The criticism of Washington's Makah tribe concerning their request to once again hunt whales has become personal, mean, and ugly.
Early last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a draft environmental study in response to a request from the Makah Indian tribe of Washington, to return to harvesting a limited number of gray whales. The Makah based their request on a contract the U.S. government made with the tribe in 1855 (the Treaty of Neah Bay).
The United States got 450 square miles of land in the treaty, and the Makah received $30,000 and certain guarantees. One of those guarantees was the right to continue whale hunting. They also cite cultural and spiritual reasons for wanting to return to this ancestral practice.
The Makah have not done much whaling in the last decades. The last time they went out and legally harvested a whale was in 1999. Gray whales are also not endangered. They were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.
Whale biologists and the NOAA have determined that around 500 whales can be safely removed without harming the health or stability of the estimated 20,000 whale population. If the Makah get approval to begin whaling again they would be allowed to harvest a maximum of 24 whales over a six-year period and no more than five whales in any given year.
It seems like a pretty reasonable request from the Makah. The number of whales they would be approved to harvest would have virtually no impact on the health of the population, the species is not endangered, and the U.S. government would be honoring the contract they made with the Makah.
Yet the outcry and protest against the Makah has been as unfortunate as it has been predictable. A Seattle Times news story on the topic received close to 300 comments from readers, with few of them expressing support for the Makah. On the contrary, many of comments are not only opposed to the idea of whaling, but are outwardly and harshly critical of the Makah. A number of comments consist of personal insult and accusations, incorrect stereotypes, and question the motives and ethics of the Makah.
Here is a sampling of many of the criticisms:
"Wake up in your teepee, put on your buffalo skin, paddle out in your canoe and stick it with a wooden harpoon. Until then, spare us the 'spiritual existence' nonsense." [The Makah did not live in teepees.]
"Yes, let's take back federal welfare and food stamps and healthcare and casinos, and let them have whales." [The Makah do not have a casino.]
"They want to sell it [whale meat] to the Japanese."
"There are many natives that ate human flesh, should they be allowed to resurrect that tradition?"
"What is ceremonial about a 50-cal elephant gun, motor boats, winches, pickup trucks, chain saws and freezers?"
These kinds of comments are embarrassing. It's one thing to argue whether it is acceptable to harvest whales or not. It is quite another thing to attack a group of people - people who have a legal right, if contractual agreements still matter - with ignorant and unsubstantiated accusations for their request to be allowed to act upon that contract.
Is it not also a weak argument to demand that the Makah must resort to ancient tools and methods to legitimately pursue their hunting tradition? We don't expect deer hunters who partake of special muzzleloader-only seasons to forego modern blackpowder rifles, use only flintlock Pennsylvania long rifles, and dress in buckskin.
It seems highly questionable to criticize the Makah for wanting to reinstitute a hunting practice that was at one time central to their culture, that poses no harm to the viability of the animal species being hunted, would feed virtually all of the tribe, and would be well regulated and controlled.
It's not hard to imagine that many of the people criticizing the Makah aren't sending mail of similar tenor to CAFOs (factory farms) where cattle, hogs or chickens are crammed into detestably small spaces, fed diets of dubious content, and generally live miserable lives without ever experiencing the earth beneath their hooves before they are slaughtered en masse.
The contrast between the acceptance of that kind of protein acquisition and the opposition to protein harvest by hunting in the open sea is startling.
I could understand if the kind of vitriol and irrelevant personal attacks being directed at the Makah came only from animal rights zealots or anti-hunting factions, because that kind of behavior is what we've come to expect from those groups. It is dismaying, however, when some of those same kind of attacks appear to come from outdoor sportsmen. We in the outdoor sporting community need to be better than that.
As Danny Westneat, journalist with The Seattle Times said at the end of his piece on this subject last month, "The patronizing of the tribe is a disgrace. Either we make good on the deal they were forced to sign. Or try making them a better offer."