Being Frank: Everyone Should Celebrate The Makah Whale Hunt

Special Note: Many of you have heard my words over the years. I hope you have learned to trust what I say, because I have always spoken the truth. I speak for the salmon, and try to build bridges of understanding between the Indian and non-Indian people. These bridges must be built if we are to live together peacefully and work toward common objectives. The taking of a gray whale by the Makah Nation has resulted in death threats to tribal members. We cannot take these threats lightly, and we ask that you don’t either. These threats are signs of rising sickness in mainstream society that cannot be ignored. The Makah whale hunt was a good thing, I promise you. This Being Frank column is my effort to help you understand why this is so. I ask you to try very hard to understand, and to make a genuine effort to help diffuse the many misrepresentations that some opponents of the hunt have instigated. Ignorance is the breeding ground of hatred and prejudice. Please help us eliminate this ignorance by speaking the truth to your children, to your relatives and to your neighbors. Please stand up for the truth and help make the bridge between our different worlds one that stands on solid ground.

Olympia, WA 5/21/99—Whoever you are, you should join the Makah Tribe in celebrating its harvest of a gray whale. You should celebrate this return of a sacred practice to some of the most culturally connected people in the world. You should celebrate the return of justice and vitality to a tribe that has been repressed over this past century, and celebrate the recovery of gray whale populations to the historic levels needed to sustain harvest. You should understand that life begets life, and that the spirit of the whale lives on in the Makah people. It lives in the rejoicing of the elders, the strength of the warriors and the rekindled excitement of the children. It lives on because that is the way the Creator intended it to be.

It is hypocritical to condemn the Makahs for taking the whale, as some members of the mainstream society have done. The Makahs did not take the whale simply because they had the treaty-protected right to do so. That right has always existed. The tribe made a conscious and very painful choice to forgo its sacred tradition over the years because non-Indian commercial harvesters devastated whale populations. Just this year, many gray whales have died and washed up on the shores of this state. These whales may have been poisoned by the wastes of mainstream society. If so, you know the Indian did not do this. The Makahs are the Whale People, and they chose not to hunt through the years because of their love and respect for the whale. They chose not to hunt all these years because they, like other tribes, have always striven to be caretakers of the natural world.

Those who do not understand the Makah will question the logic of hunting an animal that means so much to them. Yet the principle is the same for all species of fish and wildlife. Non-Indians have always tried to force their way of life on the Indian. Yet we have lived here for thousands of years, in harmony with nature. Many non-Indian ways are strange to us. They permit their children dine on meat without teaching them to be grateful to the animals that died to feed them. Even vegetarians can be hypocritical. Agricultural practices kill more of nature’s creatures through habitat destruction than fishing and hunting ever will.

Televised scenes of the whale harvest disturbed some people, but it is the same as harvesting a salmon, deer or elk. This whale gave itself to the Makah, and the Makah respect that whale in ways many non-Indians do not understand. What people saw on television was the living culture and legacy of this land that long preceded today’s concrete and asphalt world.

The harvest of the whale and the celebration of the Makah people revived a critical cultural tradition. In their wisdom, tribal leaders who signed the treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s reserved those things that were most important for the tribe’s continued physical, spiritual and cultural survival: fish, shellfish, game and, in case of the Makah, whales. It’s important to understand that the tribes kept these rights when they signed the treaties. They never gave them up. They never will.

Even though the tribe has a clear treaty right to hunt whales,the Makah chose to work through accepted channels. They obtained permission to hunt from the federal government and the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Those who were surprised to see the whale shot after being harpooned should realize that this was part of the agreement with the IWC, to assure that the kill was quick and humane. For its own purposes, the tribe chose to make the hunt as traditional as possible, using a dugout cedar canoe and hand-thrust harpoon to initiate the hunt.

The tribe received its quota from a quota that had already been granted to a group of indigenous Russian people. In other words, the Makah quota did not increase the number of whales earmarked for hunting through the IWC. As stipulated in the quota agreement, the tribe will not sell any of the whale meat. It is to be used only for traditional ceremonies. The single exception can be carvings made from the whale’s bones by Makah artisans.

The Makah Tribe was completely above board with this hunt. It wanted every aspect of this historic return of their culture to be done right, and so it was. I congratulate the Makahs, and encourage others to do the same.

Being Frank is a column produced regularly by Billy Frank, Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Frank, an elder of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, has been an acknowledged tribal leader for more than 30 years. He has received many acknowledgments, including the Albert Schweitzer National Humanitarian Of The Year Award and similar honors from the United Nations and other esteemed local, national and international organizations. He is natural resources spokesman for the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington. Being Frank is produced regularly for your full or partial use.

Contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer, (360) 438-1180. For more information about the Makah whale hunt or other aspects of tribal life, please visit our website at

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