Whaling Report to the Makah Tribal Council

©1999, Jim Nollman

From the Interspecies Newsletter

I. Background

Interspecies Communication Inc. was originally chartered to provide a non-profit funding umbrella for a group of activists

working full time to put an end to mass slaughter of dolphins at Iki Island Japan. As the organization grew, those of us growing with it grew weary of confrontation as the environmentalist's modus operandi. We realized that political activism is more often against harmful activities than it is for the good or the helpful. No activist lasts long in the environmental business unless he or she is willing to be defined as the enemy of those being prodded to change.

Our own focus shifted away from political activism, and toward the sponsorship of creative solutions that nurture long term perceptual

changes in the way our culture views nature. Nonetheless, our concern for animal preservation and habitat remains unwaivering. We at IC were naturally dismayed when the US Marine Mammal Commission granted the Makah Tribe of Washington an "aboriginal dispensation" to kill up to five gray whales per year. The permit was granted even though the international whaling commission had turned down the original request. IC got involved in the issue, when several different environmental groups consulted with us about using loud underwater sound to redirect the grays away from a whaling boat. Two of the groups went ahead and purchased their own audio systems, then started an around-the-clock vigil at Neah Bay.

The Makah issue turned ugly in the fall of 1998. In September, Makah Council member Keith Johnson published a manifesto in the Seattle Times defending the tribe's desire to resume whaling. Johnson declared that the gray whale once brought great wealth to the tribe , implying that a resumption of the kill would somehow renew those economic riches.

Activist Ben White of the Animal Welfare Institute took that statement at face value and concluded that the Makah were planning to sell their whales, possibly to Japan. Ben believed that if he could find sponsors to grant the Makah tools and training to generate wealth without killing whales, they might be persuaded to stop. In November, Ben White went to Neah Bay to make his pitch to the Makah Tribal Council. Believng that most tribal members had no inkling of the passions aroused around the world by this issue, Ben invited me to make a separate presentation about the public relations aspects of the Makah putsch to whaling. What follows, is the report I presented to the Makah Tribal Council.


II- In Harms Way

This report was conceived to illumine the public relations aspects of the Makah whale hunt. If the analysis sometimes seems unsettling, please interpret it as observations about the public mood, and not necessarily reflecting my own personal feelings.

I speak to give a bit of historical grounding to the mass protest your people have endured since the whale permit was granted. To reiterate, between 1978-87 literally millions of schoolchildren around the world wrote letters directly to the Japanese government, in protest of that nation's whaling industry. This outpouring was the first political activism for an entire generation of children, and when the campaign finally led to a cutback in the quota, it was a profound experience for every one involved. Those young letter writers are now adults, and although many of them no doubt support native rights, they all support whales.

The sheer number of people involved, and the passions aroused in them by their own contribution, inevitably bodes ill for your aim that the protest must eventually dissipate. Certainly your our own elders understand the will of the opposition when they are quoted saying that the Makah return to whaling must ultimately harm the cause of native rights and culture. The Tribal Council would do well to heed that wisdom. Public relations is a subtle art, and it turns cruel when impeded by a disregard for cause and effect.

During my stay in Neah Bay, I heard a few tribespeople speak about gray whales traditionally bringing riches to the Makah. The implication was that the current hunt would again bring riches. You said much the same thing when you joined us for a few minutes at lunch. An unbiased observer would interpret your "riches" in one of two ways: either as an idealistic statement in support of tribal values and traditions, or as an insidious corroboration of U.S. permit documents disclosing the Tribal Council's intent to establish a market for gray whale meat. Despite the thoughtful claims you put forth in the Makah Manifesto, the Makah gain nothing by holding to the former, idealistic position when it is so roundly contradicted by public documents widely circulated on the internet. These documents are, of course, the basis of accusations about the Makah being in collusion with the Japanese Whaling Industry.

Given my understanding of the Japanese marketplace, this connection has never made sense to me. Sources in Japan inform me that the gray whale has not been consumed by the Japanese in recent memory and, historically, it was eaten only in times of great hardship. The flesh is considered mildly toxic, tasting and smelling of sulphur because of the species' predilection for straining mud for food. This judgment is further reflected by the Inupiat people of northern Alaska, who have been hunting and feasting on bowheads and belugas for millenia. The Inupiat refer to the gray whale as, "the whale that smells like shit." Since toxicity remains a mitigating factor no matter who kills or eats or sells gray whale flesh, I suspect that your own ancestors ate the species only in the strictest moderation, perhaps as a ceremonial validation of a kill or, in times of severe hardship. I'm hoping you can clarify this description, one way or another.

Reseach indicates that the riches you refer to were traditionally derived from whale oil. A gray whale killed in the fall would have supplied substantial energy for heat and light through the winter. In the spirit of symbolic linkage, this conclusion gives much added weight to Ben White's proposal to supply a wind generation system (bringing heat and electricity to Neah bay in perpetuity) in trade for not killing a whale.

Since the Japanese whaling industry has no market, or any other practical use for gray whale carcasses including the oil, I have been wondering why they would make a compact with your people they have no intention of keeping. I believe the answer can easily be found analysing the strategic thinking of the desperate institution of Japanese whaling. Who can doubt that the worldwide campaign against whaling has severely impacted the industry's ability to show a profit? Their best hope to continue killing large numbers of whales is to divide and conquer the protesting nations. Offering financial and technical support to bolster a Makah treaty claim certainly upholds that strategic objective. But for them to grant the Makah whaling technology in return for establishing a beach head in the United States, unavoidably places your tribe in harm's way. Whatever short-term assistance you receive, must be paid for in the very negative reputation you endure as accomplices to the internationally reviled Japanese whaling industry. Unfortunately, this scenario is already well-advanced, and explains why the Makah issue is much more often linked to Japan than to other aboriginal whaling cultures like the Inupiat.

Economics aside, your spiritual claim is especially conspicuous in the public eye, and it is therefore impossible to avoid as an issue of public relations. Nothing I heard during my two days at Neah Bay indicates that anyone besides a few isolated elders truly understands the explosiveness of your spiritual claim. Ben White's statement of a Holy War may seem overly dramatic, but it is nonetheless accurate. No one these days can claim a spiritual dispensation to kill a creature as admired as a whale, and not expect public condemnation for it. Your own gray whale emerges in the public imagination as a sacrificial victim, knocked off to rectify unspoken grievances and demands. Perhaps more troublesome to the public, is the Makah's own response to a declared spiritual quest. When stones get thrown at protesters, when visitors get threatened for disagreeing, when tribal elders get expelled for asking to be consulted on an issue of deep community import, when a community gets split in two, any claim of spiritual linkage too easily gets discredited.

In my job as a whale consultant, I am sometimes forced to be blunt with clients to salvage a bad situation. Having been asked to supply the Makah Tribal Council with an impartial outside opinion, I can only conclude that this whaling issue is a public relations disaster, not only for the Makah tribe, but also for NMFS, and for all the people who otherwise support Native American rights. Keith, in your role as a tribal council member, I must conclude by urging you to explore the benign alternatives proposed by Ben White, Craig McCaw, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

I recognize that this report probably arrives unwanted and uncalled for, but it is not written with disrespect. I have tried to be truthful here, providing you with analysis that may be difficult to ignore. If something rings true, or you'd like to probe deeper, you can contact me by email or fax and I will be glad to answer any questions you may have regarding anything written here. I am also happy to return to Neah Bay for a few days if a face-to-face conversation serves either you, the tribal council, or the Makah community as a whole. May this issue resolve itself without more pain being visited on anyone. Peace be with you.

sincerely, Jim Nollman
for Interspecies Communication Inc.