The Problematic Issue Of Tribal Whaling Among The Makah

For this year’s Research Report, I had decided to look into the issue of tribal whaling, under the topic – Human and other species. The allowance of tribal whaling has been repeatedly questioned across nations and cultures. The Makah has been hunting whales for at least 2000 years, and it has been said by the Makah elders that they will continue whaling until their tribe no longer exist. However, by the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were killed annually world-wide. The plummeting number of whales is heavily affecting the balance of ecosystems and life under water.

Therefore, many animal rights organizations such as Marine Mammal Protection Act has started to send a request to governments and United Nation, asking for the cut off in tribal whaling despite the Makah’s cultural traditions. However, due to an early commitment made by the USA government of not affecting the rights of Indian American to freely access the resources in and the ocean in exchange of their land, they could not approve the request send by different organizations.

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Yet, considering such devastation of marine life underwater and the tradition of Makah tribe, to what extent should tribal whaling be allowed?

To start with, tribal whaling should be cut down and limited to its minimum as this act is negatively and heavily affecting balance of ecosystem. Although the government could not permanently ban the Makah from whaling, they had prohibited the action of whaling in the 20 centuries for around 70 years, in order for the population of whales to grow back.

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This proves tribal whaling unimportant and unnecessary for the Makah as they are able to live without such important tradition for long as 70 years. Furthermore, the founder and president of Sea Shepherd Conversation Society – Paul Watson had expressed his disappointment and anger towards the inhuman killing of whales in an article “Five Incompetent Makah Make a Mockery of Traditional Whaling”. In this article, Paul Watson expresses his opposition on the allowance of tribal whaling from the government. He uses a fact of an inhuman murder of whale to prove his saying as well-trained Makah leaders had once fired 16 bullets into a whale’s body but failed to hit one vital organ. This is against the Makah’s commitment of killing humanely with modern weapons. Therefore, the Makah leaders had failed to demonstrate their liability and ability to kill a whale efficiently and humanely by using a modern weapon – gunpowder. With such incident of carelessness, it is fairly reasonable for the organizations and government to prohibit and question the credibility in promoting a triable whaling operation. On top of this, the Makah had repeatedly betrayed their promise. A series of condition was set up and agreed by both the government and Makah in 1855 for the Makah tribe The treaty of “Neah Bay”. When the Makah tribe asked for the right to freely access the North Pacific Ocean in exchange of their land, they had agreed upon ensuring the healthy condition of the ocean, this include protecting the environment and controlling the population of marine lives to maintain a balanced ecosystem. However, they had failed to stick to their commitment as the population of whales had plummeted due to their over whaling. The dramatic decrease in population of whales globally is not solely caused by Makah’s tribal whaling, but also the selling of whale meat for sashimi in Japan and other countries. Japan has been estimated to have begun the whaling activity in the twelfth century and was heavily involved in commercial whaling. This resulted in a rapid decrease in population of whales, and also the economy of Japan as the hunting was reckless, violence and cold blooded. The Japanese showed no mercy. However, they kept away the truth, and hidden their real colour. The citizens didn’t know how the whales were hunted down and the suffered to death until the expose of the truth, they then stopped buying whale meat for a while till the government had responded to punish the crimes. Similar tragedy like Japan also happened in many other countries. Therefore, I think whaling should be prohibited and controlled as it is devastating hundreds or even millions of lives despite the excuse of maintain a culture and tradition.

On the other hand, many argues that whaling should be allowed because just as other animals, whales should be treated as a resource for food and other products. This is similar to one of the purposes of tribal whaling, which is use whale meat and bones as a resource of food and other cultural materials. Although some western societies view whales as special specie which requires particular protection, this view is not agreed upon and shared by other societies. Despite the trend of dropping numbers of whales, the Makah argues that the government had stopped their whaling activities during the 20 centuries for around 70 years, which provides enough time for the population of whales to recover. Furthermore, whales as predators do lots of damages to fish stock, which many fishing industries depend for their livelihood. A cull of whales through tribal and commercial whaling could help reduce the damages and loss. Although I also understand that killing of whales is brutal and crucial, but it carries a heavy meaning for the Makah. The tradition of whaling has been essential and the event of a whale hunt requires rituals and ceremonies which are deeply spiritual. The whale hunt also acts as an inspiration of their tribal songs and dances, it has become the base and a reference for all Makah activities. It has been said by the Makah that whaling is what connects their spirit to the sea and to their ancestors, and they could never be separated. Prohibiting whaling could be equal to taking away one’s soul and their desire to live. Anine Bowechop – director of the Makah museum once said that as an outsider judging and determining what something means to a culture is incredibly insulting and racist. Moreover, the Makah had declared that they had also made compromises as they are now using high-powered rifles instead of harpoons when hunting, to reduce the suffer of whales to the minimum. The Makah also clarifies that they have not been overhunting since they were allowed to resume their hunt. In fact, they only caught one in five years. Another reason why tribal whaling never and still won’t be prohibited is that the activity of whaling was approved by the government in 1855 in exchange of the land. Therefore, once the government withdraw their commitment and forbid whaling, they would be facing an issue to handing the land back. Furthermore, the issue of over whaling for different purposes has been revealingly occurring across the globe. Consequently, if the government prohibits Makah whaling operation, it wouldn’t be fair as many other countries has not been forbidden to hunt whales.

In conclusion, I think tribal whaling should be allowed to a very small extent because whaling particularly over whaling could also be considers as animal abuse especially when an incident of inhuman murder of a whale had been recorded. Also, although animals don’t have a critical thinking mind, they are overall lives, and all living creature should be treated equally. However, as the Makah tradition comes up, it is also understandable for their whaling operation. But it Is vital to acknowledge the number of whales the tribe had hunted and take care of the balance of ecosystem. Throughout this research, I have learned the importance of maintaining a balanced ecosystem, and respect every culture. Although you might not be able to make a connection with the culture, but a basic understanding and respect should be shown towards a culture. However, a balanced view should be made by the government. Therefore, I think tribal whaling should not be allowed to a great extent as the Makah could hunt 1 in every 5 years, just as what they accomplished after the resume of their hunt. However, animal organizations also shouldn’t be too emotional towards this issue. Saving whales while saving a culture is what everyone looks forward to.

Updated: Feb 19, 2024
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The Problematic Issue Of Tribal Whaling Among The Makah. (2024, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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