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20 years later, atmosphere has changed around Makah whale hunt

This story has been updated to include remarks from members of the Makah tribe. 

UPDATE, Nov. 18:


Members of the Makah Indian Tribe were back in court in Seattle on Monday, pushing for a waiver under the Marine Mammal Act. They want resume their traditional whale hunt off the Washington coast, as they did briefly 20 years ago.

In testimony, tribal members described the cultural significance of the hunt in 1999, but also said the atmosphere now has changed. 

Daniel Greene Sr. remembers the last legal hunt. He was was in high school at the time, part of a chase-boat crew, but too young to hunt. He’s a commercial fisherman now and hopes to join the next hunt with a bigger role. He says growing up in the shadow of 1999 has been hard.

“You’re taught about whaling growing up and you’re told the stories…you know how to make different things for hunting. You’re taught all these things," he told the judge, adding it was exciting to see all that come to life. 

"And that life got breathed into our culture and language. And to have that yanked away, you know it was heart-wrenching, it was tough." 

Greene told the judge that for the Makah, taking a whale is not a trophy hunt. They ask permission and there are lengthy spiritual protocols, many of which he and other tribal members described. Greene also said it’s important for tribal members to be able to eat whale meat, one of many aspects of the hunt that he said contribute to the community's health. 

Makah Tribal Council member Patrick Depoe also was on the beach when the whale was towed to shore, a cherished memory for most in his community. He’s been observing testimony since last week. He serves as a spokesman for the tribe, and says he has received some hate mail. But it’s nothing like 20 years ago.

“When we went through the processes similar to this back before ‘99, there was people picketing outside,” Depoe said, recalling past chants and bumper stickers with sayings such as “save a whale, kill a Makah” and bomb threats targeting his community. “That was how things were back in the 90s. Now you look outside, you don’t see nobody picketing. You look in the courtroom, it’s not full of people that are opposing us.”

He says he thinks information is more available now, so people can read the facts for themselves, such as the document that spells out their treaty rights to the hunt and the limited number of whales they’re asking to take – a maximum of three per year over the next decade.

Animal rights groups still oppose the hunt, arguing the federal environmental review has not been sufficient and that the Makah cannot claim a subsistence or cultural need to hunt after so many decades. They stopped hunting in the 1920s, when populations had plummeted, but started preparing to resume the hunt when gray whales were de-listed in 1994.


The Makah whale hunt is back in court. The tribe wants to resume a limited hunt of gray whales off the Washington coast.  An administrative judge in Seattle will hear arguments for and against over several days, starting Thursday at 1 p.m.

The Makah Indian Tribe says whale hunting is a tradition so central to its culture, they protected it in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay.

“Our people have never lost sight of the importance of whaling,” said Janine Ledford, a tribal member and executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center. “It’s never really left our identity.”

Ledford says that treaty right is unique in the United States. “And we feel it’s important to exercise our treaty rights and so, after gray whales were delisted, we started making plans to resume the hunt.”

That was in the mid-1990s. In the spring of 1999, with the blessing of the federal government, the Makah took one gray whale, using their traditional canoes and spears. But since then, court battles have prevented any additional whaling.

Now, the tribe is seeking a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for a ceremonial hunt limited to roughly two to three whales per year over the next decade. It would be limited to the outer coast, to protect populations that frequent the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

NOAA Fisheries supports this and says it poses no conservation concern. Gray whales were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1994.

But animal rights groups, including Sea Shepherd and the Animal Welfare Institute, disagree.

D.J. Shubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, will come to Seattle to testify. He says the mysterious deaths of more than 200 gray whales washing up off the West Coast from Canada to Mexico this year indicates that the population is fragile.

“It’s really a matter of what risks do we want to take, from our perspective, given all the threats and the changes in the arctic as a result of climate change,” Shubert said. “And given the current unusual mortality event, now is not the time to authorize resumption of whaling by the Makah tribe.”

Cross examinations in the case are expected to continue for several days.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to