For the Makah, whaling is a tradition dating back centuries, but one animal protection group says that in the modern world, there is no place for such "recreation."
The Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups have been waging a legal battle to keep the Makah, an American Indian tribe who live along the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, from rowing out from the shore in traditional dugout canoes and hunting whales in a manner very much the way their ancestors did.
Opponents of the hunt say the Makah should not be allowed to kill whales because, unlike some tribes in Alaska and northern Canada and the indigenous people of parts of Russia, they do not need whale meat to survive. They characterize the Makah hunt as sport or recreation, and discount the tribe's claim that whaling is culturally important to them.
"That's incredibly insulting and racist," said Janine Bowechop, the director of the Makah museum. "For them to determine what it means to us brings us back to the last century when it was thought that Indians could not speak for themselves and determine what things mean to us. I would not pretend to determine what something means to another culture."
She said that despite the 70 years when the tribe did not have a whale hunt, it is still "a regular and important part of our lives."
"There are lots of strengthening values associated with whaling," she said. "There are lots of spiritual values that feed sharing and cooperation among our community. And it connects us with the ocean in ways that Makahs have always been connected with the ocean."
Navigating Legal Waters
While commercial whaling has come a long way since the days of Moby Dick, when men took their lives in their hands trying to harpoon whales and drag them down from small boats, the Makah hunt is in many ways unchanged.
The biggest difference, the Makah say, is that now they use high-powered rifles instead of harpoons to kill the whale — a change they made to limit the suffering of the whales they catch.
If, that is, they catch one.
In the five years since the Makah have been allowed to resume their hunt, they have caught one whale, and have spent more time navigating turbulent legal waters in the courts than fighting ocean waves in their dugout canoes.
The Makah may be nearing the end of their legal fight, though.
On May 17, a federal judge in Tacoma, Wash., refused to issue a restraining order to stop the Makah from whaling until a decision is reached in the animal rights groups' lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Commerce Department — agencies that cleared the way for the tribe to resume the hunt.
In the suit, the groups claim that the agencies did not do a thorough job of assessing the potential impact of Makah whaling — both on the whale population and on public safety, because of the risk of stray bullets as the whalers try to shoot their prey.
Judge Franklin Burgess said in his ruling that the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed, since there is no evidence that the Makah hunt will have any impact, other than the "aesthetic, emotional" effect on the animal rights groups.
Five days after the judge's ruling, the animal rights groups said they would appeal.
Makah Win, Other Indigenous People Lose