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Harpooning A Fishy Tradition
By Kerrie N. Rezac
June, 2000 'WasteWatcher,' CAGW's official newsletter

Whether you are Tevye, the lead in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, or a member of an American Indian tribe trying to resurrect a long forgotten hunting custom, you have to know that some traditions just aren't worth keeping. Especially if they cost the taxpayers $5 million.

While cutting back on normal operations (such as ticketing drunken boaters and arresting drug smugglers) due to increasing oil prices, the Coast Guard is spending $11,550 an hour to help the Makah Indian Tribe of Washington resurrect a "tradition." Ironically, Coast Guard spokesman John O'Dell has remarked, "If it is not a life-threatening situation, we have to ask how much involvement from the Coast Guard there should be."

Apparently the rules change if the Clinton-Gore administration wants something. In Neah Bay, Wash., the federal government has doled out almost $5 million to help the Makah Indian Tribe resurrect the "tradition" of hunting gray whales. But the Makah hunt is not a tradition at all. Unlike 21st century Makah, earlier Makah did not wear Nikes and Adidas and use automatic rifles on their hunts. The early tribesmen certainly did not get government funding for their hunting. Their sense of pride came from having conducted the hunt themselves.

The current situation no doubt has the Makah's ancestors rolling in their burial mounds. The federal government spent $200,000 just to obtain permission for the hunt from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Uncle Sam also spent $735,000 to show members of the tribe how to kill and eat their prey. And then there are the Coast Guard escorts who watched the "hunters" do cannonballs off the sides of their canoe for three hours. All in order to restore a sense of "culture" in the tribe's children.

After the gray whale was taken off the Endangered Species List in 1994, the Makah requested the government's assistance in resurrecting their "tradition." The tribe made their appeal under an 1855 treaty in which the U.S. government agreed not to interfere with Makah tradition. So far, no one has stopped to consider whether a federal handout is, by its very definition, government interference and a violation of the 145-year-old pact.

Further, the Makah accepted the wampum despite the fact that the tribe had voluntarily given up whaling early in the 20th century and, in the 1970s, a tribal council decided against resurrecting the whaling tradition. Many of the tribe's elders (including one woman who was fired from her job after she spoke out against whaling) still believe the hunt is unnecessary.

In order to kill the whales legally, the Makah first had to gain permission from the IWC. And so a federal spending spree began (despite the fact that 43 congressmen signed a petition against sanctioning the hunt). The tribe received $200,000 for 15 tribesmen and their lawyer to attend the 1997 IWC conference in Monaco. The IWC limits whaling rights to cultures that depend on the whale for subsistence or that have a long, unbroken whaling tradition. The Makah needed to convince the IWC that they fell into one of these categories.

The Makah and their lawyers failed in this endeavor. The Oct. 23, 1997, IWC decision, which supposedly allows the Makah tribe to kill four whales per year, never mentions the tribe by name. The IWC decision not to sanction the Makah hunt makes sense, since the tribe does not depend on the whale for subsistence and their cultural "tradition" was voluntarily abandoned twice. But the intrepid Makah whalers had no need to worry the pale faces in Washington would cook up a deal.

The government struck a understanding, outside formal IWC discussions, with Russian and American aboriginal tribes. (The tribes' practices have long been sanctioned by the IWC because the whale is the main source of food and income for these tribes.) In a deal with these tribes, the Makah were given 4 of the 120 whales that the tribes are allotted annually by the IWC. It is this agreement, and not the language of the IWC decision, that gives the Makah the permission for their hunt.

Spending on the Makah did not stop after the pow-wow in Morocco. The government also gave the Makah:
$300,000 for a grant to "prepare" for the hunt, because the tribe had given up whaling almost a century earlier and there was no one left in the tribe who actually knew how to hunt whales;
$435,000 for a grant to teach the tribe how to eat the whale meat;
$335,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure that domestic and international whaling laws are followed (although it appears that the government has already skirted around the IWC law);
$87,000 directly from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the hunt;
$13,910 from the U.S. Marshall's Office for Operation Harpoon.

Nor did the federal government's spending spree cease when the Makah entered the water, even though almost $1 million had already been spent. The federal and local governments also dipped into taxpayers' pockets to make sure the Makah were not disturbed by protesters.
$751,295 was spent for the National Guard and FBI to monitor anti-whalers at the 1998 Makah Days celebration (not one anti-whaler showed up, so the federal delegation watched ceremonial dances);
Approximately $50,000, including a $10,000 grant from the federal government, was used by the Clallam County Sheriff to prepare for the whaling events and the phantom anti-whalers;
$924,000 was used for Coast Guard escorts for the spring 2000 hunt at $11,550 per hour (the fall 1998 and spring and fall 1999 hunts were also provided Coast Guard escorts;
$44,800 was spent on legal fees during Metcalf v. Daley, which questioned the environmental impact of the hunt.

While the government was being so generous with taxpayers' dollars, two Clallam County Prison workers, who also happen to be Makah Indians, were arrested for using prison equipment to make whaling tools. One female protester was run over on her jet ski while the Coast Guard was patrolling the waters with the Makah.

The tribe, whose members do not pay taxes, is having a whale of a time with federal tax dollars. They have hired a Beltway-based public relations firm to help with the tribe's "image." It shouldn't be difficult for the Makah to find the means to pay for these services since the government has already given them millions. The tribe spent $100,000 of their government funds for a potlatch party to celebrate their 1999 catch. Who would throw a $100,000 party for less than 70 people? The same people who would spend $640 on a toilet seat: the federal government.

As Tevye learned in Fiddler on the Roof, traditions disappear. But in this particular case, it is our tax dollars that are disappearing far faster than any whaling tradition of the Makah.