The Makah Essay

The Makah are a Native Indian tribe who have recently decided to enact their treaty rights, and start to hunt for whales. These actions have caused an uproar in North America. The Natives state that they are not doing anything but exercising their legal rights. Opponents to their hunting of whales argue that the Makah are a group of uncivilized and inhumane individuals, and that they are harming nature. The reportage of the controversy surrounding the Makah can be seen as ethnocentric in many ways. Through the language used by the media involved in the controversy, one can constantly see the Native people being viewed as inhumane savages. In turn, this language allows readers to be sent mixed messages about the Makah and their position in the whaling dispute. Finally, the protestors themselves have contradictory arguments which leads one to question the motivating factors behind their position.

In order to fully understand the whaling controversy, it is necessary to understand the history of the Makah. They were a group of Native people who hunted gray whales. As a result of their increased trade with the Europeans, the ‘white man’ decided to also enter this hunt for the whale. This competition between the Makah and the ‘white man’ lead to the whale coming close to extinction. Due to their love for nature and respect for the whale, the Makah decided to voluntarily refrain from hunting whales. It is important to note however, that in 1855, the Governor of Washington State agreed to the Treaty Of Neah Bay, which gave the Makah a right to hunt for whales. This is what is at the heart of the controversy. The Makah have recently enacted their hunting rights of the whale after seventy years, and are now resuming their hunt for whales. The Makah reasoning is a relatively simple one. In 1946, the gray whale population was 2000, and now their count is over 26,000. They believe that it is safe to hunt for whales again. The Makah have been a group of people who have relied on whale hunting. . They used the blubber from the whale to feed their families, and they used the rest of the whale to provide themselves with shelter and tools. However, their opponents have dismissed this practice of hunting whales as inhumane.

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Through the language that is being used by the media, one can see Native people being viewed as savages. The language being used is not blatantly discriminatory against the Native people, but is done in a subtle, yet powerful way, in order to evoke a message that Native people are inhumane. One of the reasons for this negative commentary regarding Native people hunting for whales could be due to ethnocentrism. This is the belief that one’s own culture is considered to be normal, therefore, other cultures are considered abnormal. The media carefully uses words that show their bias towards the Native People. The media tries to make the Makah look like a band of savages. While writing about a recent anti-whaling demonstration, Peggy Andersen writes, In a simmering dispute that ended with a scuffle and arrests, angry Makah Indians pelted a protest boat with rocks as the two sides bickered over a tribal plan to hunt gray whales. The wording of this opening paragraph leads the reader to think that it was Makah who were causing trouble, and that they were the one’s that were arrested. However, if one were to complete the article, they would realize that this was not the case. Another example of media bias against the Makah people is when Jonathan Dube writes, As much as it’s possible for one dead animal to give new life to an entire nation, that’s what has happened here. Dube is implying that it is impossible for an animal that has died to bring life to a nation, however, that is what has occurred. He does not understand how killing this whale could give life to the Makah, and therefore, he conveys this message of doubt to his readers. Dube is indirectly stating that the Makah need to kill in order to have life.

Many readers and viewers of the media are being sent mixed messages about the Makah and the whaling situation. As seen above, the media is using certain language that portrays the Makah in an unflattering manner. However, this also has another major impact. The true message, and plight of the Makah is being lost and overshadowed by this harsh, and biased language. People reading newspaper articles probably know nothing about the history of the Makah and are being given misleading information, which is shaping their thoughts about the Makah. For example, Dube writes, The Makah eagerly awaited the revival of the whale hunt, a tribal tradition for 1500 years. The tribe ceased the activity in the 1920’s because commercial whaling had brought the gray whale to the brink of extinction. While this statement is true, it does not state the identity of the commercial fishermen.. The way in which Dube wrote the previous statement, the reader gets the feeling that the Makah were the commercial fishermen who were responsible for the near extinction of the gray whale population. This altered truth leads many of the readers into having a negative viewpoint of the Makah as they do not have accurate information about the history of Makah whaling. In actuality, Webster writes, The Makah had to stop their hunts in the 1920’s after whaling by whites decimated the food source. The reader/viewer does not learn from the media that it was the white man who decimated the whaling population and not the Makah. Also, there is much media discussion as to whether or not the Makah need to hunt for whales. The viewers of the media are being fed information stating that the Makah do not need to hunt for whales because they have other food that they can eat. An article in the Oregon Live from May 18th, 1998 states, The Makah request to go whaling fit within the International Whaling Commission’s aboriginal subsistence whaling provisions. The problem, though, is that the subsistence requirement is bogus. The tribe has other food sources to meet nutritional needs; it hasn’t had whales to eat since the 1920’s. However, this biased information is hiding the true message. The Makah need to whale hunt. Tribal leaders estimate there’s enough meat and blubber to give each family 10 to 20 pounds’ worth. They can also make lamp oil from the whale’s oil, tools from the bones, and baskets from the baleen. That is a big deal for this nation, considering half of the households live below the poverty line and per capita income is $5, 000.
Finally, the protesters are sending mixed messages as well. Their statements regarding this dispute can be seen as being contradictory. The protestors are using many different arguments in order to show their disgust for Makah whaling. However, they are displaying ethnocentrism in these views. Their main issue is that only the Makah have this right to whale, and not everyone else. Some protestors say that their concern is for the protection of the whale, and has nothing to do with racism as some Native people have charged. Kenny Clark, of the Oregon based Sea Defense Alliance says, I don’t see the race issue. It’s about an animal people feel very passionate about and people are just angry. However, if it has nothing to do with a race issue, then one has to question the reasoning for the threats being made against the Makah. At one rally, protestors held up such signs as, Save the whales. Kill a Makah. Also, a bomb threat was made to a local school at the Puyallup Reservation after a Puyallup canoe joined the Makah as the whale was towed to shore. This led Terre Rybovich, of the Coalition for Human Dignity to state, One whale was killed. In response, the lives of hundreds of Indian children were threatened. Another fact that shows that the issue is not simply about the protection of the whale is the statements made concerning the possibility of the Makah beginning to sell the whales that they have successfully hunted. The protesters are trying to imply that the Makah want to whale so that they can sell commercially. They argue that one gray whale can fetch as much as one million dollars in Japan. But yet, the Makah have agreed to whale no more than 20 whales until 2002, which was 5 per year at the time of the controversy.
In conclusion, one can clearly see that the reporting of the Makah whaling controversy was ethnocentric in many ways. The language used by the media to describe the whale hunting showed bias towards the Makah and held them out to be inhumane savages. As well, the media is responsible for not providing the reader with an accurate picture of the Makah and the importance of whaling in their culture. Finally, protestors are angry that only the Makah have the right to whale, and they are displaying this in various ways such as racist actions.

The white man took away their tradition in the 1920’s, and they will take it away again. This will be done either by giving the right to whale to everyone, and once again bring the gray whale close to extinction, or by crushing the remains of the tribe until they give up their right on their own.

Author Unknown. (1999, May 18) Stop the Whale Hunt. {October 30, 1999}
Author Unknown. (1999, May 22) Racism Enters Whale Dispute. {October 25,
1999} Available:;ID=s580242;cat=
Anderson, Peggy. (1998, November 2) Melee during anti-whaling demonstration
Shakes both sides. {November 2, 1999}
Anderson, Peggy. (1999, May 21) Anti- Makah Protests Turn Ugly. {November
3, 1999} Available: asp?Date=052199;ID=s580004;cat=}
Dark, Alx. (1999, April) The Makah Whale Hunt.{October 28, 1999}.
Dube, Jonathan. (1999, May 18) Plenty of Meat To Go Around. {October 26,
1999} Available:
Webster, John. (1998, November 3) Anything for an unworthy cause. {October
29, 1999} Available:;ID=s477881;cat=


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