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Makah Tribe reopens and reflects after two years of strict protocols

Bellamy Pailthorp
Makah Cultural and Research Center Executive Director Janine Ledford says the Makahs have always oriented themselves around the ocean. The tribe's remote community is on the northwestern-most tip of the continental U.S. with one road in and out of the reservation.

The remote Makah Tribal Nation took swift and decisive action to protect its people from COVID-19. In March 2020, it was the first community in Washington state to shut down because of the epidemic. Two years later, the tribe has finally begun letting outsiders in.

Visitors can now return to top tourist destinations that are only accessible by crossing the Makah reservation. Topping that list for many people is Cape Flattery, located on the northwestern-most tip of the continental U.S., on the Olympic Peninsula in Neah Bay.

After a short hike through the forest, visitors arrive at a dramatic coastal scene where the Pacific Ocean crashes up against cliffs and caves. The trail and cape are only accessibly by crossing through a checkpoint in Neah Bay, which closed the reservation to outsiders for two years until reopening this March.

Tribal leaders acknowledge that their decision to shut down and put up barricades two years ago was extreme. But they don’t regret it.

TJ Greene, the elected chairman of the 5-member Makah Tribal Council, says putting up the checkpoint on the only road in and out of town was an exercise of the tribe’s sovereign authority over their lands, to protect their people. And it worked. The tribe only has one walk-in clinic. But no one of about 1500 people on the reservation died from COVID-19.

On March 31, tribal leaders unanimously passed a new health order and began taking down the checkpoint on April 1. They will no longer be checking visitors' vaccine documentation but reserve the option to reinstate the checkpoint if deemed necessary.

The road to the Makah Indian Reservation with a checkpoint and sign saying "Welcome, vaccination card required."
Bellamy Pailthorp
The checkpoint on the road to the Makah Indian Reservation. After two years, the checkpoint is coming down on April 1.

Greene says they were especially motivated by the need to protect their elders - and by memories of prior pandemics like smallpox in the 1800s that killed off about 90 percent of their population.

But Greene says two years of restrictions and not being able to gather as a community to exercise their culture has taken a toll on Makahs mental and social-emotional health. They haven’t been able to practice any of their traditional ceremonies.

And that is pretty scary from my perspective, as an elected leader for the tribe,” Greene says.

"Even though ours is a thriving culture and we have a lot of knowledge in our community, that can change pretty quickly if we're not actively participating in it."

So the council voted to ease up on the restrictions. It was a soft opening, with businesses coming back as they were ready, starting March 15. Only one restaurant, Pat’s Place, opened on the first day for a few hours, to sell Indian tacos, made with fry bread.

A day earlier, the tribe hosted a group memorial for 43 people who died during the shutdown, but had not been given customary acknowledgment. Another community gathering was planned to celebrate the girls high school basketball team, runners up in the state championship game -- their best season ever. Normally, the community would have sent them off with song and dance. The lifting of COVID rules only allowed a celebration afterward. But, slowly these traditional gatherings are starting to resume -- group customs that had been off limits.

Outsiders can get a glimpse of the roots of those traditions at the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

Standing in the exhibits next to a hunting canoe, Executive Director Janine Ledford says the Makahs have always oriented themselves around the ocean.

"That's made us wealthy from time immemorial," Ledford says.

"People think of Northwest Coast peoples as being able to make a living and survive here. Well, we didn't just survive. We thrived. There was surplus to trade. Many people had, quite a bit of surplus and quite a bit of wealth.”

A woman stands next to hunting canoes below the skeleton of a whale.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Janine Ledford, executive director at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, says whaling is challenging and expensive but it’s at the heart of their culture.

Above her hangs the skeleton of a gray whale that the tribe hunted in 1999. She says whaling is challenging and expensive. Processing the meat and blubber can be an ordeal. But it’s at the heart of their culture.

The Makahs are the only tribe in the U.S. with a guaranteed right to continued whaling via a treaty. A tradition the tribe is trying to revive through a waiver granted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Also core to Makah culture is fishing. It drives their economy.

A fisherman leaning over the side of a fishing boat at sunset with a flock of seagulls behind him.
Courtesy Bill Parkin
Bill Parkin, who also goes by his tribal name Tyishtid, is 4th-generation fisherman. He was out on a boat two years ago in March when all fishing crews got called home because of COVID.

21-year-old Bill Parkin, who also goes by his tribal name Tyishtid, is a proud 4th-generation fisherman.

”Since settlers came here and gave us pitchforks to try farming. We just ended up snipping the ends and making fishhooks out of it," he says.

As a tribal fisherman, Parkin loves to share extra fish he brings home with his elders. He enjoys seeing the town come alive when everyone has a good halibut opener.

He was out on a boat two years ago in March when all fishing crews got called home because of COVID. The entire industry was shut down for 6 months, until they developed safety protocols.

"It felt like forever," Parkin says.

"It's nice to be able to go make money instead of file for unemployment. Feel like I started going crazy when I get locked on land for too long."

For two years, the Makah Marina was closed to outsiders like everything else. The Makah fishermen were eventually able to catch their quotas – just 6 months later than usual. And the fishing industry kept the tribe afloat, while the rest of the community was shut down.

Now, the docks of the Makah marina were abuzz with crews cutting bait. And Parkin was getting ready to take his uncle’s 47-foot boat, Turning Point, out for black cod.

Makah fishermen cut bait on the back of a fishing boat.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Makah fishermen cut bait on the back of a fishing boat. After the entire industry shut down due to COVID, they developed safety protocols and the fishermen were able to catch their quotas.

Parkin says as hard as it was, he agreed with the tribe’s strict shutdown policies, because there are so many big, multi-generational households on the reservation. He worried about his family members who were at risk.

”Us Makahs, we really look up to the elders in the community,” he says. “When we didn't know very much about it, it was really scary to have the idea of a disease that could, you know, take some of them away from us.

He’s less worried now, with all the information shared over the past two years.

There were some aspects of the quiet that he enjoyed: having the beach to himself, not waiting in line and only seeing familiar faces around town. But he misses the potlatch gatherings. He’s looking forward to having the community all together in one room where he can take part in traditional singing and dancing. And he’s nervously anticipating the return of tourism.

Those are widespread sentiments. About a block away, inside a small storefront, members of the Neah Bay Chamber of Commerce are getting ready to open a new visitors center.

 Neah Bay Chamber of Commerce Secretary Carolyn Votaw and President Melissa Peterson in front of a piece of art depicting a whale's tale.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Neah Bay Chamber of Commerce Secretary Carolyn Votaw (left) and President Melissa Peterson. The Chamber is preparing to open a new visitors center on April 15.

Chamber President Melissa Peterson is a Makah elder and master basket weaver.

"We were very scared down here. And I think the tribe stepped up, closed the res, and I think I felt a lot secure having the reservation closed, knowing that they were trying to protect us," Peterson says. “They did the right thing.”

She says to this day, there are gaps in tribal knowledge because of all the people they lost to smallpox and Spanish flu.

She’s standing near a display case in the visitor center that will showcase locally crafted items: baskets and jewelry made of olive shells, a deerskin drum, preserved fossils and whale bones – all made by tribal members.

Peterson says they started work on the visitor center before the pandemic, then everything was put on hold during the lockdown. Now their plan is to open April 15th. But Peterson says she’ll keep wearing a mask.

“I haven't been sick in two years. I haven't had a cold, I haven't had the flu, I haven't had anything. So I don't plan on taking off my mask," she says.

Bellamy Pailthorp
Glenda Butler, a nurse by training, is the vice president of the Neah Bay Chamber of Commerce. She says the pandemic led to a lot of soul-searching, for her and others.

Masks are recommended but optional here now. As elsewhere, the restrictions gradually loosened as vaccinations became available. As of March, 88 percent of the tribe’s population had gotten their shots. But the shutdown took its toll on businesses.

The Chamber’s Vice President, Glenda Butler says it’s been challenging for her parents owning a motel there. Over the two years they scraped by, renting rooms to occasional construction crews and some longer-term tenants.

Butler is a nurse by trade. She worked on the front lines of the pandemic for the tribe, which used cabins in its beach resort to contain the virus when it eventually arrived.

“It was exhausting. We were in charge of case and contact tracing and then isolation and quarantine," she says.

She too wholeheartedly supports everything the Makah Tribe did to protect its people. But she’s done with nursing now. She quit that job to open a farm and garden gift shop. She’s still proud of what they accomplished.

It was important. It needed to be done. I was happy to do it, but now I'm ready to be doing something that makes me happy," Butler says.

TJ Greene stands with his dog next to a piece of art that says "Makah"
Bellamy Pailthorp
TJ Greene, the elected chairman of the 5-member Makah Tribal Council, says it’s time to ease up on the restrictions but the return of tourism is a mixed blessing.

She says the pandemic led to a lot of soul-searching, for her and others, about what’s really important in life. She became witness to this multiple times while caring for COVID patients. The strong community spirit of the Makahs helped them pull together and pull through, and highlighted the importance of their traditions for many.

For Makah Chairman Greene, the return of tourism is a mixed blessing. His community depends on the income. But without the tens of thousands who typically come to Neah Bay to surf, hike, and fish, he’s noticed healthier landscapes: more shells and driftwood on the beaches.

 “We’re on people’s bucket list for the furthest northwest point in the lower 48. And that does have an impact. And it's - with none of them coming for the last two years - it's very noticeable,” he says.

With high population growth projected in western Washington, Greene says the tribe can only expect visits to their corner of the coast to climb as well. The chairman says having the reservation to themselves during the pandemic has got the tribe thinking about how to better manage the impacts from tourism – so they can take care of this special place going forward.

Updated: April 1, 2022 at 8:16 AM PDT
This story has been update to reflect the Makah Tribal Council's decision to remove the checkpoint and vaccine requirement for visitors.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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