Case Study: WHALES AND WEST-COAST NATIVES

Michael Williamson (whe_william@flo.org)
Mon, 10 Aug 1995 20:56:46

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This file is being sent in ASCII from Joan Goddard at
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To marmam...the following is the text of an article I prepared for the Victoria
Times-Colonist.  It is based on the established authorities on native whaling an
d some additional research of my own.  I will be glad to furnish references upon
 request.
 
Joan Goddard   E-mail ul149@freenet.victoria.bc.ca
 
 
                   WHALES AND WEST-COAST NATIVES
                   Published in the Islander,
                     Victoria Times-Colonist
                          July 23, 1995
 
                          Joan Goddard
 
"How could they?!"  The reaction might have been expected when the Makah Nation
at Neah Bay, Washington quietly inquired about the possibility of resuming a tra
ditional whale hunt in early May. The alarm sounded even louder when Vancouver I
sland's Nuu-chah-nulth laid traditional whaling on the table for recognition  in
 current treaty negotiations a few weeks later.
 
Killing whales has been viewed world-wide with increasing concern for over sixty
 years. When the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling  was ena
cted in 1946, the world's whale populations were declining as a result of too mu
ch killing.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has made special allowances for subsi
stence whaling by "aboriginals"  such as American, Canadian and Greenland native
s whose ancestors hunted whales for thousands of years.  Along with acknowledgem
ent of their need for meat is the recognition that the hunt is tightly interwove
n with native culture.
 
The Makah plan to ask the International Whaling Commission for approval to hunt
up to five gray whales per year for subsistence and ceremonial purposes.  This w
ould instill in their young people, they claim, the traditional values which hav
e held their people together over the centuries, and would augment their diet.
The United States guaranteed them the right to whaling and sealing on their usua
l and accustomed grounds in a treaty signed in 1855.
 
To understand the importance of whaling to these west-coast native people, one n
eeds to look at their history.
The Makah of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vanc
ouver Island's west coast were at one time a single cultural group.  Only in rec
ent history were they separated by an arbitrary international boundary between t
he  United States and Canada. They shared a marine-based way of life for thousan
ds of years, hunting humpback and gray whales migrating close to shore along the
 Pacific Coast.
 
Not only did whales provide tons of meat; their blubber eaten fresh or rendered
into oil was highly prized. The bone, baleen, gut, and sinew from their carcasse
s were utilized in numbers of ingenious ways. Whale oil was a unit measurement f
or wealth.  It was used as bride price, for potlatch gifts and for trade with ot
her tribes and the later white traders.
 
Whale hunting  had a spiritual context every bit as important as the economic co
ntext. The success of a whale hunter depended on his spiritual preparation which
 required months of prayer, bathing and fasting.  The  hunter was seen not only
as strong and daring; he was honoured for a relationship with the spirits that w
ould permit him to kill a whale.
 
Only certain chiefs and their kin had the honour of hunting whales; an honour pa
ssed down within families.  It was accompanied by private ownership of secret ri
tuals and songs.
 
While published accounts  have given us a general idea of how the native hunt wa
s conducted, elders are still filling in the details from a rich oral tradition,
 according to Hereditary Chief Tom Happynook (Mexsis), great-grandson of the Ohi
aht whaling chief, Mexsis.
 
A whaling expedition required a 35-foot cedar dugout canoe with paddles pointed
to cut the water silently. The chief was positioned in the bow with his 16-foot
harpoon shaft tipped with  a mussel-shell harpoon.  At the stern sat an experien
ced older relative as steersman. His job was to signal to the chief the right mo
ment to throw the harpoon into the whale, and eventually to kill it with his lan
ce. In between, seated two on a thwart, were men who had each a specific job.
 
The six- to nine-man crew could paddle with such strength that the canoe might g
o as fast as  7 knots. (An excited whale can swim at 15 to 25 knots.) On the bot
tom of the canoe lay twenty or more sealskin floats which had been soaked the ni
ght before the voyage and laid flat.  These, each with a length of cedar bark li
ne attached, were blown up by one of the crew on the way to the hunting grounds.
 
 
Once a whale was located, the canoe approached silently from behind, coming up t
o within three feet of its left side.  The hunter stood poised with his harpoon
shaft overhead for the exact moment to throw.  Timing was  critical....the whale
's head should be submerged at the beginning of a dive, but the tail flukes must
 also be underwater.  Otherwise the canoe would be thrashed and broken up when t
he animal reacted to the hit.  The steersman watched and gave the signal.
 
The moment the harpoon was plunged into the whale the paddlers backwatered furio
usly. As many as a dozen floats tied onto the harpoon line were tossed overboard
. These slowed the whale, kept it from sinking, and provided a marker when he s
urfaced.  Since the harpoon line was not fast to the canoe, the whale swam off a
nd had to be pursued.  More harpoons with floats were darted into him by other c
anoes standing by.  In order to assure that the whale would not sink, more than
20 sealskin floats might be pinned into it.
 
Pursuing the harpooned whale,  the crews began singing the chief's songs and sha
king rattles to persuade it to swim towards the village. They cut the whale's fl
ipper tendons with their knife-sharp paddles.  Then, using the paddle tips like
prods, they flanked the whale as it weakened, urging it shoreward.  As the exhau
sted whale became quiet, a fatal thrust with the lance was made just behind the
left fin. Then it was one man's job to dive into the water with a knife and rope
 and lace the jaws shut so that when the towing began, the gaping mouth would no
t fill with water and create drag.  It could take hours, sometimes days, to tow
the whale home.
 
The whale was anchored in front of the village to await high tide, and then pull
ed as far up the beach as possible to be cut up. The "saddle" piece, carefully m
easured around the dorsal fin or hump, was removed first for ceremonial purposes
 and given to the chief. Then the blubber and meat were distributed according to
 strict protocol.  The skeleton was left on the beach to be picked over later fo
r useful bone.  Celebration over the successful hunt could last for days.
 
European and American whaling ships almost eradicated the gray whales after thei
r  calving lagoons were discovered on the coast of Mexico in 1846. Those whales
that escaped encountered shore-based whalers along the California coast as they
headed on their annual spring migration north to Alaska and Siberia. But the whi
te man's commercial hunt for gray whales ended by 1880. The gray whales had beco
me so few that for the next few decades scientists really believed they had beco
me extinct.  An international agreement in 1946 protected the slowly recovering
gray whales.  Now their numbers are believed to have returned to the level that
existed before commercial hunting. The United States government has removed them
 from its endangered species list.
 
Though there were still humpback whales to hunt, the disappearance of the gray w
hales must have been a major factor  in  the West Coast natives' reduced whaling
  in the latter part of the 19th century.
 
At about the time the gray whales disappeared, an alternative occupation appeare
d with the advent of pelagic sealing. The natives had always hunted seals in the
ir canoes for meat, oil and skins. In the 1860's and 70's white schooner captain
s began recruiting them with their canoes to hunt migrating fur seals on six- to
 nine-month voyages extending from California to Bering Sea and even to Russia a
nd Japan.  For the west coast natives, pelagic sealing was to become a major occ
upation. It was the first opportunity native people had had to earn money, a lot
 of money by the standards of the day.  But there was a down side. They were awa
y too long to be able to whale, hunt and fish.
 
In 1897 the US government forbade sealing by Americans and the Makah were forced
 to give up.   It was a step toward the 1911 closure of fur sealing in the North
 Pacific.  Some Makah returned to whaling, continuing on a limited basis through
 the first decade of the 20th century.
 
On Vancouver Island, native crews continued sealing on Canadian schooners at lea
st through 1908. When pelagic sealing ended with the Treaty of Washington in 191
1, 861 natives were among the Canadian sealers who claimed loss of income from t
he closure. Some said they had made up to $500 per season at fur sealing. The tr
eaty did allow native sealers, both American and Canadian, to continue sealing f
rom shore in their traditional way, using canoes and spears.
 
When the sealing cruises ended, BC natives found work in the fishing industry. W
hile the men fished or worked on the wharves, their wives worked in the cannerie
s.  Again traditional food gathering had become secondary. They were now entrenc
hed in a cash economy.
 
Generations have passed since native hunters went out into the Pacific Ocean in
dugout canoes to hunt whales. But there are old people who remember hunts as lat
e as 1945:  hunts to prove they could still do it. Bill Happynook, son of Chief
Mexsis, was a member of the crew when they brought  the last whale into Dodger's
 Cove in 1928.  It had been almost twenty years since the Ohiaht had killed a wh
ale. With wonder still in his voice he recalled in a 1989 interview,   "So much
meat!"
 
 
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