The Makah Get Their Whale, Endure Invective from Activists

The long-running controversy
over the Makah‘s efforts to restore tribal traditions by Hunting a whale
ended recently when the tribe finally managed to get its whale. The Makah
had voluntarily abandoned whale hunting earlier this century, but reserved
the right to resume the practice under provisions of a treaty with the
United States.

The fascinating thing about
the controversy was how quickly environmentalist and animal rights activists
devolved to threats and racist slurs against the Makah. Usually environmentalists
extol the virtues of indigenous cultures, contrasting them with the evil
patterns of consumption and exploitation supposedly unique to Western
culture. But once the Makah deviated from this New Age fantasy, they were
shown little mercy from activists.

There were the death threats
against individuals as well as bomb threats called in to the Makah reservation
school. T-shirts were sold with the slogan “Save a whale, kill a Makah.”
At protests against the hunt, activists were heard calling the Makah “savages.”

The Seattle Times published
a lengthy story printing about a dozen of the more-racist anti-hunting
letters it received. One letter concluded, “these people want to rekindle
their traditional way of life by killing an animals that has probably
twice the mental capacity they have.” Another suggested that, “we should
also be able to take their land if they can take our whales.” Or consider
this gem of a letter that complained, “Natives were often referred to as
‘savages,’ and it seems little has changed.”

As Alexandra Harmon, an assistant
professor at the University of Washington American Indian Studies Center
put it, “Again and again in American history, non-Indian Americans have
demanded that Indians act or live in some way other than Indians have
chosen. The current Makah story is a lesson about how had it is to recognize
and resist that same ethnocentric impulse today.”


E-mails, phone messages full of threats, invective. Alex Tizon, Seattle Times, May 23, 1999.

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