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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Whale Hunt

Air Date: Week of

Robert Sullivan tells Steve Curwood about the two years he spent with the Makah tribe of Washington. The author got to know members of the tribe as they were preparing to revive their ancient tradition of whale hunting. The hunt drew national attention and protest.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In 1997 author Robert Sullivan began a two-year journey to a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest and into the culture of one of North America's most famous indigenous communities. In his new book "A Whale Hunt" Mr. Sullivan chronicles his time spent with members of the Makah tribe, as they put together and trained an eight-man canoe crew for the tribe's first whale hunt in 70 years. Live television cameras and numerous protestors dogged the Makah whalers when they finally went out on the hunt in the spring of 1999. Neah Bay, on the tip of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, is the tribal home of the Makah. Robert Sullivan says when you go there, you can understand how the land, the sea, and the Makah are interconnected in the web of life.

SULLIVAN: I'd never been to a place where the place was so much a part of what everybody did, and how everybody was, and what everybody talked about. I mean, there is an abundance there still. I met a guy who lives way out, back in the woods, and he gave me some smoked fish. The most amazing smoked salmon. You know, he showed me where he had a mill to cut wood. He showed me where he caught the salmon on the stream. I mean, he said to me, you know, if the market closed down tomorrow, we'd be fine. We'd be fine. We live here. We know this place. And that's incredible.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit now about the crew that was assembled to do this, this whale hunt. How were they selected?

SULLIVAN: In the very beginning, years back, I guess four, five years ago now, the tribe decided to go about trying to whale hunt again. They went back to look at the tribal roles from earlier times, around the turn of the century, to see what the names of the original families were, the whaling families. And they formed a commission with the heads, the representatives from all these families on it. That was the whaling commission. And the whaling commission members then nominated people for the crew, for the whaling crew. There were no women, by the way, it was all men. And that was a point that people made.

CURWOOD: A point that who made?

SULLIVAN: That the tribe made. The idea was, at least for the whaling commission, as far as it went for the guys in the crew, there were to be no women on the whaling crew. Which is, as they said, tradition.

CURWOOD: Now, did they carve their own canoe? Did they find a large tree?

SULLIVAN: They did. The whaling commission had a canoe carved. That was a whaling canoe. And yes, they used one log. And the log was cut in this longhouse. And if you saw it during the progress of the carving, you know, it just was incredible, just the cedar just lifted out. And it smelled incredible, just from many feet away. You could smell the incense of the cedar. And I remember when they got rocks and they heated the rocks and they put water in the canoe and they steamed it, and it opened up. The canoe opened further. But the canoe that they commissioned, and that was made by a local carver, wasn't quite ready in time. So they ended up using another canoe that they had, which was the racing canoe. And anyway, they used that just because the whaling canoe wasn't ready.

CURWOOD: Robert, over time you watched these men prepare for the hunt. I'm wondering, what were the greatest obstacles that they faced, or obstacles that they overcame? And tell us how you fit into that picture, too.

SULLIVAN: The obstacles were, first of all, conceptually, the task that they were taking on was so huge. In a way, the hugeness of it was difficult; it was an obstacle. I mean, you are the few people in your tribe who have been chosen to re-create this ancient ritual, to do a modern version of this ancient traditional ceremony. And you know, you are supposed to do the thing that defines your culture, that gives meaning to everything in town, everything and everybody. So, that's one thing. I mean, then you get into the specifics of it. Well, is there going to be enough money for harpoon shafts? Are we going to have to go out and buy something else we don't have the money for, and then we'll be out of money for rope? Or you know what? One of the guys figured, we can go to the Army and Naval bases and get some stuff surplus. You know, just the way the government gives surplus cheese to Native American tribes, if you're a tribal member you can get a surplus Naval van that they don't need any more, that they're getting rid of on the Naval base. And so now you've got a van that's breaking down but, you know, now you've got a van. You need a van sometimes to do a whale hunt, an ancient ceremonial whale hunt. And will the van work? I mean, detail is all it was. I mean, obstacles is almost all it was.

CURWOOD: What was the toughest thing for you in this? What was your greatest obstacle in trying to write the story?

SULLIVAN: The greatest obstacle for me was to kind of stay out of the way, but to get an idea of what was going on. I mean, when the hunt happened, it was on the front page, I remember, of the New York Times. And you saw this shot that was actually taken from a news helicopter, a filming or videotaping of the hunt. And you saw this guy in a canoe and a harpoon. And if you were there you saw that and you saw protest boats and you saw the tribal chase boat with the gun, where in the end, after harpooning the whale, they shot the whale. You could see even more if you were up in the peaks. You could see the mountains and the coast and you could see whatever was happening. And you could see the Coast Guard boats trying to give the Makah some room so they could do this. So, my objective came to be to sort of flesh out that picture. Why are they using a metal harpoon shaft? Is that because they went to Barrow, Alaska, and met some whalers up there who wished them luck and gave them this harpoon point and said maybe you might want to try this one? Why would this tribe keep their whaling rights and give away all their land, or sign away all their land, anyway? So it became about fleshing this out. Also, why are people so intent on stopping a whale hunt? Why are people, you know, leaving their home in California to come up and say to this tribe, "You cannot do this, and we will not let you do this"?

CURWOOD: Okay. This first hunt is over. What kind of impact do you think it had on the crew and their families?

SULLIVAN: Everything seemed to be very intense. And you know, there would be guys trying to go out to dinner in Victoria and, you know, to a restaurant with a friend or something. And they couldn't, because they wouldn't be allowed into the restaurant because they were a whaler. And there were people who had to change doctors because the doctor wouldn't treat them because they were related to one of the whalers. On the other hand, I know some other guys in the crew who now can, kind of, go into Seattle and, maybe, have breakfast with a news anchor, or somebody who covers sports for one of the big newspapers, or, you know, or has good contact numbers at The Today Show. So it's kaleidoscopic, what happened.

CURWOOD: Now, let's see. Before commercial whaling there were what? About 20,000 gray whales, and since commercial whaling stopped there are, again, about 20,000 gray whales. So, the argument is made that certainly the Makah's subsistence use of whales didn't affect their population in any material way. I'm wondering, could it be said that the Makah way of life may be more endangered than the gray whales?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. The numbers are growing a lot faster, I guess you could argue, for gray whales than they are for the Makah. I would think you could argue that. But you know, some people say if we start whaling, if we allow the Makah to whale, that it'll just open the door to worldwide whaling, that everybody's going to try to whale. On the other hand, if you go and watch a bunch of guys try to hunt a whale and spend a year or two trying to do this, you realize that it's really difficult to hunt whales. Now, maybe if you have a giant commercial whaling ship, it's a lot easier. I would think it would be. But that way of life, the way of life that involves you knowing where the whales are, knowing how the river runs to get out there, knowing where to get seal oil or even salmon to go with the big giant potlatch -- you know, the big party that's going to happen after you bring in a whale after you know eighty years -- that way of life, that's as endangered as anything.

CURWOOD: Robert Sullivan's new book is called "A Whale Hunt: Two Years on the Olympic Peninsula with the Makah and Their Canoe". Thank you so much for taking this time.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.



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