TJ Greene Sr. remembers the foggy day in May 1999 when Makah tribe members encircled a gray whale, harpooned it and dragged it onto the shore. It was a day of celebration for the tribe in the northwest corner of Washington — the first time its members had landed a whale in some 70 years.
“I’ve never seen that part of town packed with so many people,” Greene, 49, now the Makah Tribal Council chairman, told The Washington Post. “When word started circulating of a successful hunt, and the whaling crews were bringing it back to shore, that brought a lot of joy in the community.”
The hunt remains the last the tribe has performed.
Whale hunting is a sacred tradition in Makah culture, dating back thousands of years. Yet for decades, the Makah people have not been able to hunt thanks to legal battles, as well as a long period in which a sharp decline in gray whales — driven by commercial hunting — prompted the tribe voluntarily to halt whaling. The hunt in 1999 was the first since the 1920s.
Whales can be found in Makah songs, dances and visual art. Whale hunting, meanwhile, is performed alongside multiple rituals, according to the tribe. In preparation for a hunt, whalers pray, fast, bathe ceremonially and sometimes take months to ready themselves spiritually. If hunters land a whale, the tribe says its meat, oil, bone and sinew are all used.
Although the Makah Tribe argues that an 1855 treaty it signed with the U.S. government guarantees its rights to hunt the sea creatures, animal rights groups argue that the Makah Tribe’s desire to hunt whales is out of step with the times, even “barbaric” — and they have long fought in court to block the tribe from carrying out hunts.
But the Makah Tribe may well be allowed to hunt again. An administrative law judge last week issued a 156-page recommendation to the U.S. Department of Commerce, arguing the tribe should be granted a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a 1972 law that prohibits the killing of whales and other marine mammals. The hunts would have a “negligible” impact on the overall gray whale population, which is estimated between 21,000 to 25,000, the judge concluded. A final decision rests with an administrator in the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the Commerce Department.
As drafted, the waiver would allow Makah tribe members to land up to three Eastern North Pacific gray whales on an even year and one on an odd year over a 10-year period, according to the recommendation. The timing is meant to reduce the likelihood the hunters wound or kill an endangered Western North Pacific gray whale, due to that mammal’s migratory patterns.
“We think that’s the right decision,” Greene said.
The Animal Welfare Institute, a group opposing the tribe’s hunting permit, is not pleased. In a statement issued this week, the group argued that any whaling by the Makah Tribe, however limited, would place endangered groups of gray whales at risk of being harpooned. Moreover, the group argues no whales should be killed, as the large marine mammals face numerous threats, including pollution, ship strikes and an ongoing “unusual mortality event” that, since 2019, has caused an unexplained decline in the gray whale population.
“In many people’s minds, it’s a limited number of whales. So what’s the big deal?” DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said of the Makah’s proposed whaling permit. “Well, the big deal is that whales are incredibly intelligent, sentient creatures.”
Schubert told The Post the institute respects the Makah Tribe’s traditions, especially its celebration of whales through art and dance. However, “as a society, and certainly for a group like the Makah who have lived without whaling for so long, it’s time to move on and to protect these whales and not persecute them.”
But for Greene, the tribal chairman, hunting whales is deeply ingrained in the Makah culture and inseparable from other rituals. Whales and whale hunting, he said, “defines us as an indigenous people,” precisely because whales are “a beautiful and amazing creation that we care deeply for and have a deep connection to.”
Trevor Branch, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, told The Post in an email that the Makah Tribe’s hunting of 20 or so whales over a decade “would have no noticeable impact on the population as a whole.”
“So it really comes down to a question of [weighing] morals, ethics, and conservation principles against the treaty rights of the Makah,” Branch said.
John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, who has long advocated for ocean wildlife protections, believes the Makah Tribe should assert its treaty rights. In an email to The Post, he argued that commercial fisheries, plastic pollution and climate change are far more detrimental to the whale population than the Makah’s proposed whaling permit.
“It feels a bit too easy to point fingers at the Makah ... when modern society kills far more whales each year through our greed and indifference,” Hocevar wrote, adding, “We won’t save the whales, or ourselves for that matter, unless we focus on the biggest threats.”