The Makah Whaling Conflict and Eco-Colonialism

Reproduced from Native Americans and the Environment.

To a disturbing extent, whaling opponents have relied on colonialist or even racist arguments to develop opposition to the Makah whale hunt. These arguments follow themes that have existed since colonial times to maintain unequal power relationships between native and non-native peoples. Colonialism is not the immediate goal of anti-whaling organizations, and such arguments do not invalidate the other points raised by whaling opponents. As well, the actions and rhetoric of a few individuals and organizations cannot represent the beliefs and attitudes of an entire movement. However, I raise these arguments for criticism because I have not in my research come across a condemnation of the use of such colonialist arguments by whaling opponents, or even an indication that these arguments will not be used in the future.

Native American political activity must be “incited” by outsiders because they cannot act by themselves. Whaling opponents such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have frequently suggested that the Japanese are responsible for the Makah whale hunt. The only Japanese involvement in west coast whaling has been a $20,000 start-up grant for a Nuu-chah-nulth whaling organization, the World Council of Whalers. The Makah are not members of this organization. Ben Johnson (Makah Tribal Council) has said that “Japan wanted to give us money, to help us buy boats, to show us how to kill the whales, everything….We said no because we knew it would be very controversial, and we want to do everything by the book.” However, this lack of involvement has not stopped Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson from explaining:

The truth is that it is not the Makah who are our enemy. We were in Neah Bay to oppose the Japanese and the Norwegians, who manipulated the Makah into this situation. Sometimes strategy means having to fight an elusive enemy that takes on another guise in order to benefit the primary opposition. In this case, the Makah are pawns in a global Japanese chess game.

Watson has not even accorded the Makah the status of co-conspirators in his chess match, instead drawing directly on an image of the Makah as a passive people easily manipulated by non-natives. This contradicts the statements of many Makah people, including Makah opponents of the hunt, about the importance of whaling and the reasons the Makah desire to hunt.

Native American society can be reduced to a conflict between “tradition” and “assimilation.” Whaling opponents have extended their arguments about subsistence versus commercial whaling by speaking of a division between the Makah into “traditional” and “assimilated” camps. They suggest that Makah traditionalists oppose the hunt as something non-traditional, while the tribal council reputedly wants the hunt only for its economic potential. The Progressive Animal Welfare Society writes that “though the tribe is divided over whaling, pro-whalers are in control of the tribal government. Opposition to whaling includes tribal elders.” Strictly speaking, this is true, but the failure to note that elders also support the hunt clearly intends to feed into romantic stereotypes about “traditional” versus “assimilated” Indians.

Non-natives know better than Native Americans what counts as “authentic” Indian culture. Whaling opponents have also opposed the hunt by suggesting that Makah cultural aspirations are “inauthentic,” usually in the process of telling the Makah what their culture was, is or ought to be. “I really doubt that [the Makah’s] ancestors would respect this modern day version of whale hunting,” one woman writes. She continues:

It is my understanding that native americans [sic] in the past have always taken (killed) animals…Only [sic] as needed for survival and then in great respect and deep appreciation of the animal. This wanton act of killing certainly does not seem to be motivated by survival, respect for all of earth’s life forms, nor spirituality.

This kind of romantic condemnation has been common historically in colonialist discourse about Native Americans. This opponent of the Makah hunt dismisses what the Makah say about themselves and their own experiences as if she possessed superior knowledge about the values and motivations of Native Americans.

Technological change is cultural assimilation. Another favorite theme among animal rights activists is the assumption that technological change demonstrates the cultural assimilation of indigenous peoples. Speaking of the Makah, one whale tour operator writes:

If they are so hell bent on going back to their roots, why the hell do they insist on: driving cars, using internal combustion engines, fibreglass, aluminum, roads, shopping centres, all the other stuff that has improved their lives since the coming of the “White Man.”

Few people would confuse Americans and Japanese just because we share a fondness for Sony Playstations, yet the Makah are told their modernity “proves” they are no longer “authentically” Makah. More importantly, 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.

If Native Americans disagree with non-natives, it is because they are barbaric. Whaling opponents often explain that the Makah must accept the “progress” and “evolution” of society. By this they mean the Makah must accept the forced end of whaling as the “natural” outcome of “social evolution” along with fibreglass and shopping centers. Sea Shepherd explains:

A society can never evolve by adopting archaic or inhumane rituals. Progress affects everyone living in this new era of the Global Village. No legitimate argument can be made that the Makah, or any other ethnic group, can move their culture forward through ritual killing.

This argument would be quite familiar to nineteenth century Americans, or to the European colonizers of any continent. It is exactly the same argument made under the banners of Manifest Destiny, assimilation policies, white supremacy and social Darwinism. Non-natives set a standard for cultural behavior in these arguments that only a small fraction of westerners follow (one estimate of vegetarians in the US places them at 12 million out of 248 million Americans). To lecture the Makah on ritual killing, while our society thinks nothing of killing chickens, cattle and pigs (with all the ritual precision of factory farms) seems hypocritical. Keith Johnson, President of the Makah Whaling Commission, calls this “moral elitism.”

In short, whaling opponents frequently make colonialist arguments that delegitimize the Makah’s right to whale by comparing the Makah unfavorably to an ahistorical and idealized portrait of Native Americans. Many non-natives appreciate in vague terms that Native Americans were “in harmony” with their environment. With our concern to create a environmentally sound culture and society, Native Americans form a ready target for the projection of our fears and fantasies. Just as long, of course, as real Native Americans with real needs do not intrude on these representations. Then an elaborate arsenal of colonialist arguments can be raised to suggest that it is not our own stereotypes but modern Native Americans who are wrong. Whatever one believes about the morality of whale hunting, these arguments are themselves an injustice to the Makah.


Posted on July 9, 2009, in Ecological Struggles, Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Makah Whaling Conflict and Eco-Colonialism.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: