There’s a pretty good academic essay on Makah whaling and Paul Watson’s camp here (it’s a .pdf). It ain’t perfect, but it lays out pretty clearly (at least if you’re used to academic-speak) the problem I have with Watson. I.e., he assumes the right to define entire Indian peoples out of existence if they don’t meet his own culturally-biased definition of what it means to be an Indian. Which is the very heart of anti-Indian racism.
Whales have become potent symbols of environmentalism as is evidenced by the successful 1970s ‘Save the Whales’ Greenpeace campaign. Whales turned into the poster child for conservation. The anti-whaling rhetoric of many environmentalist organizations is an important source of revenues. Whales are powerful fundraisers. They are invoked ‘as a metaphor for all that is sublime in nature’ (Gupta 1999:1742). Whales have increasingly become ‘charismatic’ or ‘flagship’ species (Kinan and Dalzell 2003). The environmental movement has totemized cetaceans that have come to represent the ‘goodness’ of nature. Though not all whale species are threatened with extinction, they are often lumped together as the endangered whale that needs human protection. Moreover, certain characteristics – including intelligence and sentience – are often attributed to this mystified ‘super whale’ (Kalland 1992, 1993, 1994) and supposedly make it akin to human animals. Some traits of different whale species are lumped together and projected onto this fictive marine mammal that is believed to be at or near the apex of a symbolic hierarchy in the animal world. The iconic status of whales and dolphins that evolved out of the environmentalists’ campaigns led to anthropomorphizing cetaceans. They were incorporated in human society first by keeping them in oceanariums, then by turning them into film and TV heroes (Flipper, Willy the killer whale) and stuffed toys. Whales became ‘pets’. Individual whales were also given names. For example, several so-called ‘resident’ gray whales in the Strait of Juan de Fuca became known among activists as Buddy, Monica or Neah (Sullivan 2000:125). The assumption that several whales were ‘resident’ was in itself an important issue in contesting the whale hunt.
In short, environmentalists, whale-watchers, whale-huggers, and the public at large have come to see whales not as a source of food and other products, but as sacrosanct gentle giants, representing a better kind of near-humanity. ‘My family, not your dinner!’ were the words on a protest banner. Some even regard whales as being superior to human beings. For instance, an opponent of the Makah whale hunt, computer expert Roedy Green, wrote this on his Website: ‘Killing a whale is a more serious sin than killing a human because whales are superior beings to us. They have brains much larger than ours. They are simply better creatures. [: : :] Killing whales is more barbaric than cannibalism.’ Though this is a rather extreme example, many believe that there is a very thin line that divides human beings from whales. Nature is thus incorporated into the cultural realm. What we have here is a special case of speciesism (cf.Dunayer 2004), the notional act of assigning different values or rights to beings on the basis of their biological species where usually human beings take top rank positions. The species that are imbued with special rights and moral values nowadays certainly include whales. With a variation on George Orwell’s Animal Farm: animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
But nature is only partly incorporated in the cultural realm; in some respects, it is at the same time relegated a place outside it. The direct human relationship to nature has been repressed thoroughly. Western urbanites are disconnected and alienated from the killing and butchering of animals (Vialles 1994). What goes on in abattoirs is meticulously kept from the public eye and the vacuum-sealed chunks of meat and fish sold in supermarkets are hardly recognizable as parts of once life animals. For example, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Susan Paynter wrote: ‘I felt queasy seeing self righteous protesters – most of them non-Indian urbanites removed from nature and the process that results in Big Macs. Stern-lipped, they scolded the Makah to find another, less barbaric way to recapture their pride.’ Some Makah also referred to the disengagement of Western urbanites from food procurement and raised the question of whether killing a whale was worse than fattening calves, confining them in stalls, so that restaurants can offer a tender piece of veal.
Apart from the above-mentioned issues, a considerable part of the debate relates to matters of tradition and authenticity. Whereas whales were made human, whale hunters were demonized as savage brutes. Opponents of the whale hunt believe that traditional subsistence is at odds with modernity and should be restricted to people wholly dependent on it. They often refer to ‘barbarism’ and ‘barbaric traditions’, to some extent harking back to the dogmas of evolutionism (not a particularly modernist epistemology for that matter). For example, geographer Peter Walker raises the question of ‘whether killing whales is indispensable for revitalizing Makah culture, and whether this goal outweighs the moral and political costs’ (1999:8). He clearly does not think so, alluding to the ‘inevitability’ of cultural change which ‘calls into question the idea of an unbreakable, unchanging cosmological circle between whaling and Makah culture’ (ibid.:9). Others, however, think that cultural change – for example by adopting conveniences and gadgets from the outside world – has compromised the ‘purity’ of Makah culture (cf. Martello 2004:270). Another aspect that has received much criticism is the use of contemporary equipment and gadgets of modernity, which in the view of environmentalists ‘prove’ that the gray whale hunt is not traditional. The utilization of new technology – even though this may only be auxiliary – is considered a breach of tradition that deprives the Makah of still being ‘true’ Makah. Traditions are thus trivialized and restricted to a toolkit, rather than associated with a complex of beliefs, symbolic meanings, social structures, and practices that are culturally significant. It is not the tools that count, but the goals pursued with the whale hunt. Exact replication is not a necessary condition to produce authenticity (Sepez 2002:153). Moreover, ‘[e]xpecting cultures to remain static and cling to traditional methods is both presumptuous (demeaning) and unrealistic’ (Reeves 2002:98). The environmentalists’ perception is rooted in romantic notions of Indian-ness. At the heart of the controversies vis-`a-vis the Makah whale hunt are the processes of authenticating and discrediting identity: ‘Who gets to control the expression of Makah identity – both its legitimacy and legality? Who gets to decide what is “cultural,” “traditional,” or “necessary?”’ (Erikson 1999:564). As Gupta relates, ‘most critiques of “tradition” as an insufficient justification for sidestepping international norms ignore the importance of the way in which “barbaric” traditions are exercised’ (1999:1755, n.72). Most societies have traditions that may be regarded as such, and it is problematic when ‘traditions are forcefully quelled by an extraneous majority’ (ibid.).
The Makah are well aware of the manner in which their cultural claims are berated and do not acquiesce. For instance, when some environmental organizations depicted the whale hunt as sport or recreation, Janine Bowechop said to a reporter: ‘That’s incredibly insulting and racist. : : : For them to determine what it means to us brings us back to the last century when it was thought that Indians could not speak for themselves and determine what things mean to us. I would not pretend to determine what something means to another culture.’ Part of the opponents’ argument is that if a society has partly adapted culturally to modernity, it should do so wholly and give up its traditional aspects. Indeed, the whole idea of what the tradition should be was appropriated by some of the contestants of the Makah whale hunt. Paul Watson, for example, said after the Makah killed the gray whale: ‘People are dancing and cheering. That’s a far cry from 150 years ago when their ancestors were more sad and somber after a whale hunt. : : : They can celebrate and dance in the streets. We’ll do what their ancestors did. We’ll mourn for the whale.’ From the very onset of the Makah’s attempts to hunt whales, Watson disputed the authenticity of their pursuit, saying their ancestors hunted to survive not out of ‘cultural or traditional impulse’. Without the survival issue, ‘the hunt is an act of make-believe, an empty gesture toward a vanished past with only one component that will have a real, immediate meaning: The violent death of a living creature that has every right to be left alone.’ Watson and his compatriots seemingly attempt to legitimate a moral stance (‘killing whales is wrong’) by invoking a moral image of how natives ought to behave according to their culture (‘adapt to modernity completely or wholly return to your traditions’). The message conveyed seems to be that once you have assimilated, you have lost your right to maintaining or revitalizing a tradition.
Again, the Makah responded. Keith Johnson, President of the Makah Whaling Commission, wrote that the Makah ‘don’t take kindly to other people trying to tell us what our culture should be. [: : :] To us the implication that our culture is inferior if we believe in whaling is demeaning and racist.’ Tribal Council Chairman Ben Johnson got tired of the criticism that the hunt was not traditional and said to a reporter: “’Liberals” seem always to want to fit Indians into a safe, acceptable ideal of the noble savage, and are uncomfortable when modern methods can be adopted to achieve ancient aims. : : : Times change and we have to change with the times. : : : They want us to be back in the primitive times. We just want to practice our culture.’ The Makah received widespread support from other Indian tribes, and from the Coalition to End Racial Targeting of American Indian Nations (CERTAIN). For example, James Michael Craven of the Blackfoot Nation wrote: ‘Watson simply and summarily arrogates to himself the right to define and declare what cultures and practices are worth preserving, what treaties are worth respecting and defending, what Faustian bargains with the forces of evil are defensible and yes, even what forms of life are worth any sacrifice to protect. Apparently Indians are not on Watson’s “close-to-extinction” list.’
The normativism, cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism of some environmental organizations and animal rights activists capture the Makah whalers in essentialized images of culture and tradition and puts pressure on them to conform to the formers’ worldviews and standards. The image of the ‘ecological Indian’, a culture hero created to a large extent by the environmentalist movement, seems to have been replaced once more by an image of the not so noble savage. The criticism directed against the whale hunt became focused on the authenticity of the Makah’s way of reinventing tradition: ‘Notions and essentialized theories on traditional Indian-ness became markers of authority; the non-Indian was deciding and valuing what it was to be an Indian.’ Apparently, the Makah had to authenticate themselves as ‘genuine’ Makah. In the American case, popular culture is replete with representations of what a ‘real Indian’ is and what ‘authentic’ behavior should be (Erikson 1999:575). Alx Dark, who has studied the Makah whaling conflict in detail, states that the comments of opponents of the hunt ‘have frequently drawn from general, romantic and neo-colonial ideologies about Native Americans’. He adds: ‘This ideological framework allows whaling opponents to dismiss any Makah claim of cultural continuity by citing evidence of cultural change. : : : whaling opponents have at times suggested that Makah cultural aspirations are “inauthentic”, usually in the process of telling the Makah what their culture was, is or ought to be.’ Dark further remarks: ‘[T]he Makah are told their modernity “proves” they are no longer “authentically” Makah.’ He takes the stance that ‘the Makah have a right to perpetuate their culture, adapting it to meet new needs. The Makah should not have to choose between putting their culture under glass, or abandoning it entirely in order to participate in American society and the world economy.’ But any contemporary culture is forged or manufactured to the extent that actors play with a reservoir of available sets of cultural repertoires, deriving meaning from the selected elements. To achieve this end, they can select from a contingent and open field of symbols, objects, and experiences (Miller 1994:321-322). In the sense that any culture, identity or tradition is constructed, reconstructed, invented or reinvented, it is impossible to argue that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic’ culture, identity or tradition (Turney 1999:424) – at least if we take authenticity to mean genuine, original, pure, uncorrupted, pristine, untouched, real, true (Handler 1986:2). Such a mistaken perception sees authenticity as fixed essence, persistent over time.
Here we enter the domain of identity politics and the politics of representation. Environmentalists see cultural heritage as something static, as a ‘snapshot’ version of culture at some point in time not as a dynamic force with multiple meanings. This ‘strategic projection of non-Indian stereotypes regarding indigenous lifeways’ went along with ‘deeply ethnocentric visions of what qualifies as authentic culture’ (Sepez- Aradanas and Tweedie 1999:48).Makah whalers regard some traditions worth pursuing or revitalizing as part of an articulated bricolage that is important in identity formation. Doshi argues that ‘the Makah framed their whale hunt as an integral part of their culture – implying, then, that tribal culture is something static that must be recovered and restored for the psychic health of the community’ (2002:95). To some extent, there is indeed an element of essentializing the cultural aspect by the Makah. However, she misses the point that it is an element of their culture that the Makah wish to articulate in their identity politics. It is a ‘strategic essentialism’ (Gaard 2001:17) in the political struggle for self-determination in a postcolonial context. Moreover, the Makah have always adapted and accommodated their culture to economic and political change. For instance, after contact with Europeans, the Makah traded their whale and seal products with them and incorporated new materials such as metal in their harpoons (Dougherty 2001).They even provided the oil to lubricate the machinery in industrializing west coast America. More to the point is Greta Gaard’s criticism that ‘the whale hunting practices of a certain elite group of men have been conflated with the practices and substituted for the identity of an entire culture’ (Gaard 2001:17). Indeed, archeological evidence would seem to indicate that whaling was the preserve of ‘big men’ seeking prestige behavior.60 But appropriation and articulation of this particular aspect of Makah history and culture would seem to have provided the tribe with a charter for cultural resurrection or even cultural survival.