The Makah Nation & People
The Makah people live on the most northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State (it is actually the lands of the Makah nation).
The northern boundary of the reservation is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The western boundary is the Pacific Ocean. In addition to its land territories, the Makah reserved numerous ocean fishing banks and mammal hunting areas when a treaty was signed. Makah seafarers have had the ability to navigate out of sight of land since ancient times, so some of these fishing and sea mammal hunting areas can be as far as a hundred miles from shore. Before non-Indian people came to Makah territory, Makahs lived in five villages that were occupied all year long (Neah Bay, Ozette, Biheda, Tsoo-yess, and Why-atch). Makahs traditionally had a type of lifestyle that made use of the resources of the ocean, the tidelands, the forests, and the rivers. The Makah language traditionally used the name qwi-dich-cha-at for itself, which roughly translates to “The People who live near the Rocks and the Seagulls.” Makah fisherman and sea mammal hunters used a fixed referent navigation system to travel far from the sight of land in great, cedar canoes. Makah people hunted gray and humpback whales. Whales provided ancient Makah people with food, raw materials, a source of spiritual and ceremonial strength, and valuable trade goods. Whale oil was rendered from the blubber, and was an important food product, like butter and olive oil today. Meat could be used, but only if it hadn’t spoiled. Whale meat often spoiled before the animal could be towed from the ocean to one of the villages. Once the whale reached the shore, it was ceremonially thanked and blessed, then processed for food and raw materials, like bone. In addition to hunting whales, Makahs pursued a variety of seals, as well as sea otters. The former could be used for food, oil, and skins, while the latter were used for skin and teeth. the Makah reservation is still home to the “People who live near the Rocks and the Seagulls”.
Many Makahs who graduate from college come back to the reservation to work for the Makah Tribe, the local clinic, and the public school. While there is a great deal of contemporary Makah history that is important, nothing has captured the attention of the world more than the Tribe’s restored whale hunt. When the gray whale was taken from the endangered species list because its population was higher than it had been since commercial whaling times, the Makahs decided to exercise the treaty right to hunt again. The Makah successfully hunted a gray whale on May 17, 1999.
In fact, the Makah Tribe is the only tribe in the United States with a treaty right to hunt whale. The Makahs signed an agreement with the government that the hunt will be for “ceremonial and subsistence purposes only”. Restoring the whale hunt is perhaps the best example of the contemporary Makah’s control over their own affairs. The hunt is also a prime example of the benefit of years of hard work and sacrifice .