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The Right to Whale

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Issue: 60 Section: Original Peoples Geography: USA, West Pacific Northwest Topics: history, whaling

May 14, 2009

The Right to Whale

First Nations encounter barriers to traditional whaling

by Kim Petersen

The Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth are trying to reconnect with their traditional lifeways, and the resumption of sustainable whaling is considered an important part of this. Photo: makah.com

TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF SNUNEYMUXW FIRST NATION (NANAIMO, B.C.)-On the Pacific Northwest coast, the nations of the Makah in Washington State and Nuu-chah-nulth on western Vancouver Island are struggling to engage once again with their heritage of whaling, which was suspended decades ago due to depleted whale populations.

On March 19, University of Washington American Indian Studies Professor Charlotte Coté was in Nanaimo to present a lecture entitled, “The Cultural, Societal, Spiritual and Dietary Importance of Putting Whales back on Our Dinner Tables: The Revitalization of Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Whaling.”

Whaling, said Coté, is central to the identity of the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth; it appears in their storytelling, art, and songs, and was also an essential part of their diet. The Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth are trying to reconnect with their traditional lifeways and the resumption of sustainable whaling is considered an important part of this.

Public opposition to hunting is strong for an iconic species such as whales. Moreover, the Makah face legal and bureaucratic barriers in the United States. In Canada, the Makah kinfolk—the Nuu-chah-nulth&mdashface lengthy treaty negotiations.

Article 4 of the 1885 Treaty of Neah Bay secured the right for the Makah (who call themselves Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx: “The people who live by the rocks and seagulls”) to catch salmon, and hunt whales and seals. For this right and money, the treaty holds that the Makah relinquished “their right, title, and interest in” about 121,000 timbered hectares of Olympic Peninsula land in what is now Washington State.

Coté explained that the smallpox-decimated Makah Nation had little choice but to sign the treaty “to protect what they could protect.”

But even what was "protected" is now under threat.

Gray whales were plentiful before “Yankee whalers” decimated the stocks, says Coté. In 1937, the US banned gray whale hunting and in 1972, the gray whale was placed on the endangered species list.

The Makah and the Nuu-chah-nulth honoured the ban on whaling.

Coté said the number of gray whales had dropped to 1,500, but now about 24,000 ply the Pacific coastline. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (FOC) states the gray whale population peaked in 1998 at 27,000. Up to one-third died from a food shortage between 1998 and 2002, but the population has since stabilized and is possibly growing, according to FOC.

After the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994, the Makah were given permission from the International Whaling Commission to hunt 20 gray whales (a maximum of five per year) until 2004.

In May 1999, a 9-metre gray whale gave itself to the Makah. Coté explained that in the Indigenous parlance and belief system, they do not kill creatures; rather the creatures give themselves to the people.

The taking of the gray whale was a major cultural event and the Makah community shared its meat. Eating whale, says Coté, is “an example of self-determination"; it’s important for both the cultural health of the community and the physical health of many Indigenous peoples, she said.

“Canada takes approximately 1,000 whales per year for food," said Kathy Happynook, author of Whaling around the World and Whaling for Food. This is hunting solely by Indigenous peoples.

Happynook, of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, noted that whaling has a long tradition among many Indigenous peoples in Canada: “[The Canadian government] pulled out of the International Whaling Commission in 1982 in order to protect the Inuit’s right to hunt whales. Until recently, Canada was one of the largest whaling nations in the world[in terms of the number of whales killed each year]. More than 50 communities still hunt whales in Canada.”

Not all First Nations in Canada are able to whale, however. The federal government has prolonged the whaling moratorium in the Maa-nulth (“villages along the coast”) Agreement—despite the gray whale population having reached a size where sustainable hunting can occur.

The Maa-nulth Agreement is a six-stage treaty negotiation process that started in 1994 to address First Nations aspirations and Indigenous rights to self-governance, which were recognized and affirmed under the 1982 Constitution Act. It involves the B.C. provincial government, the federal government and five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations whose communities approved the draft Agreement in Principle: Huu-ay-aht First Nation, Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h First Nation, Toquaht Nation, Uchucklesaht Tribe and Ucluelet First Nation. The treaty, signed by the Maa-nulth First Nations and the B.C. provincial government on April 9, 2009, still awaits federal government ratification.

Whaling was dropped from the Maa-nulth Agreement language in 2006; however, there was a side-agreement where the Maa-nulth First Nations agreed, for 25 years effective from date of the treaty, to hold off exercising their traditional right to hunt gray whales and sei whales in return for other benefits. Kathy Happynook explained, "That was the only way Maa-nulth could get grey and sei whales in the [side-] agreement."

The side-agreement acknowledges the Maa-nulth First Nations to be "historic whaling nations" with the right to harvest Fish for domestic purposes. The definition of fish includes marine animals. Moreover, it was stated that, "The grey and sei whales have recovered from industrial exploitation and are no longer considered by Canada to be endangered species" and the "Maa-nulth First Nations have the ability to propose an allocation for harvest of grey and sei whales in an annual fishing plan."

Hereditary Huu-ay-aht Chief Tom Mexsis Happynook, grandson of a whaler and supporter of Indigenous rights, was pleased that the right to future whaling is preserved by the side-agreement, despite the fact that traditional whaling by the Nuu-chah-nulth people will not be possible for some decades to come.

For the Makah in the US, their treaty right remains, but court cases have kept exercising that right in abeyance.

In Anderson v. Evans (2004), the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Makah Nation must obtain a waiver from government regulatory bodies if they wish to whale. The Makah have applied for a waiver and await a decision.

According to the Makah Whaling Commission, the whaling is to be conducted humanely and is to be non-commercial, with meat being shared among all people in the Makah Nation. Moreover, the Makah Whaling Commission stated, “We will only permit whaling if there is an unmet traditional subsistence or cultural need for whale in the community.”

The Makah Nation seeks understanding in their quest to hold onto their culture and way of life: “We ask the public to remember that throughout the history of the United States there has been a sad record of intolerance of Indian culture. We hope that thoughtful Americans will ask themselves whether they can and should respect the efforts of a small Tribe which is trying to preserve its culture in ways that are consistent with the conservation of natural resources.”

Kim Petersen is Original Peoples Editor for The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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