By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
Also see: Makah group plans to mark whale hunt anniversary Saturday in Neah Bay
NEAH BAY –– Fifteen years after returning from their tribe’s last legal whale kill, some members of the crew of Makah whale hunters who led that hunt set out again into the bay aboard the Hummingbird whaling canoe Saturday.
“It gives me chills. It just gives me chills,” said Charlotte Williams King.
Descended from a long line of whalers, King thought of her ancestors as she watched the canoes paddle in Neah Bay.
Her great-grandfather, John “Hiska” McCarty, dove underwater to tie closed the mouths of harpooned whales.
“I didn’t really realize it, but 15 years is a long time,” she said.
Saturday’s paddle, which included a chase canoe, was organized by the Makah Whaling Commission.
It commemorated the anniversary of the tribe’s successful whale hunt on May 17, 1999. It was the first time in 50 years that the Makah had harpooned a whale, and it happened aboard Hummingbird.
Members of the 1999 hunt crew led by Capt. Wayne Johnson were Theron Parker, Mike Steves, Darrell Markishtum, Glenn Johnson, Keith Johnson, Arnie Hunter, Franklin Wilson, Bruce Gonzelas, Dan Greene, Gordon Parker, Andy Noel, Donald H. Swan and Greg Arnold.
Most were aboard Hummingbird on Saturday.
Keith Johnson, president of the whaling commission, recalled the controversy that surrounded the 1999 kill of a gray whale, nicknamed “May,” whose skeleton now hangs in the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay.
“Last time we had a whaling crew in that [canoe], those terrorists, those eco-terrorists, that were out there in their Zodiacs waking our boat and throwing smoke canisters at us,” Keith Johnson remembered.
The last whale killed by Makah tribal members was in 2007, when a group of five illegally shot dead a gray whale.
Members of the 2007 crew were Wayne Johnson, Parker, Noel, Gonzales and William Secor Sr.
Wayne Johnson served five months in federal prison and Noel 90 days for their roles in the kill.
Hummingbird was retired in 2006 after it capsized, killing Joseph Andrew “Jerry” Jack, a hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht tribe of Vancouver Island, during an InterTribal Canoe Journey.
Some had called for Hummingbird to be burned, Keith Johnson said, saying it had been cursed.
“You don’t burn a whaling canoe,” he said Saturday. “You bless it.”
The Makah voluntarily stopped hunting gray whales in the 1920s when populations diminished. Gray whales were listed as endangered species in 1970.
When the species was taken off the list in 1994, the Makah worked to resume subsistence hunting.
In the 15 years since the legal kill, the tribe’s right to hunt whales, guaranteed in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, has been embroiled in court reviews over science.
After being allowed to hunt in 1998 and 1999,which ended in the killing of one whale, whale hunts were stopped shortly thereafter by a federal court order saying the Makah needed an environmental impact statement to obtain a waiver from the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The International Whaling Commission in 2007 granted the tribe the right to kill as many as 20 whales over five years — with no more than five in a single year — but it still must get a federal waiver to conduct a hunt.
“We have judges that are animal rights activists that will do anything to put a road block in front of our treaty right to hunt whales,” Keith Johnson said.
“Just leave us alone.”
Conservationists say they are pleased that it’s been 15 years since the last legal hunt.
“We feel differently about the 15th anniversary,” said Margaret Owen, who formed Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales with her husband, Chuck, to speak against the tribe’s whale hunts.
“There’s 60 whales that could have been killed in that time,” Owens said.
A draft environmental impact statement underway in 2008 was stopped by new scientific information that found the group of gray whales that frequents the Washington coast has distinctive genetic markers that differentiate them from the 20,000 gray whales that migrate along the West Coast.
“Those resident whales would have been gone,” Chuck Owens said.
Donna Darm, associate deputy administrator for NOAA’s west region, said Thursday a new statement incorporating that information should be ready for public review by the fall.
Darm and Keith Johnson noted that the tribe’s hunt plan calls for kills of transient whales only.
The 1999 hunt was uplifting for many members of the tribe, according to Makah General Manager Meredith Parker.
“There’s a lot of pride that has stuck with us from that 1999 hunt,” Parker said, “because we did it the right way.”
But the rogue 2007 hunt created divisions, Keith Johnson said, pointing out there was no event to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 1999 hunt.
“Do you see the whole tribe here?” he asked as he pointed to the three dozen people on the beach before Saturday’s commemorative paddle.
Saturday’s paddle began with a prayer for more unity from Gordon Lyons and a song for good luck from Darrell Markishtum.
Keith Johnson expressed hope that divisions within the tribe could be closed.
“It’s our traditional food, and people still want it,” Johnson said. “And if for no other reason, a lot of people here will support us for the treaty right.”
Johnson also pointed to the tribe’s cohesion in 1999.
“When we all get attacked, we all stick together. Because we’re one community.”