Defend Indigenous Sovereignty without conditions! Global sisters debate Makah whale hunt

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One morning in early June, as I was checking email messages, I found several postings on an international feminist list with the subject title, “Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party support Makah Tribe whaling!!” The exclamation marks alerted me to the possibility of controversy. The first whale hunt in 70 years by the Makah of Washington state had been met with violent reaction from sections of the environmental and animal rights movements. So why not from the feminist movement as well? Sure enough, attached to our U.S. section’s congratulatory message to the Makah Tribe, posted on Global Sisterhood Network, were some disturbing attacks.

Radical Women in Australia had been following events in the lead-up to the hunt, which featured a sinister alliance of prominent anti-whaling activists with ultra-rightwing property-rights fanatics, including the fascist Wise Use Movement. We asked ourselves: what would happen here if an Aboriginal tribe were to hunt dugong in their waters or allow a company to mine uranium or dump waste on their land?

What do traditional hunting and uranium mining have in common? The right of Indigenous nations to redress centuries of dispossession and to shape their cultures and economies. This is sovereignty. The road leading there is covered with a thick political fog – and the battle over the Makah hunt shows how perilous this can be.

In 1855, the Makah signed a treaty guaranteeing their 2,500-year-old whaling tradition. In the 1920s, they suspended the whaling because of the near extinction of many species by industrial fleets. Seventy years later, the grey whale is no longer endangered. But the Makah’s existence is, by poverty and alienation from their customary way of life. With their old-growth cedar forests decimated by industrial logging and the salmon disappearing through pollution and dam construction, the Makah say they have no other way to survive except to restore their whaling. They devised a plan, with strict guidelines, for catching up to five whales per year. Last year the U.S. government approved it.

Racist feeding frenzy. A campaign of disinformation and hysteria swiftly moved into gear. Its objective: to abolish the Makah treaty rights. The method: fabricating a conflict between the “greedy” Makah and the “gentle” grey whale, and using racism to do it.

The crusade’s ringleader is Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who has proven his racist credentials many times over. On one occasion, for example, he taunted a group of Makah: “Just because you were born stupid doesn’t give you any right to be stupid.” Watson was firmly embraced by white supremacists in high places, like Republican Congressman Jack Metcalf who is on record for saying that “Black people are genetically incapable of governing themselves.” Metcalf has connections with the anti-environmental Wise Use Movement and anti-treaty rights organisation, the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance. He is joined by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a list of similar “environmental” organisations in running a lawsuit against the tribe to strike down their right to hunt.

In October last year, Watson headed a 3-ship flotilla of ex-navy vessels equipped with cannons, sirens and loudspeakers to harass both whalers and whales alike. But efforts to stop the Makah hunt did not end there.

The right wing’s propaganda war against the Makah has been fierce and unrelenting. Its whale worship jingoism turns them into genocidal killers, and the word “holocaust” is freely used to describe their hunt. It characterises them as people with a tradition of human sacrifice and slavery, resembling Pauline Hanson’s vile misrepresentation of Australian Aboriginal culture as cannibalistic.

A bit of historical accuracy would have stopped Watson et al in their tracks. An example: by 1898, commercial whalers had taken only 50 years to practically empty the Pacific Northwest – leaving behind only 10% of the original grey whale population. This grand-scale slaughter supplied many lucrative markets, from perfume to pet food. Compare this to the ecologically managed hunts of the traditional owners, maintaining an abundance of life – fish, birds, animals and plants – for thousands of years. Another fact: Indigenous communistic traditions respect all life. The Makah call themselves Kwih-dich0chuh-ahtx: “People who live by the rocks and seagulls.” “Makah” is the name given them by their neighbouring tribes; it means “generous with food.”

By the time the hunt began on May 17 at Neah Bay on Washington state’s northwest tip, debate was raging between defenders and opponents of the hunt. Tamara Turner, a longtime member of Seattle Radical Women, says “The whaling event has unleashed the foulest stench of racism I’ve ever experienced.”

Signing up for the wrong side. It is not surprising that rightwing agitators and politicians would coalesce as a strike force against Indigenous treaty rights. There is long partnership between white supremacy and private property rights. Big propertied interests have always called the shots – from the plantation owners, cattle ranchers and railroad barons of last century to the mining and commercial fishing enterprises of today.

A major prong of the anti-Makah forces’ strategy is to recruit from the popular movements. They’ve had some success. This is the really ugly side of the property rights war.

Several pro-whale environmentalists have publicly said that one Makah will die for every whale that is killed. On May 17, this almost happened. A Makah man was on the ferry to Seattle; he was returning from the tribal celebration of the first kill. Three white guys bashed hum, taking turns to kick him in the ribs. No one tried to stop the beating until ferry workers intervened. Like other Makah, he had already received many death threats.

The attack on the Makah is pervasive, as one of the postings I read from a Seattle Global Sisterhood Network subscriber shows. An insidiously poisonous mix of arguments for killing off the Makah’s tribal rights, her message goes like this. Fist, there is some Makah opposition to the hunt. Second, animal activists protesting the hunt were subjected to sexist and homophobic name-calling by some Makah. Third, the hunt is “all-male,” therefore innately predatory and oppressive. Fourth, the Makah are setting the precedent for renewing commercial whaling. Indigenous hunting rights, she said, must be confined to subsistence.

These arguments aren’t new. In fact, they’re sickeningly familiar. Remember the cynical brouhaha, whipped by the pro-development forces behind the Hindmarsh Island bridge project in South Australia, that Ngarrindjeri women were divided over their claim that the site is sacred? This became the basis of a viciously racist, sexist witch-hunt leading to a royal commission “finding” that the women’s story was fabricated. Similarly, some members of any oppressed group will display sexism, homophobia and racism. A profit-making system that exploits us in all these ways also keeps us at each other’s throats – that’s the nature of oppression. To condemn the Makah’s struggle because individuals called anti-hunt protesters “pussy” and “faggot” plays right into profiteers’ game plan. To oppose them on this basis is fundamentally racist. So is the radical feminist stereotype of the hunt, which is dismissive of its matriarchal communalistic origins and traditional significance. How often do we hear anti-male feminists say that Indigenous cultures in Australia are patriarchal because of this same non-sexist division of labour between women and men – or the recent emergence of domestic violence in their communities, caused by more than 200 years of dispossession and genocide!

An Indigenous Global Sisterhood subscriber, Nandita Sharma, answered Paul Watson & Co’s scaremongering about renewing commercial whaling, which the Seattle radical feminist had blithely repeated. Sharma cited the Khukoki of Russia, who hunted 165 grey whales per year for around 40 years without breaching the international moratorium on over-harvesting. She said: “These green imperialists would have us believe that extinguishing Indigenous self-determination is the only way to prevent superpower over-harvesting of whales.” She was equally scathing of the demand for substance hunting: setting economic limits “negates the right to cultural and economic self-determination.”

Environmentalists who focus exclusively on whales or feminists who segregate women’s struggles from all others can end up in the camp of the racist right wing, as the Makah hunt demonstrates. What, other than style, is the difference between their arguments and words of Vancouver Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter: “If the price of the Nuu-ch-nulth achieving self-determination…is the enshrinement of their right to kill whales, then fuck ‘em!”

Sovereignty for First Nations, not global predators. The Boigu Islanders of the Northwest Torres Strait hunt dugong in one of the world’s most important habitats. By 1991, the Boigu population had been reduced to 240. Except for five positions as clerks and quarantine officers, the community depends on welfare. The dugong is a significant part of their traditional custom and diet. Their hunt is not under Boigu control, but is a government-approved and monitored project. The Indigenous dugong hunters of the Boigu waters and the rest of Australia are presently spared the wrath meted out against the Makah. But reaction can turn against them at any time, if it’s in industry’s interests.

Radical Women unconditionally defends the right of the Makah and all Aboriginal nations to define their own economies and cultures. We would defend the customary hunt of the dugong if it were to become as controversial as the grey whale hunt of Neah Bay. Similarly, if the Mirrar traditional owners of Kakuda had decided to let ERA mine Jabiluka, we would stand by their right to make this decision. We would also strongly argue against the decision and work collaboratively with the Mirrar to urge a change of policy.

Socialist, feminists, unionists, environmentalists all have a direct stake in aligning with Indigenous nations to reclaim their heritage — no conditions or strings attached. The real predator is in the boardroom, and it’s stalking all our rights.

A teenager who spoke to Radical Women at a pro-Makah demo in Seattle said this well: “The cop over there told us it’s illegal to skateboard here in the Mall. But I guess it’s legal to threaten Indians and bomb Yugoslavia, huh?”

Says a Makah supporter in Vancouver: “I too believe in the dire need to save the planet. If we don’t make dramatic changes soon, all talk of socialism, feminism, the eradication of racism will be rendered a moot point.” Uniting with the world’s first and best environmentalists will bring on that change.

To the Chairperson and members of the Makah Tribe:

Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party send our warm congratulations to the Makah Tribe and our young whalers on the taking of the tribe’s first whale in 70 years. What a wonderful, historic day you have given to all who live in the Pacific Northwest. Your courage and persistence in this fight have been an inspiration to us. We unconditionally support your treaty right to hunt whales.

We are appalled that Makah sovereignty is being challenged by unprincipled racist protestors under the guise of saving the environment. The only “environment” they hope to enhance with their protest is the dollar they make from the commercialisation of whales as sentimental symbols of the natural world. We notice these protestors never target the tourist industry whose boats kill whales, nor corporations whose pollution poisons these mammals of the sea.

Anyone with good sense knows that Native Americans are not to blame for the decimation of whales. The Indigenous people of the Northwest sustained the environment and the planet’s resources for thousands of years. However, industrialisation ravaged the land and sea in a couple of centuries.

Both RW and FSP supported the tribes in the fishing rights struggles of the 1970s on the Puyallup and Nisqually rivers. Ann Rogers, a Chippewa Radical Women member, went to Wisconsin in 1989 to join her tribe’s fight to exercise its treaty right to spearfish on and off the reservation. Due to the determination and courage of Indians to defend their culture, these battles resulted in victories via the courts.

Today, we extend our support to you. We have written letters and editorials on your right to whale hunt to our local papers, and we demonstrated yesterday at the Federal Building in Seattle to support the Makah. If there is more we can do, please feel free to ask us.

Again, we congratulate you on your successful hunt and the calm way you are handling the uproar. We celebrate with you in our hearts.


Ann Rogers, Radical Women

Debra O’Gara, Freedom Socialist Party

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