Resurrection

After a 70-year hiatus and a confrontation with the world, the Makah tribe resumes its communion with the gray whale

Anti-whaling groups brushed aside the Makahs' claim that whaling was an essential part of their culture, dismissing it as irrelevant to modern life.

"A society can never evolve by adopting archaic and inhumane rituals," says Michael Kundu, a spokesman for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which spearheaded the anti-whaling campaign.

"No legitimate argument can be made that the Makah, or any other ethnic group, can move their culture forward through ritual killing."

A Makah whaling crew prepares to harpoon a whale.
Asahel Curtis
A Makah whaling crew prepares to harpoon a whale.
Theron Parker was the Makah's strongest paddler and soon found 
himself the whaling crew's leader and harpooner.
John Dougherty
Theron Parker was the Makah's strongest paddler and soon found himself the whaling crew's leader and harpooner.

Protesters were largely successful in focusing media attention on a simplistic battle between anti-whaling groups portrayed as valiantly striving to prevent the needless death of gray whales vs. a bloodthirsty band of savages in a ruthless pursuit of a conscious and trusting whale.

The Makahs' rich whaling-based culture -- which is on vivid display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center that was dedicated in 1979 to house the Ozette artifacts -- was barely mentioned in the hundreds of news articles generated by the tribe's return to whaling.

The anti-whaling public relations campaign soon unleashed a wave of racism directed at the tribe, and at Northwest Indians in general, with a ferocity reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the Deep South.

The Makah would not be deterred.

The tribe was determined to exercise its treaty rights, and, perhaps more important, to rekindle its whaling tradition in the hope of strengthening families and unifying the community.

The more the Makah were pressured to forgo whaling, the more dedicated they became.

"The real beauty of whaling is what surrounds a whale hunt rather than the actual hunt or tasting the whale," says Janine Bowechop, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Resource Center. "The discipline involved, the requirements of the community and of the whaling crew, are what strengthens us and keeps us more alive."

Soon after the Makah Tribal Council announced plans to resume whaling, Theron Parker returned to Neah Bay and took up an activity he had loved as a youth -- paddling in the ocean in wooden canoes. The exercise and camaraderie with fellow "pullers" helped him wrestle with the demons of drugs and alcohol.

"I had to straighten myself out, and I did," Parker says.

Becoming sober was a monumental step for Parker, but it was only the first rung on a ladder that at the top bore that persistent image of the barefoot Makah whaler.

Parker was steadily being drawn to the whale hunt -- although he wasn't among the first whaling crew members selected by tribal officials. But lack of official notice was not going to stymie Parker and his mates.

His tribe was determined to resume a traditional whale hunt last executed some 70 years ago.

Not only would the Makah have to overcome protesters trying to disrupt the hunt, someone would have to thrust a harpoon shaft into the back of a 60,000-pound gray whale, a species famous for its aggressive counterattacks on whalers. The tribe might need a skilled hunter and seaman, which Parker had become.

The physical challenges that loomed were daunting, but they were minor compared to the mental and spiritual preparations necessary before a modern-day Makah whaling crew could even begin to compare itself with the great Makah whalers of the past.

Parker and his band of friends and relatives would have to transform themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually into their forefathers -- who according to the tribe's songs and legends had become One with the Whale.


"The return to whaling is a return to praying," says Makah artist Greg Colfax.

"That's what it is. It's a return to the ancient spiritual methods of praying and following as much of the advice that the elders can provide for how they lead their lives.

"What time should they wake up in the morning? What should they do in the first several minutes of waking up? What kind of diet should they have? How are they to relate to their wives and their girlfriends? How are they to relate to the community? How do they relate to themselves and the environment?

"It's a boot camp," Colfax says. "It's a boot camp for the mind and of the body."

Colfax is a renowned carver whose masks are highly sought on both the commercial market and within the tribe for traditional uses in songs, dances, and rituals. One of his masks -- a transformation mask -- hangs in the home of Nelson Mandela.

He speaks slowly and carefully, the cadence further punctuated by long drags on his pipe. He worked at Ozette during the dig that lasted from 1970 through 1981 before going to college to study teaching. It was the excavation that inspired him -- along with many others of his generation -- to study and project traditional Makah culture.

In the past, Colfax says, whaling crews devoted extensive periods of time to preparing themselves for the hunts. They would swim in the frigid ocean, weight themselves down with boulders and walk submerged on the river bottom, bathe in mountain ponds, thrash themselves with stinging nettle, fast, abstain from sex, and retreat to sacred areas where secret family rituals were conducted.

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