Two weeks ago, locals killed a gray whale on the Kuskokwim river without international or federal authorization. Meanwhile, a tribe in the lower 48 has been fighting a political battle for decades to gain recognition for its traditional right to hunt gray whales.
Every spring, the Makah Tribe in Washington state watches the long, barnacled bodies of gray whales breeching in their harbor.
“Everybody is drooling, wanting to take that whale, but we can’t. We know the federal rules and regulations are against us to do what we would normally do, is take it for dinner," said Keith Johnson, President of the Makah Whaling Commission.
Johnson has only had whale for dinner once. It was barbecued in teriyaki sauce.
“It was just delicious. It was like beef steak,” he says, remembering the meal.
That was in 1999. Gray whales had been removed from the Endangered Species list, and the tribe had received international and federal authorization to hunt the animals that year. But since then, the U.S. government has continued to block the Makah from hunting whales through the Marine Mammal Protection Act, even though it’s the only tribe with a federal treaty to hunt these animals.
Johnson comes from a long line of whalers, with traditions passed down from father to son through generations. At six months, he began his initiation into the family legacy.
“I was bathed in cold water with my father, uncle, grandpa, and grandma with cedar boughs brushing and prayers over me,” he said.
The ritual was meant to give Johnson physical and mental strength for hunting whales. The initiations continued, secret family rites that Johnson called sacred and wouldn’t share.
To prepare for the 1999 hunt, dozens of Makah men trained a year and a half in a grueling regime.
“Weight training, running, paddling, diet, and empowering the crew to decide how they wanted to pray together,” said Johnson.
Many didn’t make it. Some dropped out; one snapped his Achilles tendon; and others failed drug tests. Standards are rigorous because the hunt is dangerous, and the whaler stands as a model of hard work, strength, and discipline.
“The belief is if the whaling team and the families associated with the whaling team do not behave in a certain manner," said Johnson, "the whale will not give its life to that crew.”
In 1999, the whale did give its life. From the first harpoon strike to a final shot with a high-powered rifle into the whale's brain, the crew completed the hunt in eight minutes.
“It just jelled the community, and everybody came alive with the fact that we are whalers. We come from a whaling tribe,” said Johnson, proudly.
But Johnson, who had been training with the team, was not there. He was in the Caribbean, presenting the tribe’s whaling tools to the International Whaling Commission. Having been initiated in sacred rites since six months of age, Keith Johnson, now 69 years old and President of the Makah Whaling Commission, has never hunted a whale.
When asked how the community reconciles identifying as whalers with only being allowed to take a whale once over the last century, he responded: “Oh boy, yeah, whaling families in this village have kept their songs, dances, and prayers. It’s handed down. So that’s how we kept it alive.”
In 2007, a group of Makah men killed a gray whale illegally. The Tribal Council condemned the act.
Now, the Makah are waiting for the federal government to complete an environmental review on how hunting gray whales could affect the animals and surrounding environment. Once that’s done, they hope to get a waiver from the U.S. government’s Marine Mammal Protection Act to once again hunt gray whales, as preserved by their treaty, and as their ancestors did before them.
Johnson hopes he’s able to take part.