Makah Native Americans Vs. Animal Rights Activists

By: Matthew Weinbaum


Table of Contents:



Key Actors





At The Present


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 Neah Bay, Washington courtesy of



For nearly two thousand years, the Makah Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest based its cultural existence on the gray whale. The whale was a form of sustenance, used for clothing and the making of fine handicrafts. Although the Native Americans hunted the gray whale, they respected the power and beauty of the large beast. “The hunter was seen not only as strong and daring; he was honored for a relationship that would allow him to kill a whale. (Goddard 1)” The Makah used all parts of the whale including its oil, which was often used as a determinant of wealth. The whale was also used as bride price for the making of gifts and trade between other tribes. Rituals, customs and monetary value were all reasons for the necessity of the whale hunt. The whale hunt was the foundation of Makah culture (Johnson 4).

In 1855, the United States territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, recognized the Makah when attempting to annex the Olympic Peninsula. In exchange for their land, Stevens agreed to the demands of the indigenous people. He respected the Makah. “The great father knows what whalers you are-how you go far to sea to take whale. (Johnson 2)” Stevens promised the tribe United States assistance in promoting whale commerce. He helped ratify the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, a treaty protecting the Makah right to whale.

            Unfortunately, by the early 1900s, commercial whaling became a profitable business. Recognizing the reduction in whale population, the Makah gave up whaling in the 1920s when commercial whaling was at its peak. This was done out of respect for the species’ well being. By 1946, an international agreement placed the gray whale on the endangered species list. “Without the whale in their life, the Makah culture suffered and it was difficult to teach the songs and dances to the generations that have not whaled. (Stevens 2)”

            From the 1920s until the late 1990s, the Makah experienced the decimation of their way of life. Many of the tribe became alcoholics and lost the sense of community that hunting the gray whale helped provide. In the late 1990s, when the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list, the Makah people wanted to reclaim the tradition that was lost to them since the 1920s. “The 70 year break of non-whaling left a hole in our traditional circle. Now the circle is complete,” said Arnie Hunter, vice president of the Makah Whaling Commission (Stevens 1).

            The Makah people believe that the problems affecting the younger members of their tribe today is a result of lacking discipline and cultural continuity (Johnson 1). The tribe is hopeful that whaling will restore this. The tribe also believes that the deterioration of the health of many community members is a result of the loss of their traditional seafood and sea-mammal diet, which has debilitated with the end of Makah whaling in the 1920s (Johnson 1). Today, the Makah deem they have a responsibility to fulfill their heritage and restore a part of their culture elusive to them for over seventy years.

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            In 1998 the Makah, seeking to resume their tradition of whaling, faced fierce opposition from environmental and animal rights’ groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and The Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). These organizations claim that the Makah intend to sell whale meat on the open market and do not have a need to hunt the gray beast because the animal is not necessary to the survival of the people (Rossiter 1). The Makah nation refutes this wholeheartedly. In a letter printed in the Seattle Times, the president of the whaling commission, Keith Johnson, explains that the claims of these groups are unfounded due to the tribe being bound to tribal and federal law not to sell any whale meat. The tribe whales only for cultural need and because it is their right under the treaty they signed in 1855 (1). 

            In addition to staking their claim as a whaling nation, the Makah use concrete scientific evidence to back-up their belief that hunting gray whales will not harm the population at large (See Demographics). Through hunting a maximum amount of five gray whales per year, the Makah stress that they will be doing no harm to the world’s whale population. These activists make persistent claims regarding the Makah planned ‘slaughter’ of five whales. However, what these protestors fail to acknowledge in their written statements is that these Native Americans do not necessarily plan to kill five whales, but rather take only what is needed in order to survive and continue their way of life (Johnson 1).

            Animal rights’ activists also claim that the hunt is done in a manner that is inhumane. However, the Makah argue that their hunting methods will lead to almost instantaneous death of the whale, causing as little pain as possible for the creature. The tribe refutes the notion that they are killing the animal for the power.

            Despite all of the claims made by groups opposing the hunt, the most damaging of these attacks is the refuting of Makah culture. The Makah people believe this attack, in particular, is unwarranted and that they are being harassed for any connection to modern life the tribe wishes to aspire to; “they [the activists] cite our ‘…lighted tennis courts…Federal Express...and other amenities…’ Well, excuse me! I want to tell PAWS [Progressive Animal Welfare Society] that the two tennis courts on our high school grounds have no lights. How about the fact that Federal Express makes deliveries to our reservation? Does that mean we have lost our culture? (Johnson 4)”

            The problem resulting from all of the claims made by animal and environmental activists’ is that organizations such as Sea Shepherd and PAWS want the Makah to rise to a ‘higher level’ of culture through not partaking in a practice that, until the 1920’s, was on-going within the tribe for almost two millennia. The activists are basically saying that the Makah are a lesser race of people because they choose to whale. This statement has a racist underlying assumption that attacks not just the present day Makah people but their culture, history and forefathers as well. Through berating and attacking the Makah people, animal rights’ activists are out of line in their assaults on these indigenous Native Americans for wanting to whale after a nearly 80 year hiatus (Johnson 4).

            This is an environmental justice issue because activist groups are disallowing the Makah to reach their full potential. They are subjecting these people to the –isms of society (Bryant 6). Environmental Racism against the Makah is taking place. The indigenous people living in an area, overtaken by a white-European based government 150 years ago, are subjected to the beliefs of left-wing activists today. These activists fail to take into account the decimation of these Native people’s sustenance because of commercial whaling around the world. Now, seventy years later, protestors fail to recognize the need for cultural continuation of the Makah and attack these native people.

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Key actors:

·        The Makah Indians- The Makah are a Native American tribe that hunted whales for over two thousand years. In the 1920s these people stopped whaling, citing the decline of the whale population due to over-hunting by commercial fishermen. The Makah have decided to return to whaling for cultural purposes, believing that the deterioration of their culture over the past 80 years is a direct result of an inability to hunt,

·        Sea Shepherd- An animal rights’ and environmental group, Sea Shepherd has used tactics that are demeaning and racist to the Makah in an attempt to stop their rights’ to hunt the gray whale. Sea Shepherd has drawn negative attention to the Makah claiming that the Natives plan to sell products they receive from whaling to nations such as Japan. Sea Shepherd does anything and everything possible to convince the general public the Makah do not deserve the right to kill gray whales.

·         Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)      - PAWS is a vocal opponent of Makah whaling. This group distributed brochures and fliers to people throughout the Neah Bay area stating the Makah need for whaling is non-existent today because the tribe adapted to modern life. This activist group insinuates that because the Makah have modern amenities, they have lost their culture and because they lost their culture, there is no need for them to hunt whales anymore. 

·        The United States Government- In 1855, governor Isaac Stevens gave permission for the Makah people to hunt whales off the coast of Neah Bay. However, when the gray whale was placed on the endangered species list in 1946, all commercial whaling of the species was halted. Today, the United States stands thick in the middle of a debate between activist groups and an indigenous people that have hunted whales for two thousand years. Forced to take a stand on the issue, the United States held firm its belief to uphold the treaty signed with the Makah people. However, a trial in appeals court delayed the response from the United States on whether the Makah have the right to hunt whales due to environmental questions that are currently being raised.   

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Map of Neah Bay Courtesy of the Makah Native American Homepage


As of 1996, the Native American population of Clallam County, the county of the Makah, was 3,130 people. This constitutes 4.9% of the overall population of the county (United States Census) From the 3,130 Native Americans in this region, 1,752 live on the Makah reservation and are enrolled as members of the tribe. Overall, there are 2,195 enrolled tribal members according to the Makah Native American Homepage. However, it is unclear how many of the Makah that do not live on the reservation actually live in Clallam County. 

            The worldwide whale population is now between 19,000 and 23,000 according to the Cetacean Society International homepage. The Cetacean Society claims that the gray whale population is nearing its initial size before gray whales were harvested. However Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission, asserts that the whale population is peaking at the present. Johnson states the whale population today is at an all-time high of 22,000 and that this population is increasing at roughly 2.5% per year (2). 

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As controversy between the activists’ and the Makah people intensified, Sea Shepherd and PAWS made a video with elders from the Makah tribe who opposed the hunt. These tribal members stated that hunting whales does not reflect the majority decision of the Native people. One of the leading elders against the harvesting of whales is Alberta Thompson. Thompson lives on the reservation and worked in the senior center. Citing that 85% of the tribal members favored the hunt taking place, many in the tribe thought of her as bothersome and a misrepresentation of the Makah Community (Sullivan 89). Activists’ used every resource they had at their disposal in order to stop what they believe to be the slaughtering of an innocent animal. This incorporated the use of people such as Thompson, in addition to tactical maneuvers which included protesting outside of the Makah property and even at times being forceful by driving cars up to the reservation and blocking the main road onto Makah land (Sullivan 135).

            Protestors attempted to stop the whale hunt by humiliating the Makah people. Where the Makah cemetery lies, protestors shouted obscenities and demeaning insults upon members of the tribe partaking in the hunt. These insults were malicious; “Real men don’t kill animals! Only a coward kills whales! You are a coward and a sissy!” ‘Another woman shouted that the Makah do not have special rights just because they were Indians. (Sullivan 136)’

            With large sums of financial reserves from donations to their organizations, PAWS, Sea Shepherd and numerous other animal and environmental rights’ groups used the media to bring attention to what they considered to be the plight of the whales. This strategy was effective in that it riled and upset many of the tribal members. It did not however, stop the whaling from eventually taking place. Through using the media, tribal members such as Alberta Thompson and protestors on-site at the Makah reservation, people opposing the hunt garnered the national attention they craved in order to help save the whales. Their strategies were effective in gaining the interest of the media. However, the protestors angered and hurt the indigenous Native Americans. Their methods of protesting can be considered culturally racist, ignoring the traditions and pride of the Makah. By insinuating that biodiversity is more important than cultural diversity, the protestors asserted that Makah culture is primitive and the natives need to conform in order to gain status to be considered as ‘humane’ as others.

            In response to the dissenters Keith Johnson, the president of the Makah Whaling Commission, wrote an open-ended letter to the Seattle Times explaining the tribes feelings and beliefs. This was done in order to make others aware that the tribe believes it was mistreated. The tribe asserted that it is not a protestors place to question Makah culture and that it is damaging for protestors to spread inaccurate information pertaining to how many whales are hunted and what the tribe plans to do with the whale meat. These agitators asserted that the Makah hunted the animal in order to sell its animal flesh to the Japanese. Johnson calmly and accurately refuted this claim by stating the number of whales the Makah planned to kill each year and that there was absolutely no truth to the Makah ever selling what they received in each hunt (1-6).

            Addressing how the protestors treated members of the whaling crew, Johnson made his case effectively for the Makah right to hunt the gray beast in his editorial. Although many opposed the hunt, protestors used culturally racist tactics and inaccurate information. This gave increased validity to Johnson, while Sea Shepherd and other activists’ can be viewed as oppressors of Makah Culture.

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            As of now, there is no solution to the problem at hand. The Makah have harvested one whale to date in their quest for cultural sustainability. However Sea Shepherd received a temporary injunction, restraining whale hunting through use of the United States Courts. The court case of Metcalf v. Daley in June of 2000 restricted the hunting of whales by the Makah until after another environmental assessment is made (Sea Shepherd, personal interview).

            Sea Shepherd is winning the battle for now, as activist groups have made the Makah wary of all outsiders attempting to gain more information about the issue. When I contacted the whaling commission regarding their struggle with animal and environmental rights activists’, the operator immediately wrote down my name and reason for inquiring about their tribal rights’. I was unable to obtain an interview with the Makah Whaling Commission until after the head of the commission, Keith Johnson, approved of my reasons for researching their people.

            When I called the Makah Whaling Commission, they believed I was an activist against their cause. Their bias towards me came even after I explained I was neutral, simply writing a term paper for a class. The Makah people are wary of the United States public, believing the majority of people are against their cause. 

            To date, the Makah have killed only one whale and are currently in a legal battle with activist groups. Sea Shepherd and other organizations have continued to use propaganda to distribute false information regarding the hunt. A combination of distrust by the Makah people, a legal battle ensuing and propaganda from activists has not helped to alleviate the differences between activists’ and Makah. As of now, the Makah plight is unresolved.  

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            After talking at length with a member of Sea Shepherd, the non-profit organization sent an E-mail regarding their public stance on the whale hunt (Sea Shepherd, 14 Nov 2000). It is clear from the E-mail that the recommendation of Sea Shepherd is to halt the Makah whale hunt permanently. However, citing disputed facts, Sea Shepherd does not make a good case for doing this. 

In the Sea Shepherd email (14 Nov 2000), the activist group used three key points to explain why the Makah do not deserve the right to hunt whales. Sea Shepherd firmly believes that the Makah proposal is based on the notion that the Native American tribe initially wanted to sell the meat from their hunts to foreign countries after Japanese firms told them this was a profitable enterprise. Sea Shepherd also contested that no living member knows the method of the hunt because no member of the last whale hunt is alive today. The E-mail also stated the difference in how many whales the Makah plan to hunt versus how many are actually murdered; “the Makah’s stated intention to land five whales per year means they may strike and mortally wound twice as many to successfully land five whales. (Sea Shepherd 14 Nov 2000)”

According to activists’, if the Makah are allowed to hunt whales, whale watching will become defunct as the animal will stay away from humans fearing danger if they move too close (Johnson 3-4) . 

Photo courtesy of Denis Poroy, AP.


In reply to statements made by Sea Shepherd and other activist groups, Keith Johnson wrote his open-ended letter to the Seattle Times on August 23rd 1998. Through using Johnson’s letter, as well as issuing The Makah Management Plan for Makah Treaty Gray Whale Hunting, the Makah explain activist groups are wrong in their attacks. The Makah believe they are targets of environmental racism in this case. The tribe recommends the hunt to continue, citing the distortion of facts is the main cause of the general public’s mistreatment of the tribe.

 In Keith Johnson and the Makah Whaling Commission press release, the activists’ theory that this hunt was taking place because of Makah monetary gain was laid to rest. Johnson promised that no meat was ever going to be sold and that the whale was to be used within the tribe for its sustenance and the making of other products through the use of its blubber and skin (2).  

            The Makah believe that the reason for the downfall of their culture and way of life over the past seventy years is a direct result of the whale hunt’s discontinuation. The majority of the Makah Tribal Council believes that with the continuity of the whale hunt, the native tribe can continue their way of life and refurbish their culture and intertwine it with existing culture today to make it stronger and push the community tighter together (Johnson 1,4).

             The Makah Management Plan for Makah Treaty Gray Whale Hunting for the Years 1998-2002 states that between the five years this plan was proposed for, a maximum of thirty three whales are allowed to be attacked (2). This is roughly 6.5 whales per year, not a number that is double what the tribe plans to harvest. In addition, the Makah have made it clear that they will hunt only what is needed by their tribe in order to maintain cultural tradition and sustenance. If this means that only one whale will be harvested a year, then the tribe will not use all five of the possible permits that they have at their disposal (Johnson 1).

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At The Present

            Despite presenting false information, Sea Shepherd and other activist groups are winning the battle in court as the Makah whale hunt was put on hold by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court states the Makah are not allowed to hunt whales because they have not met the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act. In the Sea Shepherd E-mail (14 Nov 2000), the activist group claims that the United States initially granted the right to hunt whales to the Makah because it was a politically correct maneuver for the United States to make. However, despite the present-day shut down of the whale hunt because of the court system, the Makah believe they will be allowed to hunt whales in the future.

            Regardless of the present situation, the Makah deserve the right to hunt gray whales. When they were forced to give up whaling over seventy years ago because commercial whaling vessels nearly destroyed the world’s whale population, Makah culture declined. In addition to the declination of their culture, the Makah represent the land of Neah Bay. They lived on the land for almost 1800 years before Europeans even came to the region. It is not the place of activist groups such as Sea Shepherd to tell the Makah how they should live their lives. A fiercely contested issue between biological equity and cultural equity, the Makah whale hunt walks a fine line between the extinction of a culture and the survival of a species. It is vital that the Makah are allowed to hunt whales as their forefathers did for over two millennia. Activist groups can protest these hunts, but it is incorrect and racially unacceptable for these people to tell the Makah they are not allowed to hunt because of past population damages to the gray whale done by others.

            Environmental Justice is an important aspect of this case. It is impossible for the Makah people to reach their full potential while they are having their culture rebuked by liberal society. Experiencing the –isms, the Makah are looked down upon by activists as socially inferior because of their way of life. Facing injustice for wanting to reinforce what it means to be Makah, this Native American tribe is heavily be-set by problems of environmental racism. Until activists’ and other Makah opposition accept the Makah as equals, environmental justice in this case can never be achieved.

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