The revival of indigenous subsistence hunting is at stake

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Herman Ahsoak, a 57-year-old Inupiaq whaler captain at the northern tip of Alaska, anticipates a hunting season he’s known for decades – a season his ancestors have indulged in for untold generations.

“Spring is coming, so I’m packing my cooler,” Ahsoak said. “I’m going to clean my whaling gear; my harpoons and guns.

45-50 bowhead and beluga whales will feed the community of Ahsoak in Utqiagvik (population 4,927) for most of the year. When the whales are hunted and brought back, the community works together to break down the huge animals. Several generations gather on the ice, speak their language, munch on raw chunks of muktuk (skin and fat), then bring home large chunks of meat.

Under Indigenous Food Sovereignty, this is a rare scenario where traditional eating habits are still the norm despite – and despite – the encroachment of contemporary foods. But whaling in indigenous communities is not spared. In fact, it is heavily controlled by Western politicians.

Indigenous peoples have seen one of their most precious resources disappear – and not by their hands – in just a few years, and face regulations, permits and bans on this important practice.

Ahsoak and other native whalers must abide by the rules imposed on them and are allowed to hunt a limited number of whales each year. A tribe in Washington is waiting for permission to take over this part of their culinary culture. All Indigenous whalers and their communities also face criticism, as well as hatred and violence, from animal rights activists and conservationists who often associate traditional Indigenous subsistence whaling with commercial whaling in Japan, Norway and Iceland.

Indigenous peoples have seen one of their most valuable resources disappear (not in their hands) in just a few years and find themselves faced with regulations, permits and bans on this important practice. And yet, despite all of this, whaling continues in some Indigenous communities, not only as a traditional food source, but also as an important part of culture and community.

A tradition is at stake

Washington’s Makah tribe has always been a whaling community, but the practice largely stopped in the 1920s when commercial whaling depleted whale populations.

The tribe’s reservation juts out into the Salish Sea at the northwest corner of the state. This is a perfect place to bring back gray whales, which migrate 10,000 miles north from Mexico to Alaska around this time (January to June).

Hunting this species is labor intensive. Gray whales are 40 to 50 feet long and can weigh up to 40 tons. Even when faced with wooden canoes filled with dozens of native hunters, these whales still have tons of advantages.

The last whaling for the Makah took place in May 1999. Prior to that, the tribe had not hunted whales since the 1920s. Articles about the 1999 event describe Neah Bay dotted with canoes in Makah cedar and canoes from other neighboring tribes. Makah hunters speared, shot and carried a 30-foot whale to shore, where the community celebrated and held ceremonies.

An undated photo of a Makah whaling at Neah Bay. (Photo credit: Larry Workman, US Forest Service)

“The hunt itself was beautiful and it was amazing when we got it right,” Makah Tribe Vice President Patrick Depoe said in an interview on an October episode of the Native America Calling radio show. .

“It was just a really joyful opportunity to see our deep spiritual practice succeed,” Makah Tribe President Timothy Greene said in the same interview. “We believe that hunting whales was given to us by the Creator. And with that comes the responsibility to honor that life in all that we do; from preparing for the hunt to what we do with a whale after a successful hunt and ensuring that every part is used and has its place in spiritual activities.

Greene explained that all edible parts are eaten and the rest are used to make tools. In the past, hooks for fishing all types of sea animals were made from whale bone. But some details are kept secret within the whaling families, he added.

An Utqiagvik whale bone arch.  (Photo courtesy of Mary Lum Patkotak)

An Utqiagvik whale bone arch. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lum Patkotak)

For Greene and Depoe, that day in 1999 will also always carry a darker memory.

Animal rights activists had spent days following hunters on speedboats on previous hunting attempts. This hunt was controversial and pitted activists against the tribe and their treaty rights – dating back to 1855 – to hunt gray whales.

“Protesters wore shirts that said ‘Save a whale, kill a Makah,'” Depoe said. “I was in high school at the time. Our high school was getting bomb threats.

In the two decades that followed, a whole generation of young Makah members never hunted. But that could soon change.

“There are people who participated in the ’99 [hunt] who are there, who are ready. They’re just waiting to go,” Depoe said. These hunters are trained in the traditional Makah method and they are ready to help train a new generation if and when the tribe is allowed to hunt gray whales again.

“This [hunt] was a truly joyful occasion to see our deep spiritual practice succeed. Hunting whales, we believe, was given to us by the Creator. And with that comes the responsibility to honor that life in all that we do.

The tribe is waiting for one person, Janet Coit, assistant administrator of fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to make a decision. In October, a federal judge recommended granting the Makah tribe a waiver to circumvent the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law that currently prevents the tribe from resuming hunting.

Some animal rights groups objected, but the judge considered expert testimony from several biologists and ruled that the hunts would have a “negligible impact on the population”, estimated at between 21,000 and 25,000.

From boom to recovery

Many cultures around the world have ancient ties to whaling. But the practice took on a commercial purpose in Europe when lamp oil made from whale blubber and baleen became popular around a thousand years ago.

At the time of the colonization of North America around the 1800s, American whalers led the way in the multi-million dollar whaling industry by taking whales from the Pacific and Atlantic.

As commercial whaling became a lucrative occupation in the mid-1800s, Wampanoag whalers seized the opportunity to return to the ocean and use their knowledge and skills of American whalers to earn their life as whalers. Despite a culture of discrimination, some Aboriginal whalers rose through the ranks and a handful even became whaler captains.

Makah whalers landing a canoe at Neah Bay, circa 1900. (Photo by Anders B. Wilse, courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections)

Makah whalers landing a canoe at Neah Bay, circa 1900. (Photo by Anders B. Wilse, courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections)

In the 1920s, the rise of electricity made whale oil obsolete. Commercial whaling ceased completely in the United States with the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

In 1942, the International Whaling Commission was established to regulate subsistence whaling and to study and preserve whale species around the world. The Commission, made up of dozens of countries, helps find permits and the number of whales that can be hunted by indigenous groups in member countries.

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