WHALES AND WEST-COAST NATIVES
by Joan Goddard
Published in the Islander
July 23, 1995
"How could they?!" The reaction might have been expected when the Makah Nation at Neah Bay, Washington quietly inquired about the possibility of resuming a traditional whale hunt in early May. The alarm sounded even louder when Vancouver Island's Nuu-chah-nulth laid traditional whaling on the table for recognition in current treaty negotiations a few weeks later.
Killing whales has been viewed world-wide with increasing concern for over sixty years. When the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was enacted in 1946, the world's whale populations were declining as a result of too much killing.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has made special allowances for subsistence whaling by "aboriginals" such as American, Canadian and Greenland natives whose ancestors hunted whales for thousands of years. Along with acknowledgement of their need for meat is the recognition that the hunt is tightly interwoven with native culture.
The Makah plan to ask the International Whaling Commission for approval to hunt up to five gray whales per year for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. This would instill in their young people, they claim, the traditional values which have held their people together over the centuries, and would augment their diet. The United States guaranteed them the right to whaling and sealing on their usual and accustomed grounds in a treaty signed in 1855.
To understand the importance of whaling to these west-coast native people, one needs to look at their history. The Makah of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island's west coast were at one time a single cultural group. Only in recent history were they separated by an arbitrary international boundary between the United States and Canada. They shared a marine-based way of life for thousands of years, hunting humpback and gray whales migrating close to shore along the Pacific Coast.
Not only did whales provide tons of meat; their blubber eaten fresh or rendered into oil was highly prized. The bone, baleen, gut, and sinew from their carcasses were utilized in numbers of ingenious ways. Whale oil was a unit measurement for wealth. It was used as bride price, for potlatch gifts and for trade with other tribes and the later white traders.
Whale hunting had a spiritual context every bit as important as the economic context. The success of a whale hunter depended on his spiritual preparation which required months of prayer, bathing and fasting. The hunter was seen not only as strong and daring; he was honoured for a relationship with the spirits that would permit him to kill a whale.
Only certain chiefs and their kin had the honour of hunting whales; an honour passed down within families. It was accompanied by private ownership of secret rituals and songs.
While published accounts have given us a general idea of how the native hunt was conducted, elders are still filling in the details from a rich oral tradition, according to Hereditary Chief Tom Happynook (Mexsis), great-grandson of the Ohiaht whaling chief, Mexsis.
A whaling expedition required a 35-foot cedar dugout canoe with paddles pointed to cut the water silently. The chief was positioned in the bow with his 16-foot harpoon shaft tipped with a mussel-shell harpoon. At the stern sat an experienced older relative as steersman. His job was to signal to the chief the right moment to throw the harpoon into the whale, and eventually to kill it with his lance. In between, seated two on a thwart, were men who had each a specific job.
The six- to nine-man crew could paddle with such strength that the canoe might go as fast as 7 knots. (An excited whale can swim at 15 to 25 knots.) On the bottom of the canoe lay twenty or more sealskin floats which had been soaked the night before the voyage and laid flat. These, each with a length of cedar bark line attached, were blown up by one of the crew on the way to the hunting grounds.
Once a whale was located, the canoe approached silently from behind, coming up to within three feet of its left side. The hunter stood poised with his harpoon shaft overhead for the exact moment to throw. Timing was critical... the whale's head should be submerged at the beginning of a dive, but the tail flukes must also be underwater. Otherwise the canoe would be thrashed and broken up when the animal reacted to the hit. The steersman watched and gave the signal.
The moment the harpoon was plunged into the whale the paddlers backwatered furiously. As many as a dozen floats tied onto the harpoon line were tossed overboard. These slowed the whale, kept it from sinking, and provided a marker when he surfaced. Since the harpoon line was not fast to the canoe, the whale swam off and had to be pursued. More harpoons with floats were darted into him by other canoes standing by. In order to assure that the whale would not sink, more than 20 sealskin floats might be pinned into it.
Pursuing the harpooned whale, the crews began singing the chief's songs and shaking rattles to persuade it to swim towards the village. They cut the whale's flipper tendons with their knife-sharp paddles. Then, using the paddle tips like prods, they flanked the whale as it weakened, urging it shoreward. As the exhausted whale became quiet, a fatal thrust with the lance was made just behind the left fin. Then it was one man's job to dive into the water with a knife and rope and lace the jaws shut so that when the towing began, the gaping mouth would not fill with water and create drag. It could take hours, sometimes days, to tow the whale home.
The whale was anchored in front of the village to await high tide, and then pulled as far up the beach as possible to be cut up. The "saddle" piece, carefully measured around the dorsal fin or hump, was removed first for ceremonial purposes and given to the chief. Then the blubber and meat were distributed according to strict protocol. The skeleton was left on the beach to be picked over later for useful bone. Celebration over the successful hunt could last for days.
European and American whaling ships almost eradicated the gray whales after their calving lagoons were discovered on the coast of Mexico in 1846. Those whalesthat escaped encountered shore-based whalers along the California coast as theyheaded on their annual spring migration north to Alaska and Siberia. But the white man's commercial hunt for gray whales ended by 1880. The gray whales had become so few that for the next few decades scientists really believed they had become extinct. An international agreement in 1946 protected the slowly recovering gray whales. Now their numbers are believed to have returned to the level that existed before commercial hunting. The United States government has removed them from its endangered species list.
Though there were still humpback whales to hunt, the disappearance of the gray whales must have been a major factor in the West Coast natives' reduced whaling in the latter part of the 19th century.
At about the time the gray whales disappeared, an alternative occupation appeared with the advent of pelagic sealing. The natives had always hunted seals in their canoes for meat, oil and skins. In the 1860's and 70's white schooner captains began recruiting them with their canoes to hunt migrating fur seals on six- to nine-month voyages extending from California to Bering Sea and even to Russia and Japan. For the west coast natives, pelagic sealing was to become a major occupation. It was the first opportunity native people had had to earn money, a lot of money by the standards of the day. But there was a down side. They were away too long to be able to whale, hunt and fish.
In 1897 the US government forbade sealing by Americans and the Makah were forced to give up. It was a step toward the 1911 closure of fur sealing in the North Pacific. Some Makah returned to whaling, continuing on a limited basis through the first decade of the 20th century.
On Vancouver Island, native crews continued sealing on Canadian schooners at least through 1908. When pelagic sealing ended with the Treaty of Washington in 1911, 861 natives were among the Canadian sealers who claimed loss of income from the closure. Some said they had made up to $500 per season at fur sealing. The treaty did allow native sealers, both American and Canadian, to continue sealing from shore in their traditional way, using canoes and spears.
When the sealing cruises ended, BC natives found work in the fishing industry. While the men fished or worked on the wharves, their wives worked in the canneries. Again traditional food gathering had become secondary. They were now entrenched in a cash economy.
Generations have passed since native hunters went out into the Pacific Ocean in dugout canoes to hunt whales. But there are old people who remember hunts as late as 1945: hunts to prove they could still do it. Bill Happynook, son of Chief Mexsis, was a member of the crew when they brought the last whale into Dodger's Cove in 1928. It had been almost twenty years since the Ohiaht had killed a whale. With wonder still in his voice he recalled in a 1989 interview, "So much meat!"
Joan Goddard - E-mail: email@example.com
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