In quest of a whale

Posted by Tom Camfield

The Leader’s new version of its on-line edition gives me the opportunity to search out some of my earlier blogs. This one was always one of my historical favorites (posted in 2012)—and as I wrote about Makahs recently, I’m following up with this slightly-edited repeat for the benefit of those who have not seen it in one place or another. It’s a story of the adventure of 12 tribal members, towed 80 miles out to sea in a 3-day battle with a harpooned whale. This also will be my first attempt to utilize multiple photos with the new ptleader.com system.

“Makah fishermen and sea mammal hunters harvested the bounty of the ocean, and used a fixed-referent navigation system to travel far from the land in great cedar canoes. The most astounding of these marine practices was hunting whales on the open ocean . . . mostly gray and humpback whales. . . Archeological data also indicate that the Makah people have hunted whales for 2,000 years . . .”—Ann M. Renker, PhD, anthropologist and educator. Wikipedia states: “Archaeological research suggests that the Makah people have inhabited the area now known as Neah Bay for more than 3,800 years. “

What follows is a story I took from a July 27, 1901, issue of the Weekly Leader (the paper had both daily and weekly editions at that time). It was included in my second book of local history, “Port Townsend: the City That Whiskey Built (2002).” The Makah whalers in their canoe were hauled 80 miles south of Cape Flattery by an ocean-going whale they had harpooned and they went without food for three days--only to return home empty-handed.

It was a long, thirsty/hungry paddle home for a hardy Makah canoe crew, losers in their battle with the leviathan of the sea. The Makahs on that day may have included some of those whalers pictured here nine years later.

"Twelve Indians in a canoe had a lively experience with a monster whale off Cape Flattery a few days ago which they will long remember . . . The Indians sighted the whale a short distance off the entrance to the Strait and their largest canoe was manned with twelve of the expert men of the tribe, and an attempt was made to capture it. The sea was fairly smooth, and all conditions were favorable, and the daring crew was watched both from shore and from the light station on Tatoosh island with much interest.

"The whale was leisurely sporting and spouting water high into the air, oblivious to approaching danger, when the Indians got close enough to throw the harpoon, that instrument was, with a well directed blow, firmly planted in the monster. When it felt the sting of the harpoon, with a tremendous lunge, it started off at a fearful rate of speed in a southerly direction towing the canoe after it. So great was the speed, it is said by those who were watching the performance, from the light station, that the canoe looked like a black streak in the water. The whale would dive then come to the surface and circle about in trying to free itself from the harpoon.

"For a day and a half the Indians were being towed in all directions until when a point was reached about eighty miles south of Flattery the whale from exhaustion and loss of blood, slackened its efforts and the Indians were able to kill it and put it out of misery. To their chagrin, however, the whale sank to the bottom. Not wishing to lose their prize, the Indians remained by it, with the harpoon line fast to the whale, expecting the animal to come to the surface, as is generally the case, and then they would make an effort to tow it to Neah Bay, when what is known as the whale feast would take place.

"The whale, however, remained obdurate, and refused to come to the surface. The canoe was not provisioned and as a result after the third day of waiting for the whale to raise, the pangs of hunger and thirst compelled the Indians to cut loose from their prey at the bottom of the sea, and return to their homes, a sorry and disappointed lot.

"The place where the whale went to the bottom was about seven miles from shore and eighty miles from Cape Flattery and it was impossible for them to get supplies. Their disappointment, however, was no greater than that of the remainder of the tribe, who were patiently waiting for them to bring in the whale when a grand feast would have been had and would have continued until the animal's flesh had been stripped clean from the bones.

"Some years ago these Indians succeeded in capturing a whale and they were making poor headway in towing it in, when one of the San Francisco steamers sighted signals and supposing they were signals of distress from some unfortunate castaway steamed out of its course to pick them up, but upon reaching them the Indians offered the captain $10 to tow the whale inside the Strait. The captain declined the offer as the Pacific Coast Steamship company was not operating tow boats.”

A note from HistoryLink.org: In 1999 and 2000, after a hiatus of seven decades, Makah Indian whalers again hunted gray whales from their ancestral lands around Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula. The Makah, whose whaling tradition dates back thousands of years, are the only tribe in the United States with a treaty guaranteeing the right to hunt whales. Makahs had not whaled since the 1920s, when commercial whaling nearly wiped out whale populations, but the tribe announced it would resume whaling after the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994. The decision ignited worldwide controversy. Some animal rights activists bitterly denounced the Makah, but other groups, from advocates for indigenous rights to the United States government, supported the tribe's right to hunt. Following legal battles and physical confrontations with protestors, Makah whalers landed their first whale in more than 70 years on May 17, 1999. A 2000 hunt was not successful, and court decisions put further authorized hunts on hold (although five whalers killed a whale without permission in 2007) as the Makah, who continue to assert their treaty right to hunt whales, seek federal approval to continue their tradition.

Considerable information on Makah whaling and the tribe in general is readily found on the internet. Despite early treaties, the practice has become controversial in modern times and also turned more traditional than a quest for sustenance.

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Tom Camfield

See a brief blog above this one for the photo that failed to post with the other one accompanying this story.

Saturday, March 16