentheses – magnificently, at the peak of their existential struggle in the nineteenth century, they still had compassion to spare. As the potato famine swept Ireland unalleviated: the Choctaw Nation knowing its own Trail of Tears sent all they could – $170 – to the Irish to buy food. Equally magnificently, when the Navajo and Hopi Tribes were suffering particularly badly during the covid epidemic – also unalleviated by the authorities – the Irish donated some $3 million for masks and medicines).

The Choctaw Memorial in Midleton, Cork, Ireland

The Makah are a Tribe of great antiquity who, because colonisation of the American landmass proceeded from east to west, were only corralled on a reservation quite late on. Unlike many other Tribes, they were not force marched and dumped in some remote area but were allowed still to possess their ancient lands – albeit only a part: the riches of their forests passed into other hands.

Though the Makah were confined largely to the shoreline by the Treaty they were forced to sign in 1855, they retained rights over the sea and the foundation of their sense of self: they are and always have been above all a people of the sea. While the hinterland had provided logs for canoes, cabins and heat, their main source of nutrition down the millennia came from the ocean – and the 40 ton gray whales that migrate along this coast from California to the Arctic provided a cornucopia – from oil and meat to bones and sinew for tools and weapons.

Makah whalers butchering a carcass in about 1900 (from

Whales have extraordinary significance for the Makah. They are the root of their sense of self: the being of the whale is buried deep in the culture, art, traditions and spiritual practices of the Tribe: according to Makah belief, it was the Thunderbird himself, a supernatural being, who taught them how to hunt whales. So when the Treaty of 1855 gave them the “right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations”, they retained the critical link to their ancient Tribal identity.

They continued whaling until the 1920s – until commercial fleets drove the gray whale to the edge of extinction. But by the 1990s, the species was no longer on the Endangered Species List and the Makah decided to resume traditional hunting. So it was that on May 17th, 1999 canoes set out from Neah Bay to intercept a school of gray whales. The departure was prefaced by traditional spiritual preparation: taking a whale is not the crude action of big game hunters in search of a trophy, but an event that occurs on what can only be described as a transcendent plane where the whale ‘engages’ with the Makah in something analogous to a religious rite.

The Makah had not hidden their intentions and the beach at Neah Bay had not just Makah but a crowd of spectators, TV cameras – as well as invitees from neighbouring Tribes and from Tribes from across the continent.

And, of course, protestors: ‘Save a Whale, Kill a Makah’.

But the Makah, suffering from the encroachment of American culture, were feeling an existential threat to their continuance as a Tribe and would not be dissuaded: they believed that the sacrifice of a whale would reground them. So a small group of men, all prepared to die in the attempt, steered their wooden canoe alongside a 30 foot whale and threw their harpoons – wooden shafts tipped with sharpened whale-bone. For them the circle of tradition was whole once again.

Alongside the whale (from

Less spiritually at this point, a compromise with animal rights protestors intervened to stop the whale’s suffering and a Makah marksman shot the animal dead with .50-calibre bullets.

The whale was towed to the beach and, with traditional ceremony, portions of blubber were cut away, handed out and eaten.

In the two decades since, the Makah, in the face of implacable opposition, have fought in the courts and administrative tribunals to continue their hunt. Their reason remains the same: Patrick DePoe, vice chairman of the Makah Tribe said ‘We’re not doing this for commercial reasons. We’re doing it for spiritual and cultural reasons.’ And , as things stand, they may just win their battle to resume a traditional practice – one that will continue to put them at odds with so many non-native Americans.

Patrick DePoe with the Makah Whale and Thunderbird motif (Associated Press)

The Animal Welfare Institute, for example, disputes that a humane kill of a 40 ton creature is possible: “While we respect the Makah, we respect their culture and their traditions, and we firmly believe that they should continue to celebrate whales through dance and song and storytelling and so on and so forth, we simply disagree with them as to whether or not it is legally or scientifically or ethically appropriate to hunt gray whales.”

But for Greenpeace USA: “Subsistence hunts by Indigenous peoples have a long history, and have never put entire populations at risk … As we think about the major course corrections that humanity must undergo today, we might benefit from seeing what we can learn from Indigenous communities that have been much more successful at living in balance with nature than those who colonized their lands and waters.”

And for the Makah – Timothy Greene, the Council Chairman, says that stopping the Makah whaling is the equivalent of denying communion to a member of the Catholic church – “It’s that deep.”

Notes and Links

Film of the whale being landed and cuts of blubber distributed – graphic images – click here

Film made 20 years after the 1999 hunt – click here

Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language by James Griffiths (Zed Books 2021) – discussing the decline and revival of Welsh, Cantonese and Hawaiian

The Sea Is My Country: the Maritime World of the Makah by Joshua L Reid (Yale UP 2015) – the book on the Makah

KNKX article – 20 years later, atmosphere has changed around Makah whale huntclick here

Quotes from Guardian – Makah Tribe hopes for rights to resume sacred tradition of gray whale huntingclick here

How Canadians make maple syrup – click here – including how to identify the right tree to tap

1 reply »

  1. What a wonderful idea and phrase: “compassion to spare.” This is certainly something we all need right now. And thanks for all these wonderful revelations about the Makah—a people about whom I knew nothing.