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

When Native Cultures and Environmental Movements Clash

Air Date: Week of

After the recent killing of a grey whale by the Makah Tribe in Washington state, commentator Ed Hunt wonders where the "Save the Whales" movement is leading us. The Makah say that reviving the whale hunt after three generations helped to restore their spiritual and cultural identity, but it also unleashed a torrent of condemnation and threats of violence against these native Americans.


CURWOOD: In the middle of May, hunters from the Makah tribe in Washington State killed a gray whale, their first in 3 generations. The Makah say the whale hunt helped reawaken the core of their spiritual and cultural identity. But it also unleashed an emotional torrent of accusation, condemnation, and threats of violence against the natives. That's led commentator Ed Hunt to wonder where the Save the Whales movement is leading us.

HUNT: When the Makah killed their first whale in 70 years, TV helicopters beamed images of the hunt to northwest living rooms, and the pictures set off a stream of anti-Indian fury. Since then the Makah have been inundated with death threats. They've been called bloody savages, drunkards, lazy, and stupid. People have even called for the Makahs to be harpooned and killed to save whales. They were criticized for using a gun to finish off the whale, even though the modern weapon was only intended to shorten the whale's suffering. And then they were still accused of letting the whale suffer for too long.

Other opponents have been less inflammatory. Why not leave this foolish and savage practice behind, they ask, and celebrate your cultural identity in a way more acceptable to the white people? Why not take city folks on whale watching tours? Beneath this emotionally-charged opposition, there seems a unifying conviction: anyone who kills whales is either an immoral savage or a misguided fool.

Of course, this belief isn't held by all cultures of the world. Like the Makah, some think whales worthy of great respect, and without contradiction, see them as a source of spiritual and earthly nourishment. The Makah's spiritual connection to whales predates recorded history. They didn't push whales to the brink of extinction, and they quit whaling when we did. Our spiritual connection to the whales is much more recent. In just the last few decades we've come to see them as majestic beings that should never be killed by anybody.

This belief grew out of a crisis caused by industrial whaling, and it helped save the whales from extinction. But now, what do we do when some species have recovered? How do we conduct long-term environmentalism on a global scale, while respecting the cultures, religions, and sovereignty of other peoples, as well as the dependence of all of us on the natural world? Can we hunt and fish sustainably?

Often in the process of performing ecological triage, we elevate some animals above all others. Yet, creatures do not live in isolation. They are part of a great machinery, an ecosystem, a sort of natural economy that requires their life and death in delicate balance. Humans are part of that great machinery as well. The only difference is that too many of us live disconnected in a world that hides our participation in the ecosystem. Many of us no longer hunt or fish for our own food, and so we pretend that this is somehow better. But things still die so that we might live.

To people close to the land the idea of a sustainable harvest, of plants and animals and, yes, even some species we revere, has always made sense. To some of us who have been watching the world on our TV, it's something we still have to learn.

CURWOOD: Commentator Ed Hunt lives in southwest Washington and edits tidepool.org, a daily Internet news service covering the Pacific Northwest. Coming up: Wanted, a good fire. When the prescription for a healthy forest is controlled burning. That's next, here on Living on Earth.



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