Commercial Whalers, Slave Traders…and Wolf Hunters

Now that I broke the ice, tested the waters and hopefully cleared the air by answering a reader’s question on a touchy subject in my last post, It’s Hard to Be Ethically Consistent While You’re Tap-Dancing on Eggshells, It’s my turn to ask a question:

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson

Why is it that when members of the Wedge wolf pack were being killed in Washington State, people throughout the environmental community were up in arms, but now that the Colville Tribe has announced plans to initiate the first hunting season on wolves in the state on their northeastern Washington Reservation, folks are staying mostly silent about it?

People are fond of saying that the Native Americans believed this…, or did that…, as though all tribes were of one mind and every individual felt the same way as each other about everything, regardless of which tribe they were with or what part of the continent they lived in. For example, I’ll never forget this line that made me scoff out loud during a lecture: “Native Americans never ate anything that died in fear.” What? How does an animal pursued and shot with arrows not experience fear?

European Americans have gone from thinking of the Native Americans as barbaric savages to egalitarian angels. Neither impression is based on a scientific understanding of human nature. And neither is the revisionist notion that all tribes were like-minded on every issue (case in point are the different attitudes on wolves expressed by the Colvilles, who plan to hunt the few wolves who have returned to their reservation, and the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region who respect wolves.   .

On a related issue, the following is an article I wrote while the Makah tribe were shoring up plans to kill whales off the Washington coast…

Commercial Whalers and Slave Traders

In a May, 1995 letter to the U.S. Commerce Department, Dave Sones, the Makah nation’s “fisheries” manager revealed the tribe’s intent “to harvest whales not only for ceremonials and subsistence, but also for commercial purposes.” This sentiment was recently echoed by Canada’s Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe, who also hope to get into the commercial sale of whale products.

Despite continued public support for whales, our IWC delegates struck a five year deal with the Russians to get the Makah a back-door quota of whales. In 1997, defying an international treaty on trade in endangered species, they traded 20 of the Alaskan Inuit’s bowhead whales (down to only 13 percent of their original population) for 20 gray whales from the Russian Chukotkas.

The Chukotkas were happy to trade up for the more palatable bowhead. Very few of them will even eat gray whales, which are said to have the texture of gum erasers and are known in their language as “the one that makes you poop fast.” (The real source of the gray whale’s nickname “Devilfish”?)

Seeing as how the Clinton administration is assisting the Makah in their effort to return to whaling, wouldn’t it be a nice, symbolic gesture for the President to join them in their ceremonial whaling preparations? These included prayer and self-flagellation, as well as fasting and sexual abstinence.

Other rites that were part of their whaling ceremonies are kept secret from “outsiders;” they are “nobody’s business.” Are there skeletons in the closet they don’t want exhumed? The media have depicts a Disneyized version of the historic Makah: a simple, sharing people, unique in their reverence for the Earth’s creatures. Summon the image of the Plains Indians, substitute whale for bison. But the coastal Makah were different, killing more prey then they could ever eat themselves.

Whales were rendered into oil to be traded along the Pacific. They were a source of great wealth for the tribal elite, who thought themselves superior to other Indians, including buffalo hunters. Although the primitive Makah’s ability to conquer massive sea mammals without motor boats or heavy artillery was impressive, it was also excessively cruel. And, according to European witnesses, so were some of the related rituals: “Since it was the first whale of the season, special ceremonies we involved…When it was brought ashore, a slave was sacrificed, and the corpse was laid beside the whale’s head, which was adorned with eagle feathers…” observed Haswell and Boit, eighteenth century writers. Boit understood that cannibalism was also occasionally practiced.

Slave trading was an integral part of the Makah socioeconomic structure. Slaves were considered chattel, a thing of less than human status, one step below “worthless people” in their caste system. Possession of slaves was prestigious; to sacrifice a slave on a formal occasion demonstrated an arrogant disregard of wealth. Unfortunately for their lower castes, this was before the United Nations Decade of Education in Human Rights.

In order to capture new slaves and acquire new territories, the Makah frequently undertook military expeditions to distant villages. Relying on the element of surprise, they would attack and kill all of the adult males in the unsuspecting tribe. Women and children were taken as slaves; infants and elderly were left for dead. Slain members of the conquered tribe were decapitated, their heads brought back to be displayed as trophies. Clearly, the killing of whales is not the only bygone tradition that modern society would condemn or reject if given a voice. The Makah continued to capture and trade slaves well after the 1855 treaty prohibited it.

Meanwhile, Japan, in their ongoing effort to promote the backslide into commercial whaling, discovered a crisis situation in 1995. They learned the number of their young people who had never tasted whale was on the rise! In answer to that shocking trend, their “fisheries” agency began a slick marketing campaign that included a home delivery service for whale meat. A quarter-pounder there now goes for $55.00 U.S. That’s without cheese. Or a bun. But a word of warning to those planning to stop by the Moby Dick’s franchise (coming soon to your neighborhood) for a juicy double-devilfish burger: Don’t forget the Kaopectate!