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Much of the gifting took place at potlatch ceremonies, where chiefs would reaffirm their status by bestowing nearly everything they owned to guests, including commoners and slaves. To the Makah, family songs are more valuable than any worldly possession.
Makah whalers used their canoes, harpoons, and sealskin floats to harvest five to 10 whales a year. The harvest could have been far higher, but appears to have been limited by internal politics -- the chiefs controlled the whaling canoes, and the right to whale was strictly based on hereditary lines.
The abundance of whales close to shore -- particularly during the gray whales' northern migration from their winter calving grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico -- increased the certainty of successful hunts and justified spending tremendous time and resources to prepare for whaling expeditions.
The Makah Cultural and Research Center displays a stunning array of finely crafted products -- paddles, canoes, harpoons, knives, clubs, baskets, boxes, looms, clothing and hats made from cedar bark, ropes, toys, and spiritual icons -- all related to whaling.
While whale hunting was the central force driving the society, the Makah also relied heavily on offshore halibut fisheries, along with harvesting fur seals, shellfish from the rocky coastline, salmon from rivers draining the Olympic Peninsula, and game, including deer and elk.
There was abundant food for the five villages, so much so that when the federal government began treaty negotiations it named the people the Makah -- which means "people who are generous with food."
Until then, the Makah referred to themselves as "qwi-dich-cha-at," which roughly translates to "the people who live near the rocks and the sea gulls."
Bountiful food supplies allowed time for the Makah to develop a unique art style shown in baskets, drawings, rock etchings, and carvings.
While the Makah lived in communal long houses, the tribe nevertheless embraced a strong concept of personal wealth, including the owning of songs, dances, and natural resource areas. Potlatches provided the Makah the opportunity to publicly declare ownership of property and record important events such as marriages and deaths.
The Makah welcomed early contact with explorers and trading ships that began to appear with increasing frequency by the 1790s. Trade benefited both parties. The Makah incorporated new materials such as metal into their harpoons and sails onto their canoes. In turn, Makah whale oil was highly sought by traders.
While commerce was welcome, the Makah resisted incursions into their traditional land and sea territories. Survivors of shipwrecks -- including Russian and Japanese -- sometimes found themselves taken as slaves by the Makah.
The 1850s unleashed three powerful blows to the tribe -- commercial whaling, disease, and assimilation.
Commercial whaling fleets began the ruthless and systematic massacre of thousands of gray whales from Alaska to Baja. The gray whales were easy targets. They migrate each year more than 6,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the north -- stretching from Alaska's Bering Sea to Washington's coastline -- down to coastal lagoons in Baja California, Mexico.
About the same time, smallpox and measles brought to the Northwest by European explorers and settlers swept through the Makah villages. The epidemic peaked in 1852, leaving untold number of dead Makah whose rotting bodies littered the beaches.
A white 19th-century trader, Samuel Hancock, wrote in his journal:
"It was truly shocking to witness the ravages of this disease here at Neah Bay. ... In a few weeks from the introduction of the disease, hundreds of natives became victims to it, the beach for a distance of eight miles was literally strewn with the dead bodies of these people, presenting a disgusting spectacle."
Scholars estimate that the Makah population plummeted from a peak of 2,000 to 3,000 down to fewer than 1,000 in the wake of the 1852 epidemic. The deaths of whalers, seal hunters, and fishermen, along with elders, swept away vast stores of knowledge.
The epidemic set the stage for the third wave of cultural destruction -- the beginning of formal relations with the U.S. government.
Acting on behalf of the United States, Washington Gov. Isaac Stevens initiated treaty negotiations with the tribe, which was still reeling from the epidemic. The Treaty of Neah Bay was signed on Jan. 31, 1855.
The Makah ceded vast tracts of land to the United States in exchange for education and health care. But while the Makah were willing to turn over land, the tribe steadfastly demanded continued, unfettered access to its traditional ocean-based resources.
Makah Chief Tse-Kaw-Wootl told treaty negotiators, "I want the sea. That is my country."
As a result, Article IV of the treaty explicitly states that the Makah have "the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds."
Soon after the treaty was signed, the federal government initiated a plan to systematically vanquish the Makah way of life. Between 1863 and 1934, 18 agents of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw activities on the reservation. The agents instituted a series of harsh, if well-intentioned, measures designed to assimilate the people into an American, and decidedly Christian, society.
These measures included:
- Forbidding the Makah language.
- Separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools.