The Makah Indians of northwest Washington state, along with 14 sister nations on the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, have contributed immeasurable artistic and cultural vibrancy to the human family. Now they want to catch a whale, and a coalition headed by Canadian Paul Watson is bent on stopping them.
“I’ve had 30 anonymous callers accuse me of murder, and tribal members have received death threats,” Donny Swan, a 22-year-old Makah whaler, told this reporter. “But Watson’s attack on us makes no sense in the context of animal rights. We defend animals like no other people who have followed us. We’ve successfully maintained the environment for thousands of years.
“We only plan to take one whale this season. Our 1,800 people will use every part for consumption, not for quick profit like the Yankee ships who nearly exterminated the whales.”
Makahs exercise fundamental rights. In 1855 the Makahs signed a treaty guaranteeing continuance of their 2,500-year whaling tradition, a keystone of their social and material survival. But the Makahs suspended whaling in the 1920s because of the near-extinction of many species by industrial fleets.
Seven decades later, the grey whale is no longer endangered, while the existence of the Makahs is imperilled by poverty and alienation from their historic way of life. In 1998, therefore, the Makahs sought and received sanction from the U.S. government for a plan to catch up to five whales per year.
The Makahs have established strict guidelines for the hunt, which include bypassing calves and their mothers and meting out a swift death from a .50 calibre rifle. Nevertheless, their plan has met with intense opposition from a vocal international faction of misguided eco-activists who want the longstanding tribal practices of the Makahs restricted to museums.
Carnage for profit. When European colonists first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, they were awestruck by a staggering abundance of life. Fish churned seas, birds darkened skies pierced by towering forests, and mammals of all sorts flourished — all in harmony with the resource management of millions of indigenous people.
But in just two centuries, rapacious enterprises destroyed this multiplicity of life. By 1898, after only 50 years of whaling, commercial whalers had reduced the number of grey whales to 10 percent of their original population.
Whale bone was used to make corsets; whale intestines became perfumes, soaps and cosmetics. Harvested cheaply by indentured labour aboard the slaughter ships, other body parts were turned into pet food, oil for lamps, cooking, and heating, and much more.
Whales again an industry. Today, the fundraisers of PAWS, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), and other environmental groups use whales as sentimental symbols to keep their organizational coffers filled.
Greenpeace, for example, revived itself in the mid-1970s with an event in California where its supporters held a “call-in” to telepathically draw whales from around the world to a sanctuary.
“Whale artists” depict these marine mammals on velvet, plaster and driftwood, while Disney makes “Free Willy” a catch phrase. Movie stars and mystics do whale therapy, wherein they swim near and commune with cetaceans. Flotillas of whale watchers are so pervasive that they disrupt whale migration and birthing patterns.
This commodified whale worship exploits the alienation of people from nature and mocks genuine conservation efforts and effective concern for animals.
And concern is definitely called for. While grey whales thrive, many whale species are in trouble. Scientists warn that dwindling biodiversity is all too likely to lead to ecological catastrophe.
At the same time, the languages, territories, economies, and lifestyles of Aboriginal people around the world are also being extinguished.
The logical solution to degradation of the natural world is an alliance between indigenous people and non-Native conservationists against big business, the cause of ecological havoc. Many environmentalists understand the importance of the common interests they share with Native peoples and support the whaling rights of the Makahs.
Unfortunately, this is far from true of the leaders of the more than 300 environmental groups mobilized against the Makahs.
Anti-Indian terrorists. The racism of the campaign against the Makah is most visible in the actions of ringleader Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
In October, Watson yelled at a group of Makahs, “Just because you were born stupid doesn’t give you any right to be stupid.”
Watson’s hostility towards Indians undoubtedly pleases his friends in high places. He organized an anti-Makah press conference this fall with Jack Metcalf, who while sitting in the Washington legislature stated, “Black people are genetically incapable of governing themselves.” Metcalf, an infamous anti-environmentalist, is connected with both the reactionary “Wise Use Movement” and Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, an anti-treaty-rights organization.
Watson compatriot Willis Carto, notorious latter-day Nazi and publisher of The Spotlight, has praised Watson and Metcalf for their “just cause” against the Makahs.
Paul Watson, haul anchor! If Indians were to invade McDonald’s and harass diners over eating dead cows, they would be shot dead themselves. So what gives Watson and company the right to float an armada of ex-navy vessels sporting cannons, sirens, and loudspeakers into Makah waters and torment Indians and whales alike?
Nothing does. But apparently it would be more than these folks are capable of to target the real environmental criminals: big timbre; the mega-exploiters of mineral, ocean and oil resources; and sloppy chemical manufacturers and nuclear plant operators.
Design for a healthy planet. The Freedom Socialist Party unconditionally defends the right of the Makahs and all other First Nations peoples to define their own economies and cultures. Here in the Americas, for example, Natives should not be stripped of their traditional means of living and forced to service toxic waste dumps and operate gambling casinos to survive!
We believe that a global, socialist, feminist society that practices humanity toward abused human beings — working people of all colours, women, queers, the very young and very old, the disabled — will also do right by animals.
This new society will have much in common with the ancient societies of Native peoples, the world’s first and best environmentalists. Their system worked for them and for the planet they shared since before written history; today, it’s called communism.