A Difference of Opinion

For this post I wanted to show two different videos portraying two different viewpoints on the Makah whale hunt of 1999 (apologies for the poor quality of the second video, but it had the best content out of other choices). Watching the two videos (the first in particular), pay attention to the ways in which the anti-whaling party producing the video utilize a full range of cinematography strategies to sway the viewer. Everything from music, text, and narration to the way in which different groups and actors are portrayed. The two videos are very different and come from very different opinions, and its always important in a debate to hear the arguments of both sides.


Indigenous Economic Ties to Whaling

A dominant concern surrounding aboriginal whaling, made countless times by anti-whaling groups like Greenpeace, is that it will open the door for the commodification and profit maximization of whales via internal makers run under the guise of “cultural necessity” (Caulfield 1993). Such accusations serve as an attempt to disconnect whaling from its “aboriginally” and “authenticity,” with the underlying assumption that culture is separate from economic trade (Erickson 1999). While commercial whaling is a global concern, such accusations as they are directed towards indigenous groups are narrow-minded and don’t take into consideration other important factors such as the social meaning that the exchange of goods has always had. Americans and other contemporary Western groups have a hard time fathoming such a notion because economic exchanges are experienced primarily through the exchange of money.

The economic situation of many native tribes today are less than stellar. As reported in my last post, Makah unemployment was as high as 50%. In whaling villages around the world, villages which have traditionally relied on the barter and trade of whale and other animal products, there is a general trend towards high unemployment and seasonal employment that leaves little room for these communities to participate in the cash economy (Miller 2000). In the mixed economies of Greenland, where less wealthy aboriginal whaling communities are allowed to sell a portion of their whale products, the revenue from such exchanges allow them to participate in their local economies and secure access to necessary goods. Amongst the Makah, however, such economic exchanges are strictly prohibited with whaling restricted to use as “subsistence food” only. It is yet another case of colonialism whereby the dominant society is attempting to stifle the cultures and life ways of native groups, leaving them with little ability to carry out their traditional and long-standing practices (whaling has occurred in Greenland for 4000 years, at Ozette for 1200-2000 years) and creating in some cases economic strains on family units that cause hereditary disruption and thus the loss of oral histories and songs propagated between generations (Erickson 1999). The Inuit community at Clyde River talks of high suicide rates in the 70s following the condemnation of whaling by campaigners created traumatic breaks in the fabric of the family unit, hindering the process of passing on cultural knowledge to the next generation.

What really gets me is that these organizations and volunteer groups that campaign for the abolishment of whaling rights don’t even stop to consider the impacts that their campaigns have on these communities. Whales constitute the primary economic resource for many villages, and help to constitute a more nutritious diet than the processed and low-quality foods that move in to replace them. The banishment of whaling leaves many groups in poverty, in poor health, and in socio-cultural despair as much of their traditional whaling knowledge, knowledge which constitutes their very identities, is rendered useless. And the general public doesn’t seem to care. It is time for the general public to take responsibility for their own actions and contributions to the strains put in native families and communities.

Works Cited

Caulfield, R. A. (1993). Aboriginal subsistence whaling in Greenland: the case of Qeqertarsuaq municipality in West Greenland. Arctic, 144-155.

Erikson, P. P. (1999). A‐Whaling We Will Go: Encounters of Knowledge and Memory at the Makah Cultural and Research Center. Cultural Anthropology14(4), 556-583.

Miller, R. J. (2000). Exercising Cultural Self-Determination: The Makah Indian Tribe Goes Whaling. American Indian Law Review, 165-273.

*Photo by Chie Sakakibara

Whaling and Nutrition


As I have already shown, whaling has been a vital source of meat, oil, and raw material for tribal groups in Washington state and on Vancouver Island. At Ozette alone, whale meat accounts for 78% – 88% of all meat represented by the faunal remains at the site. With whale meat being archaeologically proven to be an important food source constituting a large portion of certain coastal diets, an investigation is necessary to have into the ways in which the absence of whale products in contemporary diets due to bans that governments and commissions attempt to place on indigenous whaling have impacted community health and nutrition. In addition to attempts to restrict indigenous whaling, the forced consumption of imported and processed foods, the only foods left available to them once rights to traditional game and wildlife are taken away, have taken a turn on indigenous communities. Such communities tend to be low-income and are left dependent on government welfare programs, despite the many bitter and snide comments that I’ve personally heard about how “the Indians have their damn casinos.”

Studies about the benefits of diets high in whale meat amongst indigenous populations have been carried out extensively in places like Greenland, where the debate over aboriginal subsistence whaling remains heated. Marine mammal fats are purported to be much healthier than other foods, containing omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to protecting against cardiovascular disease as well as other good quality fats that help prevent atheroscleoritc diseases (Miller 2000). Additionally, whale blubber and meat has the added benefits of healthy minerals and high energetic value. With such health benefits you can see why a return to a more traditional diet, even if this diet hasn’t been observed for over 70 years as was the case with the Makah, is beneficial overall. This is a fact that anti-whaling proponents often ignore when arguing that the Makah had no nutritional reason to go back to a whale-derived diet.

Reports of social and health issues amongst the Makah accompanied their proposal to resume their whaling traditions, many of which stemmed from diseases and nutritional deficiencies associated with consuming a low-quality Western diet and social disparities caused by a disconnect with their cultural identities (Cote 2010). The Makah tribe’s path towards reclaiming their traditional rights to hunt whale, rights they gave up in the 1920s, can be seen as a food sovereignty issue whereby the community is fighting for their right to choose to access and eat their traditional foods rather than succumbing to epidemics of diabetes attributable to the replacement of traditional diets with Western ones (Miller 2000). Keep in mind that it was European and American commercial whalers who devastated these communities’ traditional food source in the first place, and then expect to enforce a modern Western diet. Many communities express no desire to even eat European food or store-bough meat, making the food sovereignty issue all the more evident (Miller 2000; Caulfield 1993). The processes and procedures of colonialism seem to be never-ending.

Looking to studies done amongst the Inuit in Alaska, the encroachment of the Euro-American whaling industry into the Arctic has provided a case study with which we can begin to evaluate the impacts of Western society on indigenous health. By ascertaining the health of three different Eskimo regions before and after European contact, researchers have found that the introduction of Western foods into Eskimo diets not only increased the rate of dental carries and tooth decay from a high-carbohydrate diet but also caused a tremendously high incidence of anemia amongst infants (Keenleyside 1990). Iron deficiency anemia was reported to have occurred in children whose diets contained a high proportion of imported foods and not enough meat and fish, good sources of iron. The health benefits that a marine mammal diet provides and the social and spiritual unity and continuity with ancient practice cannot be understated, and the colonial underpinnings of contemporary dominant societies seem to be strong underlying forces still that attempt to suppress indigenous culture and life ways.

Works Cited

Caulfield, R. A. (1993). Aboriginal subsistence whaling in Greenland: the case of Qeqertarsuaq municipality in West Greenland. Arctic, 144-155.

Coté, C. (2010). Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah & Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions. Seattle: University of Washington.

Miller, R. J. (2000). Exercising Cultural Self-Determination: The Makah Indian Tribe Goes Whaling. American Indian Law Review, 165-273.

Keenleyside, A. (1990). Euro-American whaling in the Canadian Arctic: Its effects on Eskimo health. Arctic anthropology, 1-19.

*Photo by CJ Wilkes Photography

Archaeological Case Study: The Toquaht Project


The Toquaht Archaeological Project, taking place on Vancouver Island between 1991 and 1996 at three major and two minor village sites, has turned up an exceptional amount of data regarding the antiquity and extent of whaling practices amongst the Nuu-Chah-Nulth (or Nootka) peoples of Canada. The project was carried out with the cooperation of the Toquaht Nation, a small denomination of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth group residing in the southern side of the Barkley Sound. Collectively, these sites span the last 4000 years with artifact evidence of whaling appearing around 1200BP (Monks 2001).

Unlike Ozette, there is much more uncertainty surrounding the details of whaling antiquity and culture. The village site of Ch’uumat’a, one of the larger villages excavated, contains whale deposits dating to 3500 BP. At T’ukw’aa, the largest and most extensively excavated village site in the project and the village from which the Toquaht Nation takes its name, plays host to rich deposits of whale bones spanning the last 1200 years (Monks et al. 2001). Monks is careful to point out that the presence of whale bones at these sites do not necessarily indicate purposeful whale hunting; there is a great wealth of information in the ethnographic record telling of the close monitoring of shores for the emergence of drift whales and even of rituals performed by chiefs at private shrines attempting to cause dead whales to wash ashore which suggests that this was a common means of procuring whales (2001: 65). Additionally, there are many ethnographic accounts recalling large numbers of whales that were struck and lost, with the number of whales lost far outnumbering the amount of whales actually caught each season (Arima 1988). Considering that whales are sensitive to infection and death from even small wounds, it seems probable under these conditions that many of the whales in the Barkley Sound could be attributed to drift whales and not through active hunting. Nonetheless, Monks makes several observations that call into question the extent to which the Nootka people utilized drift whales.

The first is that the large number of whale bones present at T’ukw’aa and other sites on Vancouver Island cannot convincingly be explained in terms of only dead whales washing ashore. While I would like to uphold this theory as well, I have not been able to find a number or an estimate of exactly how many identifiable whale bones were recovered that would 100% convince me of such an idea, only that these whale bones were “numerous” or found “in significant quantities.” Secondly, and more interestingly, Monks points out that the dominant whale species present in the Toquaht assemblage is humpback whale, a species notorious for sinking to the bottom of the ocean upon death and thus making it highly unlikely that so many of these whales would have turned up on the shores of Vancouver Island on their own. This suggests to me that some level of purposeful whale hunting was going on at around 1200 BP and possibly even earlier, as some sort of process would need to be undertaken to get the humpback whale to shore without it sinking upon death. Overall this observation is incredibly interesting to me, especially since you can look at other sites with a firmly established whaling history like Ozette and see that 46% of their assemblage is comprised of humpback whale, whales which they needed to go out and catch (Huelsbeck 1988). Due to the anaerobic soil at Ozette which likely causes a large amount of preservation bias, it seems highly possible to me that whaling paraphernalia and hunting evidence has been lost at Vancouver Island thanks to differential preservation conditions and thus doesn’t constitute as complete as a sample as Ozette.

Despite the many questions surrounding the antiquity and the methods of Nootkan whale hunting in the Barkley Sound, elsewhere there are answers. This site provides a great example of how archaeological evidence can be useful for supplementing ethnographic accounts and oral histories. Compared to the whaling village of Ozette, where rich ethnographic accounts and archaeological data are available, there are less references available for the Nuu-Chah-Nulth whaling communities.The Toquaht studies have helped to provide a much more complete understanding of these societies than is available from the ethnographic record alone, especially in terms of whale butchery techniques and utilization. Elements of the whale skeleton that aren’t identified as butchery units in oral and historic accounts show clear markers of purposeful disarticulation when evaluated in the archaeological record (Monks 2001). For example, the ribs and vertebrae are not recorded butchery units, however in the Toquaht archaeological record these elements show definite marks characteristic of various cutting and chopping tools such as adzes and microblades. Whale butchery seems to have occurred on Vancouver Island to a much greater extent than has previously been reported ethnographically, with all parts of the whale skeleton displaying signs of fine as well as coarse cut marks and suggesting that the whale was a highly-utilized resource.

Works Cited

Arima, E. Y. (1988). Notes on Nootkan sea mammal hunting. Arctic anthropology, 16-27.

Huelsbeck, D. R. (1988). Whaling in the precontact economy of the central northwest coast. Arctic Anthropology, 1-15.

Monks, G. G. (2001). Quit blubbering: an examination of Nuu’chah’nulth (Nootkan) whale butchery. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology11(1‐2), 136-149.

Monks, G. G., McMillan, A. D., & St. Claire, D. E. (2001). Nuu-chah-nulth whaling: archaeological insights into antiquity, species preferences, and cultural importance. Arctic anthropology, 60-81.

*Photo by Robert Hitchman

In the News: Makah Tribe Marks Last Whale Hunt + Discussion


The article “Makah Tribe marked last whale hunt on Saturday,” written on May 18, 2014 for The Spokesman-Review, tells of the Makah Tribe’s organization of a feast and canoe ride to commemorate the 15-year anniversary of the tribe’s last legal whale hunt following a self-imposed decades long hiatus from the practice. The momentous event of 1999, where the Makah engaged in their first successful hunt since the 1920s when the gray whale became an endangered species, has since been the topic of countless books, scholarly articles, news stories, and animal rights campaigns and is even the event that inspired the undertaking of this blog!

Despite treaty rights to whaling established in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, whaling being an important point of negotiation between Europeans and the Makah during the colonial era, legal and social roadblocks have provided challenges for the tribe’s whaling initiative. Lawsuits by animal welfare groups following on the heels of the 1999 hunt put legal breaks on the Makah whale hunt, and by 2004 the Marine Mammal Protection Act further hog-tied tribal officials as the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Makah could not obtain a waiver to hunt whales for subsistence purposes until an environmental assessment, similar to an environmental impact statement in construction work, is conducted. An environmental review is currently underway as the tribe seeks authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency to commence another whale hunt.

As we have already seen at the Ozette site, whaling is an ancient Makah tradition that has been practiced for over a millennium. It is a practice that has created a central cultural identity based on the whale’s entrance into the spiritual, political, and social realms of society. One of the most popular arguments against Makah whaling is that they may seek to turn a profit off the whales they catch, opening up a portal for other nations to revive their commercial whaling efforts. Another, being thrown around largely by people who know nothing about law, is that the tribe forfeited their treaty rights to whaling in its 80-odd year hiatus from whaling; why revive a tradition that hasn’t been practiced in decades? I think the choice to abstain from whaling was a difficult but natural one; commercial whaling had over-hunted the gray whale, the tribe’s species of choice, into endangerment. You can’t hunt whale if there are few left to hunt, and the choice to refrain from whaling was in the best interest of the recovery efforts of the gray whale population, whose numbers had revived to nearly 30,000 in 1994 when the removal of the gray whale from the endangered species list marked the Makah’s reentrance into the whaling culture. The prayers, rituals, and preparation practiced by Makah whalers today demonstrates cultural continuity with the past, calling into question claims of “inauthenticity.”

I hope to address some of these arguments further in subsequent posts.

The Socio-Cultural Realm of Whaling


Thus far I have talked about the importance of whaling mainly in terms of its being an incredibly large and irreplaceable form of food and raw material, evidenced through the sophisticated whaling operations of groups such as the ancient Makah of the Ozette site and possibly trickling down to a less intensive form of whale-use as far south as Par-Tee in Seaside, Oregon. However there is a whole other way in which to conceive of the whale as an important social and cultural actor and that is through the evaluation of the ways in which whale permeated the complex social, spiritual, and artistic realm of the many varied groups along the Northwest Coast, including the prehistoric Thule whaling communities of the Canadian arctic and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth of Vancouver Island.

The Social Hierarchy of Whaling

One of the most obvious ways in which the practice of whale hunting permeated the social boundaries of indigenous coastal groups such as the Makah and Nuu-Chah-Nulth is the construction of social hierarchies and ideas of prestige that encompassed the act of preparing for and hunting such a large and graceful creature. Many archaeological and ethnographic accounts describe the chief as being the most important actor in the whale hunt, and logically so for the hunt requires many qualities necessary of an all-around good leader (Cavanagh 1977: 107). Not only must the chief remain in good political standing with neighboring tribes and his fellow tribal members by providing and distributing food when village supplies begin to run low, but he must also exhibit important traits such as demonstrating his good standing with the supernatural spirits aiding him in the hunt, commanding the respect and cooperation of his whaling crew, and of course demonstrating his prowess as a whaler. The chief is the first harpooner to strike the whale, and once caught the chief also reaps the best spoils of the hunt including the prized whale saddle. Amongst the Thule whaling societies of the central Canadian Arctic this paradigm is slightly different, with the most prominent figure in the whaling crew being the captain, not named so for his status of chief but rather for his status as a high ranking and wealthy male in the community (Grier 1999).

Regarding other figures in the whale hunt, research is a little less solid on exactly which individuals were permitted to engage in the hunt. Ethnographic accounts do not entirely eliminate the possibility that people other than high-ranking tribal members may have partook in whale hunts, but the extensive ritual preparation necessary to hunt a whale suggests that the elite class, who likely had the best of not exclusive access to this broad wealth of ritual and ceremonial knowledge, were the dominant practitioners of the hunt (Cavanagh 1977: 106-107). Elsewhere in the Canadian arctic, statistical analysis of the presence of whale hunting tools in the house assemblages of seven prehistoric Thule sites help to support the hypothesis that a division of labor characterized whaling crews. The results reveal the patterned emergence of three hierarchical categories of households associated with their role in whaling, revealing the more wealthy households of whaling captains, of specialized crew members, and of more generalized crew members. This would suggest that while almost everyone in these villages partook in whale hunting, a hierarchy still existed whereby differential ability to contribute to the hunt made for a differential distribution of goods with whaling captains receiving the best and largest portions of the whale products after a successful hunt.

Makah Petroglyphs near Wedding Rocks, Ozette Loop - Olympic Nati

Whales in Indigenous Art and Symbolism

While ancient art in the Pacific Northwest can be hard to recover due to high soil acidity, the image of the whale can still be argued as having an ancient root in Native American culture in light of evidence coming from the well-preserved archaeological wet site of Ozette. Late period house deposits here include incised and painted wooden planks containing the artistic motif of the whale in conjunction with the Thunderbird, a supernatural hunter of whales (Monks et al. 2001: 76). A carved wooden whale saddle inlaid with otter teeth is also one of the most prized and talked about pieces from this assemblage, and was likely displayed at the whaler’s home as a symbol of prestige and wealth. At the village site of T’ukw’aa in British Colombia, archaeologists from the Toquaht Project unearthed a small stone image of a whale, further displaying the animal’s proliferation into the artistic realm.

Monks also mentions the Little Beach site in western Barkley Sound, where whales bones laid atop burial mounds serve to suggest that the whale had a symbolic importance that extended back as early as 3000 to 4000 years ago. Next we will look to the complex physical and spiritual preparation that coastal whaling tribes devised for the hunting and capturing of this great animal.

Ceremonial and Ritual Preparation

The importance of whaling over other forms of hunting can be evaluated in terms of the intensive spiritual and ceremonial trials one had to endure in preparation for the hunt. The killing of the first whale of the season might be marked by a ceremony comprising of the sacrifice of a slave in some places, as well as ritual bathing, fasting, and prayer (Monks et al. 2001). Various ethnohistorical accounts recall rituals such as bathing several times a day in the ocean for a week prior to the hunt, cleansing themselves with shells and bush branches while other accounts talk of ceremonies involving both the whaler and his wife, who holds onto a line attached to her husband while he “dived and spouted water in the imitation of a whale” (Cavanagh 1977: 108). These rituals and ceremonies suggest that whale hunting was a very serious business, taxing to both the body and the spirit and thus requiring rigorous preparation.

Contemporary whaling preparation, as described by Charlotte Cote (2010) in her book discussing the preparation for the Makah whale hunt of 1999, requires its whaling crew members to adhere to a very strict regiment to prepare the body and soul for the hunt by abstaining from alcohol, smoking, and drugs and undergoing months of spiritual cleansing through purification ceremonies, rituals, and prayer. All of it is in the name of being spiritually pure for the whale, a creature which is believed to willingly give itself up only to those strong and pure of heart to feed the Makah people. The Makah have been condemned as murderers of these majestic and peaceful beasts, and while I can understand their views as an animal lover, I also cannot overlook the fact that the very act of hunting a while is a highly spiritual endeavor. The very rituals and ceremonies that accompany the whale hunt are to honor the spirit of the whale and prepare the whaling crew for being spiritually and emotionally worthy of hunting such an animal, an animal which will provide them with a surplus of food, oil, and raw material. In later posts, I will address more the social debate surrounding contemporary Native American whaling rights as opposed by animal rights activists and anti-commerical whaling organizations.

Works Cited

Cavanagh, D. M. (1983). Northwest coast whaling: a new perspective.

Coté, C. J. (2010). Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions. University of Washington Press.

Grier, C. (1999). The organization of production in prehistoric Thule whaling societies of the central Canadian Arctic. Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadien d’Archéologie, 11-28.

Monks, G. G., McMillan, A. D., & St. Claire, D. E. (2001). Nuu-chah-nulth whaling: archaeological insights into antiquity, species preferences, and cultural importance. Arctic anthropology, 60-81.

*Breaching humpback whale photo via John Hyde

*Orca petroglyph photo via Paul Gordon on Flickr

Archaeological Case Study: Par-Tee


The archaeological site of Par-Tee in Seaside, Oregon has, over the course of excavations here in the 1960s-70s, yielded certain key finds and pieces of evidence leading to an interesting debate surrounding potential whale hunting at this site, a site located well beyond the location of other archaeologically known areas for indigenous whaling. Systematic and intentional whale hunting has not been definitively documented outside of whaling areas around the Northern Peninsula of Washington State, Vancouver Island BC, and Alaska, yet the presence of whale remain embedded with a bone harpoon point raises some interesting questions about the territory of ancient Native American whalers. For this post I draw on the research of Robert J. Losey and Dongya Y. Yang, two of the few archaeologists to have published a detailed analysis of the whale remains at Par-Tee.

The occupation of Par-Tee radiocarbon dates to a period spanning about 2300 cal BP to 800 cal BP, with nearly 6,300 tools and at least 100,000 vertebrate remains recovered from the site, 16% of them identified as cetaceans which include minke whale, harbor porpoise, and various dolphin species (Losey et al. 2007). Over 350 modified whale bones are also present in the assemblage, predominantly in the construction of tools such as both barbed and un-barbed bone points, atlatls, ornaments, and a possible spindle whorl. Amongst the 324 complete and fragmented harpoon points present, made mostly of antler and terrestrial mammal bone with only two being made of whale bone, about 15 may be considered large enough to hunt whale with and while this doesn’t in and of itself confirm that the people of Par-Tee hunted whales it doesn’t eliminate the possibility either.

The most compelling piece of evidence from the site, dubbed “a smoking gun” by those enthusiastic about the idea that whaling was practiced in Oregon, is a humpback whale phalange deeply embedded with an elk bone point. Charcoal samples located in the same level as the phalange suggest that it was likely deposited between AD 650 and 950. Could this be proof that Native groups as far south as Oregon hunted whale, or is it a possible that the animal was struck by a harpoon further north and then swam or floated south where it made landfall on the Oregon coast? After DNA analysis of the bone point, researchers managed to exclude the Vancouver Island elk population as the source of the point but did not manage to rule out the Washington State elk population, a population whose territory may have legitimately spanned the coast from Washington to Oregon. Couple this with evidence reflecting that the elk bone embedded in the humpback whale shares identical genetic sequencing to other bone artifacts found at the site you have a very real  possibility that the bone point may have indeed been locally produced.

What can we conclude from this data? Ethnographic accounts from tribes located south of Ozette reflect very little information on the active hunting of large whales, or at least much less information than is available to the north where whaling traditions have been firmly established and proven. This is consistent with the archaeological evidence showing that tools and paraphernalia consistent with a deep-rooted tradition of whale hunting are not present in significant number south of the Olympic Peninsula. Losey instead concludes from his research that the Par-Tee village site’s relationship with whales was likely one of convenience and opportunity, with the humpback whale phalange demonstrating occasional hunting. The fact that the whale was pierced through the phalange, rather than into the side under the flipper as whalers to the north do, suggests a level of inexperience in the hunting of whales and is consistent with the theory that the people of Par-Tee were not experienced and accomplished whale hunters.

There is, however, ongoing research at the University of Oregon being conducted that has caught my eye. Gabriel Sanchez, under the supervision of Jon Erlandson, an archaeology professor at UO and the executive director of the school’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH), is looking to corroborate some of the stories and oral histories of tribes such as the Tillamook and Clatsop that pertain to whale hunting and he organization of hunting parties. The Par-Tee site is very intriguing and ambiguous, and I think the archaeological community will benefit from research projects like this one and would continue to benefit by having a greater amount of research done on this question of whale utilization in Oregon and other areas south of Neah Bay and Vancouver Island.

Works Cited

Losey, R. J., & Yang, D. Y. (2007). Opportunistic Whale Hunting on the Southern Northwest Coast: Ancient DNA, Artifact, and Ethnographic Evidence. American antiquity, 657-676.

*Photo via the University of Alberta