The 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay could not be clearer: The U.S. government agreed the Makah Tribe, natives of the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, had “the right of taking fish and of whaling.”
Yet across nearly a century, the tribe has organized just one whale hunt, a much-protested outing in May 1999. Starting in the 1920s, the Makah stood down from whaling because of global overharvest of whale populations. With the once-endangered Eastern North Pacific gray whale population now flourishing, the tribe should be allowed to resume the traditional, treaty-guaranteed hunts around which generations of Makah built a culture.
The traditions of the tribe’s canoe-based whale hunts are held sacred and passed down within families. Yet regular hunts have been stymied for 20 years by protests, bureaucracy and legal objections. Species survival is no longer a reason to stop the Makah from hunting whales. Researchers estimate there are almost 27,000 Eastern North Pacific gray whales today, though the Western North Pacific population remains endangered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has tracked the status of these pods of whales for years and considers the current Eastern numbers approximately the maximum the habitat can sustain.
Throughout an extensive legal process that now awaits a federal administrative law judge’s decision, the Makah have agreed to exercise their right to hunt within guidelines. The tribe has conscientiously complied with years of federal requirements to get permits to restore these traditions.
The Makah have consented to important restrictions in future hunting: taking no more than 20 whales over the next decade, planning hunt details to minimize the chance of harming endangered whales and using high-powered firearms to quickly end the suffering of harpooned whales.
Makah tribe members have responded to repeated requests to publicly explain the cultural importance of hunting whales. The tribe carries no legal responsibility to justify its traditions to outsiders, especially when permission to carry them out has been codified so explicitly. But to help the greater community understand the centrality of whale hunts to their tribal identity, Makah members have provided answers.
The treaty is clear. The obstruction should stop.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE SEATTLE TIMES