Makah whalers talk history, tradition

Russel Svec and Micah McCarty, two members of Washington’s Makah tribe, were on campus last Thursday to give a talk on Makah whaling rights and practices. The talk was an event organized by the Anthropology club along with South Puget Sound Community College counselor Yolanda Machado, who is Svec’s sister, and SPSCC’s Native American Heritage Committee.

Svec directs the Makah fishery program, and McCarty is the Makah Tribal Council Chairman. Both men live on the Makah reservation. The Makah are a Neah Bay based tribe. Neah Bay is located on the northernmost tip of the Washington Coast, and it’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean is one of the reasons the Makah are the only Washington tribe that traditionally practices whaling, Machado said. Machado is herself a member of the Makah tribe.

Machado often does presentations for SPSCC classes about the Makah, and she said one of the issues students kept coming back to during her presentations was the question of whaling rights. She arranged this particular talk, in part, because she felt Svec and McCarty could answer students’ questions better than she could.

“I wanted students to understand Makah culture. I wanted them to hear from people intimately connected to the fishing treaty, and hear the history on how that treaty came about,” Machado said.

Cassandra Johnson, an SPSCC student and Anthropology club member who attended the Makah talk, elaborated on some of the issues speakers Svec and McCarty discussed during the presentation.

“Micah [McCarty] talked about the reactionary element of environmental policy that doesn’t reflect an intimate knowledge of the environment,” Johnson said.
While people might read about whales dying and think the solution is to leave whale populations alone, Johnson said, “There’s often a lot of human interaction that needs to happen in order to create a healthy environment.”

During the presentation, a white mask was displayed near the speakers.

“When the Makah go whaling, one person has to sew up the whale’s mouth, and he has to dive under the boat to do it,” said Johnson. The mask has a white face and bubbles on its side because the man is underwater while he is attending to the whale.

Discussing the significance of whaling to the Makah, Johnson said, “Stewardship of natural resources is important to every tribe—but the Makah have always overseen sea populations more than most local tribes.”

This is in part, both Johnson and Machado agreed, because the Makah are located on the coast.

Asked what she learned from the Makah talk, Johnson said she “got a clear picture of the unique history between Makah government and the US government.”

She also learned that one of the reasons the Makah want to continue to protect their right to whale is because it is central to traditional Makah nutrition. Many people who have traditionally eaten whale meat need those enzymes and nutrients to live, Johnson said. Machado agreed, saying that many Makah have experienced a rise in illness as a result of eating Western food.

“The Makah want to return to traditional food in the hopes of enjoying the health benefits that go along with eating that food,” Machado said.

Johnson said she felt the Makah presentation contained useful information for SPSCC students and other community members.

“It’s important to the things we study and try to understand here. To solve a lot of modern problems we need to listen to the people who have always been here.”

While Svec and McCarty were only at SPSCC for a day, Machado works here full time, and has a plethora of information on Makah history and whaling practices.

Machado’s family is a whaling family, which in Makah culture means they are deeply respected. The right to hunt is passed down from generation to generation among the Makah. The image used in the posters advertising the Makah talk at SPSCC is of Machado’s great-grandfather. Svec, Machado’s brother, has also been involved in Makah whaling expeditions in the past, according to Machado. The last successful Makah hunt was on May 17, 1999, said Machado.

The Makah hunt grey whales, and are the only tribe that has a treaty with the Federal government protecting their right to hunt, Machado said. The treaty has been in effect since 1855, though Makah hunting is an age-old tradition.

“The whole culture was centered around whaling,” Machado said. “Whales are represented in every facet of Makah art.” Not only were whales one of the Makah’s primary food sources, but they helped define the tribe’s social hierarchy. Whaling families were treated like royalty, Machado said.

The Makah even used whale bones as their primary drainage system for their long houses.

Contrary to claims of some activists, Makah showed a strong sensitivity to the needs of grey whales themselves when they voluntarily abstained from whaling in the late 1800s, Machado said. The Makah made this decision, she said, because grey whales were on the endangered species list at the time.

Embarking on a whaling expedition is a very formal process among the Makah. According to Machado, when a whaling family wants to go on a hunt, they must first present themselves to the Makah Whaling Commission, who must consent to the expedition.

There is quite a list of criteria the family needs to meet in order for the hunt to be approved, said Machado. In party, the men involved need to be able to swim, and also need to be incredibly physically fit, free of any drugs and alcohol, and prepared to withstand very harsh conditions. Once a whale has been harpooned, said Machado, the crew cannot leave it. Sometimes, she said, it can take days to bring the whale in to shore.

In addition to getting approval from the Whaling Commission, whole families are involved in planning the hunt, although tradition dictates that only men actually go on the hunt itself.

“If someone is planning a hunt, the whole family has to know,” Machado said.