Contesting Leviathan: Activists, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict

Contesting Leviathan: Activists, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict

by Les Beldo

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In 1999, off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, the first gray whale in seven decades was killed by Makah whalers. The hunt marked the return of a centuries-old tradition and, predictably, set off a fierce political and environmental debate. Whalers from the Makah Indian Tribe and antiwhaling activists have clashed for over twenty years, with no end to this conflict in sight.
In Contesting Leviathan, anthropologist Les Beldo describes the complex judicial and political climate for whale conservation in the United States, and the limits of the current framework in which whales are treated as “large fish” managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Emphasizing the moral dimension of the conflict between the Makah, the US government, and antiwhaling activists, Beldo brings to light the lived ethics of human-animal interaction, as well as how different groups claim to speak for the whale—the only silent party in this conflict. A timely and sensitive study of a complicated issue, this book calls into question anthropological expectations regarding who benefits from the exercise of state power in environmental conflicts, especially where indigenous groups are involved. Vividly told and rigorously argued, Contesting Leviathan will appeal to anthropologists, scholars of indigenous culture, animal activists, and any reader interested in the place of animals in contemporary life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226657370
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Les Beldo lives in Michigan and is a cultural anthropologist specializing in morality, science, and the environment. He was previously a visiting assistant professor at Oberlin College and a postdoctoral fellow at Williams College and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

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It's Who We Are

Why whaling, and why now? If there is a consensus among scholars, it is that the continuing attempt to revive Makah whaling represents a reaffirmation of identity and sovereignty, or what the legal scholar Robert Miller (2000) calls "an exercise in cultural self-determination." Walk down Neah Bay's main street or visit the collections at the Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC) and this interpretation will not seem farfetched. Whaling imagery is ubiquitous in the village. The tribe's insignia, an illustration of the primordial god Thunderbird clutching a gray whale, adorns the facades of businesses and government buildings. A documentary on the revival of whaling produced by the Makah Whaling Commission runs on a continuous loop at the MCRC, where whaling is a centerpiece of the museum's permanent exhibit. Down on the waterfront, a giant, moss-covered whale skull sits in Keith Johnson's front yard not far from where his grandfather dragged his last whale ashore over a century ago.

"Who are the Makah? Whalers," Makah elder Greig Arnold put it succinctly. "That's the first word out of the mouth."

In a 1998 op-ed for the Seattle Times titled "The Makah Manifesto," Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission, wrote:

No one can seriously question who we are; we are a small Native-American tribe whose members were the whalers of the American continent. We retain our whaling traditions today. It resonates through all of our people from the youngest to the oldest, and we don't take kindly to other people trying to tell us what our culture is or should be.

The assertive "we" of Johnson's manifesto leaves little space for dissent. Yet his own position in the community belies this notion of untroubled consensus. The head of the whaling commission and the former general manager of the tribe, Johnson is also a member of a prominent whaling family. Whaling was the sole occupation of elites prior to contact with Europeans, and the ability to identify direct "whaling ancestors" remains a salient distinction today. Those who can claim such ancestry tend to view whaling as an exclusive, hereditary right. "Every Makah has the treaty right to whale," Johnson told me on a number of occasions, always followed by a pregnant pause. To me, at least, his implication was clear: just having the treaty right did not mean one should climb into a whaling canoe and exercise that right. Wayne Johnson (no relation to Keith), the captain of the 1999 crew and never one to put too fine a point on things, once told a reporter, "I come from a whaling family, on my grandmother's side and my grandfather's side. It's in the blood. We have songs and dances around it. It kind of separates us from the rest. Not everyone in Neah Bay is a whaler."

The tribe conducted a household survey in 2002 that found an overwhelming majority of tribal members — over 95 percent — supported continued efforts by the tribal government to reinstate the whale hunt. There are clear indications that it was not always this way, however. At least a sizable minority initially opposed the resumption of whaling when it was first publicly discussed in the mid-1990s. According to two Makah elders who opposed the hunt, active support for whaling was limited to an influential minority, with a majority of tribal members expressing ambivalence or apathy for the project. A former Makah Tribal Council member and ardent supporter of whaling recalls,

In '96, '97, '98, alls our people saw was, oh the Council wants to do this so they can travel. That was a common, common grievance within the community. Aberdeen, Scotland. Monaco. Grenada. And, there's, um, fifteen, twenty people each time that went to these. And they were all related to the Council at the time. So, at first [whaling] was a real divider.

There is still a sense in the community that people from whaling families have more to gain from the resumption of whaling, while other, less traditionally powerful families may stand to benefit more from the modern political configuration of the tribe and its one-person-one-vote rule of governance.

As a pithy tagline for a complex set of motives, the claim that whaling is who we are ignores or conceals these unresolved tensions. The aphorism implies a monolithic and primordial Makah Tribe acting with a single will and purpose. None of this is out of the ordinary in the era of identity politics and race-based rights. Comaroff and Comaroff (2009) have shown how ethnically based political identities can lead to "thin" presentations of ethnic solidarity, purged of any nuance, that deny internal divisions while simultaneously reproducing internal inequalities (44). Rather than simply stamp this sort of rhetoric with the imprimatur of the academy, we might ask how it is that whaling, once the sole privilege of elites, has come to be the activity most associated with what it means to be Makah.

The timing of this shift offers some clues. The return to whaling gained broad support in the Makah community only after antiwhaling activists announced their opposition to it, coinciding with an increased emphasis on treaty rights in the tribal government's public discourse. Among the respondents to the tribe's household whaling survey, nearly half cited the "maintenance of treaty rights" as the primary reason for their support of whaling.

Reflecting on the time he served in federal prison for his part in the 2007 rogue hunt, Andy Noel spelled out the stakes of the conflict for him:

I have no regrets from doing that. I missed my family, but in the long run, I didn't give in. I couldn't give in. And, you know, it's much more than just us, there's a bigger picture and it involves Indians across the nation; I've always realized that, and I can say that I stood my ground. Not many people can say that. I've gone against one of the [most] powerful countries in the world and said, "eff you, man!"

As Andy's comments suggest, narratives that focus exclusively on what we might call the positive aspects of the hunt — the identity value added, if you will — miss the substantial meaning of the struggle for whaling rights to many people in the community. Narratives of cultural revival cannot account for the emphasis that is placed on the continuation of that struggle, especially for those who were not directly involved in whaling or who cannot claim to have had whaling ancestors. Much as Audra Simpson (2014) has shown how Kahnawà:ke Mohawk constitute their senses of self and sovereignty through various refusals (of Canadian passports, rights of settler-state citizenship, etc.), the Makah whaling conflict shows how identity can be constituted through refusals as well as through affirmation — in this case, a double negation: the refusal to accept no for an answer. The refusal I speak of refers to tribal members' unwillingness to acquiesce in the face of resistance from antiwhaling activists, whose agendas are all too reminiscent of the infamous restrictions imposed on Indian fishing by the state of Washington throughout the early twentieth century.

Rather than affirming a static and unchanging Makah identity, the return to whaling was much more about the stakes of not backing down, of not giving up, of what would be lost if the tribe did not kill a whale once resistance was met. The community's response to antiwhaling activists played upon histories of colonialism and domination of which the activists themselves may not have been fully aware.

This dimension of the conflict is best understood by placing the struggle for whaling rights in historical context, beginning with the social importance of whaling prior to contact with Europeans and continuing through the so-called fish wars of the mid-twentieth century.

A Brief History of Makah Whaling

The organized pursuit of whales and other large marine mammals was a culturally salient and socially important feature of village life for the Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx — the Wakashan-speaking people of the semiautonomous villages near Cape Flattery whose ancestors would later comprise the Makah Tribe — in the several hundred years prior to contact with Europeans. Like most Native American societies on the Northwest Coast, and especially those that historians and anthropologists have grouped under the Nootkan cultural type — or, as Arima and Hoover (2011) call them, the Whaling People (6, 16) — precontact Makah social organization was characterized by a high level of stratification based on hereditary status. Prior to contact, extended family lineages formed the elemental unit of social organization, demarcated by cohabitation in one or more longhouses under a single chief or headman. Each lineage was a microcosm of the social order and contained members of three distinct classes: an aristocratic class commonly referred to in ethnographic and historical literature as "chiefs"; a more numerous class of commoners; and slaves, members of neighboring indigenous groups who were either captured or purchased and were treated as property.

As class-based occupations, whaling and other modes of resource gathering conferred relative prestige that reflected and reinforced the stratified social order. Whaling, considered the most prestigious for its inherent danger and spiritual significance, was the hereditary privilege of the chief, an exclusive right he maintained by tightly controlling access to associated ritual knowledge. It is unclear how important whaling was to the subsistence and economy of proto-Makah households in the centuries prior to contact. Some scholars have suggested that precontact Makah and Nootkan whaling was solely status driven: Drucker (1951) reasoned, for instance, that the social and ceremonial importance of whaling far exceeded its material value for the Makah's Nootkan relatives on Vancouver Island since "clearly the economic reward in proportion to the expenditures of time and energy was slight" (50). Swan (1870), on the other hand, speculated that whaling was once the most vital resource-gathering activity for Makahs, although he made his observations at a time when traditional Makah institutions had already been disrupted by colonialism. Colson (1953) gleaned that whaling was second only to halibut fishing in terms of material importance to the tribe. Waterman (1920) called halibut fishing the "mainstay of [the Makah's] existence" and stated that halibut was "more important from the point of view of their food economy than [was] the killing of whales" (9). Based on the memory of their informants, early ethnographers reported that while blubber was prized, whale meat was not often utilized, either because it was not considered flavorful or because it spoiled before the whale could be butchered (meat spoils much more quickly than blubber, and it commonly took days to bring the dead quarry back to the beach; see Waterman 1920, 46). Even if only blubber is considered, available quantities were probably still massive enough to allow for consumption and trade in surplus oil. Makahs traded extensively with other indigenous groups along the ocean coast and river basins. Access to large quantities of whale oil was probably a factor in making the Makah "middlemen" in a vast trading network that extended hundreds of miles from Vancouver Island in the north to the Columbia River in the south.

Trade with white settlers was an important factor in the consolidation of villages under nascent regional chieftainships after contact, and whaling may have played a key role. In the spring of 1788, British trader John Meares anchored near Tatoosh Island and attempted to open trade with the Makah. Meares had been drawn to the region by the prospect of a booming trade in sea otter pelts, the abundance of which had been reported by James Cook after his first encounter with Nootkans on Vancouver Island in 1778. After sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction, Makah traders turned to whale oil as the primary trade good. The Hudson's Bay Company established a permanent presence in the region along with other fur trading companies, and Makah traders were eager to cultivate relationships with the company. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the regional economy was dependent on systems of exchange between Native villages and European settlements. Makah whale oil was sold to local settlers as well as to distant markets in Boston and Europe. By the 1840s the Makah were engaged in what amounted to large-scale commercial whaling, selling tens of thousands of gallons of whale oil to white traders and settlers each year. In 1852 alone, the Makah landed twenty-four whales and sold an estimated sixty thousand gallons of oil on the commercial market. As an indication of their market dominance, HBC officials at the time referred to whale oil as Cape Flattery oil.

In 1855, shortly following two calamitous smallpox outbreaks in the villages, Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens brought his treaty council to Neah Bay to negotiate with the Makah. Stevens was in the midst of negotiating a series of treaties with Native bands in the region, the aim of which was to bring the groups under US control and eventually to effect their assimilation. Makah negotiators reportedly showed little interest in Stevens's offer of agricultural training and the usual treaty accoutrements, instead insisting on the guarantee of continued access to marine resources. The resultant Treaty of Neah Bay guaranteed the Makah Tribe the right of whaling and sealing in common with other citizens of the United States, the only Indian treaty to expressly do so. In a singular exception to the boilerplate Stevens treaty language guaranteeing tribes the right "to take fish at usual and accustomed places," Makah chiefs successfully prevailed upon Stevens to include an express mention of whaling and sealing. The treaty included promises to outfit Makah whalers with materials and technology for whaling, reflecting the importance of the activity to the tribe and the region.

Despite the pride of place given to whaling in the Treaty of Neah Bay, by the end of the 1850s the importance of whaling for the tribe began to decline. Successive smallpox outbreaks had interrupted the transmission of ritual knowledge that was so important to the practice, and the treaty's more egalitarian provisions eroded the traditional hierarchies from which whaling drew its social and cultural significance. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) showed little faith in the whaling- and fishing-related promises of the treaty and instead pursued a standard agrarian assimilationist agenda, even though it was known at the time that the Makah Reservation contained very little land suitable for cultivation. James Swan, a BIA agent who wrote the first ethnography of the tribe, was fascinated by local cultural traditions and lobbied for tribal fishing rights (his extensive diaries have been useful to contemporary Makahs in recuperating some lost traditions), but Swan's successors pursued more aggressive assimilation agendas and sought to stamp out Makah dances and potlatches. In a poetic (and practical) display of resistance, the narration of which has become an oft-repeated contemporary trope, Makahs took the agricultural implements they were given and refashioned them into fishhooks and whaling lances.

Commercial opportunities in seal hunting attracted the attention of young men away from the reservation in the years following the signing of the treaty, providing an alternative means to the wealth and prestige once exclusively afforded by whaling. After working as crewmen on white-owned sealing schooners in the 1880s, a number of Makahs earned enough money to purchase their own schooners; by 1892, tribal members owned ten sealing schooners, sometimes employing whites as navigators. The profits from sealing allowed the tribe to consolidate their control over the Makah Reservation through the purchase of previously white-owned businesses in Neah Bay. Makah whaling expeditions virtually ceased in the period between the 1860s and 1880s as sealing was booming.

Even if sealing was favored over whaling at the time, it is notable for the future significance of Makah whaling that it was the hunting of a marine mammal — the fur seal — that created wealth and sovereignty for the tribe at the same time that it provided the most effective form of resistance against BIA efforts at assimilation by drawing able-bodied young Makah men away from the reservation and the agency school. Commercial sealing placed unsustainable pressure on seal populations, however, and by the 1890s seal numbers were in severe decline. In one of the earliest conservation measures by the US federal government, severe restrictions were imposed on pelagic sealing, and in 1897, all pelagic sealing was banned, with the exception of Native hunts that used "traditional methods." The manner of the restriction was likely as traumatic to tribal sealers as the restriction itself. In acquiring schooners and modern implements, Makahs had charted an apparent path to wealth and success in the face of modern challenges. In limiting them to only "traditional methods," the new law froze legitimate indigenous practice in a precolonial past, rendering Makah investments in modern technology useless.


Excerpted from "Contesting Leviathan"
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Copyright © 2019 Les Beldo.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


One / It’s Who We Are
Two / We Eat Them
Three / Everything Is Connected
Four / This Fishery Will Be Managed
Five / You Just Don’t Kill Whales
Six / The Science Has Ruled
Seven / The Whale Approaches


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