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Indigenous Makah tribe in Washington allowed to resume whaling tradition


A Native tribe in Washington State can hunt whales again. That's the news today from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency issued this final decision after a bureaucratic process that had dragged on for two decades. The Makah Tribe has a longstanding cultural practice of whaling, but it's had just one approved hunt in the past century. Now it has a waiver that allows it to hunt and kill up to 25 North Pacific gray whales over the next 10 years. Bellamy Pailthorp of KNKX in Seattle has been following the story and is with us now. Hi, Bellamy.


PFEIFFER: Would you bring us up to speed on the long history that led up to today's decision?

PAILTHORP: Sure. So the Makah Tribe says they have always been whalers, going back for as long as anyone can remember. There is an archeological record showing whales were a central part of their diet for over 2,000 years. The tribe made sure whaling was in their treaty of 1855 with the United States. But then in the 1920s, whale populations were decimated by commercial whaling, and the Makahs voluntarily stopped.

Then, after gray whales recovered and were taken off the endangered species list in 1994, the tribe petitioned to start again. They got approval for a hunt, and in 1999, they harpooned and killed one whale. But they faced a lot of opposition, especially from animal welfare groups, and there were lawsuits filed that forced them to stop. Since then, the federal government has revised their process for approving a new hunt so that it wouldn't be as vulnerable to lawsuits, and that's the approval that just came out today.

PFEIFFER: And what's been the reaction from the Makah Tribe?

PAILTHORP: Well, jubilation, really. I spoke with tribal chairman T.J. Greene. He said the Makah Tribal Council got the news on a conference call, and shouts of joy went up, including at least one amen. He says the approval today is important because whaling is at the heart of the Makah culture. And exercising this treaty right is about connecting with their cultural and spiritual identity as a people, and they now have a clear pathway for getting back to that.

Now, the question next is, when will they hunt? They do still need a permit from the federal government before they can go ahead, and the Makah whaling crews need time to prepare for a traditional hunt from a cedar canoe. Chairman Greene said he thinks next spring is probably realistic.

PFEIFFER: You said that last time one of these hunts happened, more than 20 years ago, there was opposition from activists. Are we seeing that same response this time?

PAILTHORP: No, not really. Members of the tribe have described to me the scene in the 1990s where some of them, you know, received death threats over the hunt. This was widely reported in the news at the time. There was protests from animal welfare groups out on the water. And Chairman Greene tells me the tribe put up a checkpoint on the only road in and out of their reservation in Neah Bay as a security measure. Today, Chairman Greene says he has received a handful of hateful emails about the hunt, but he says the tribe also has a large number of environmental groups like Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Ecotrust, all supporting the tribe's right to a ceremonial and subsistence hunt. That's different than 25 years ago.

And there are still at least two groups on record opposing the hunt on what they call scientific and legal grounds, The Animal Welfare Institute and a local group called the Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales. Both say they're disappointed in the federal government's decision and that there is just no humane way to kill a large whale from a moving vessel. They plan to make that point when the tribe seeks its permit for this hunt.

PFEIFFER: That is Bellamy Pailthorp of KNKX in Seattle. Thank you.

PAILTHORP: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "LA BALLADE" ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Bellamy Pailthorp
[Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio]