The Artist and the
Whale Hunter of Neah Bay
An interview with a native artist in Neah Bay, and his thoughts on the whaling controversy taking place in his town.
Updated May 5, 2015
There are parts of America so elusive, so far from anywhere, that they seem hardly to exist, like ghost civilizations.
Neah Bay is that other America, the most northwesterly place in the continental states. It is a small fishing village, seemingly forever shrouded in a thick fog and a light drizzle, as if from a plane you could never know it was there. Just a few miles beyond it is the tip of America. Cape Flattery, a rugged natural outpost against the sea, settled by puffins and deep-diving birds.
What makes Neah Bay especially unusual is that it is the unofficial capital of the Makah Tribe, and this land - this very tip - is the Makah Nation.
The shroud of fog lifted off Neah Bay just twice. For a few moments in the early 1970s and in the late 1990's, two rather strange, if not related episodes unfolded. People who had never heard of the Makah came to protest against them. But the fog crept back in, and the world again forgot about Neah Bay and the Makah Indians of the Olympic Peninsula.
When I first called Alex Swiftwater McCarty, he was floating in the Straight of Juan de Fuca somewhere between Washington's Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island, in Canada. He said, "Hold on a second, I got a coho on the line."
Each summer, Alex leaves his wife and daughters, and his position at the Indian school in mainland Washington and returns home to Neah Bay for his summer role as a commercial salmon fisherman. I was interested in his work as a traditional Makah artist. He is both informal and eloquent, making his stories about becoming a Makah artist as if from a storybook.
“I was fourteen when I decided to become a painter,” he says of his childhood in Neah Bay. “Not a traditional Makah artist, but more like traditional psychedelic sixties stuff.” He laughs at this and says, “I painted for myself, that’s what I did for four years. It wasn’t until a month before I graduated from high school, that a man who worked at the museum said he wanted to talk to me."
The museum Alex mentions didn't always exist. In fact, the museum is the result of an incredible archaeological find in the early 1970's. Beyond the bay of old rusty fishing trawlers is a modern complex, ornamented by a garden of local shrubs and trees. It is the Makah Museum, and is known by archaeologists and museum lovers the world over.
There are several other nations along the Pacific Northwest coast, plenty in Vancouver Island and British Columbia to the north, and also along the coast to the south. But many of these tribes have lost their material connections to their past. On top of this, for years, the U.S. government officially barred Native Americans from engaging in their traditional cultures. No dancing, no singing, no carving. Christianize them, educate them. American colonialism until the nineteen-seventies.
Unlike all those other tribes, this archaeological site yielded thousands of clues about the Makah ancestors. Thousands of clues, thousands of intricate pieces of Makah tools and housing. “The Ozette Dig Site,” he says, “was a summer hunting camp for the Makah.”
It was five-hundred years old, existed before Columbus landed in the West Indies, and was perfectly preserved – covered by a landslide of clay. The site was so well preserved, that archeologists could tell, for example, that the houses were well maintained and recently swept.
The Ozette Dig was the biggest news in the Olympic Peninsula at the time. So big that some archaeologists considered it one of the most important excavation sites in the world. But the Makah themselves were also interested in everything that was going on at the site. Children started to gain an interest in carving the old fishhooks, and community elders saw it as a gift from their ancestors. “I too saw the dig as a gift from our ancestors,” Alex says.
Suddenly, the Makah had something that their neighbors did not. A direct link to their past. Just about to graduate high school, Alex was asked by the Museum to help create a giant diorama of how he imagined the Ozette site to look five hundred years ago.
Alex remembers his response, “Sure, why not!” At the time, he says, he didn’t know his place in the world, or even in his own tribe. He was, “…the youngest of the youngest, so people in my generation in Neah Bay are in their late fifties. That’s where I fit into society, I should be at least forty or fifty.”
“Sometimes things just happen for a reason,” he says. Alex quickly set off to work, perching himself on the cliff-tops above the Ozette coast and making sketches of the landscape around the old dig site. He was given access to the vast back-room collection of artifacts. “Only 15 percent of the artifacts are on display,” he says.
I told him that about the Johnny Depp movie, Dead Man, for which a set was constructed, and which strongly resembled his diorama. “I guarantee you that the director (Jim Jarmusch) based his set off your diorama.”
He said the spindle-wheels and paddle artifacts struck him the most about the back-room collection. “I heard those paddles were very high tech?” I asked. “Yeah, you could dip your paddle in and you could hardly even hear it in the water. I did research on the paddle design and had a chance to really learn how to make them. I would set them on a piece of paper, and do an outline sketch, getting every detail I could.” These were details that would go into his miniature figures, attending to salmon bakes or drying halibut on the rooftops.
Alex was sent off to the Smithsonian, and to study other Native American exhibits around the country. He critiqued them and learned from them, and the result was a creation of a miniature universe resembling the Makah hunting camp five-hundred years ago. So much of the culture revolved around whaling and fishing, that even irrigation canals were built from whalebone.
Alex hadn’t done any traditional Makah carvings or paintings, but he was about to be entered firmly into his own culture. Alex had taken a class in carving from a master Makah carver. His role at the museum fueled his drive to learn more. He learned to make traditional Makah canoes, and became adept in carving totem poles. He gained a Master’s Degree in contemporary art, and learned printmaking and traditional Makah jewelry. His Austrian-Polish mother was also an artist, and her father as well. “He refurbished old violins. If you needed your Stradivarius repaired, he was the man you went to.”
>“Carving was a natural thing because my older brother was able to teach me a lot. As soon as you have an interest in something, that interest kind of gravitates toward you.”
Today, the Makah Museum features a traditional carving of his grandfather harpooning a whale. The piece is bold, crisp, detailed and masculine. Whaling was central to the Makah culture, and in 1855, the Makah entered into a contract with the United States guaranteeing them the right to fish and whale indefinitely.
The Makah always wanted to assert their right to their culture, and justifiably so. Under the contract, Alex’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers continued to hunt as always.
Like Alex, his grandfather was also a traditional carver. Like Alex, he also taught his carving and painting skills to the community. Like Alex, a fisherman, a teacher, an artist.
I asked him about his grandfather’s role in the whaling canoe. He “attended the float bags and was also the lancer. The harpooner catches the whale, but the lancer is the one who kills the whale by stabbing him whenever he can.”
Float bags were blown-up seal skins. Alex’s grandfather would string them to the harpoon’s rope line and attach them to the whale. These bags would help keep the whale afloat once dead.
Alex’s great-grandfathers and his great grandfather whaled together. He says, “they’d leave at about eight o’clock at night. They’d paddle fifteen to twenty miles offshore, straight off Makah Bay…they’d paddle out all night, get out really early.”
“There wasn’t just one canoe, but several. They’d all work together…the other canoes would help…it was a dangerous thing to do, but everybody really enjoyed it.”
“It was a long battle, it could take days to bring the whale back in. My great-grandfather Hishka was the harpoonist, and grandfather Jerry laid the lines, and my other great-grandfather, Arthur, steered the canoe. After the whale was completely dead, great-grandfather Arthur would quickly dive under water and sew the mouth shut. He spent a long time underwater just tying the mouth shut so the whale wouldn’t sink.”
Alex’s grandfather had an ability to stay underwater for unheard of lengths of time. It was a skill that the Makah practiced as if sport.
But times changed when the world realized that commercial whalers had slaughtered the gray whales to almost imminent extinction. The Makah abided, and ceased whaling.
By the 1990’s, the gray whale population had come back. It was a rare pinnacle of international environmentalism. There were so many gray whales, that some scientists even predicted there were too many. Gray whales had been mysteriously dying off the Pacific Coast. Perhaps, the present levels – 26,000 whales, up 6,000 from the estimate of their pre-slaughter levels, had created a shortage of food in their feeding areas.
The Ozette site was creating a renewal of traditional pride among the Makah. Before the dig, they were already testing the limits of their treaty with the United States by protesting against strict fishing laws – laws put into place because of the overfishing of other people – sport fishermen in fancy weekend Bay Liners, not by the Makah. They led multi-nation ‘fish-ins’, where they would continue to fish on their lands despite the regulations. These fish-ins were largely successful, in some cases forcing on state and local governments change in regulatory policy.
I ask Alex about the most important moments for the Makah. He says, “Reviving of the culture, helped by the dig site. Since we’ve regained the right to practice our cultural activities, there has always been this strong desire to bring our traditional culture back.”
Alex’s father, John, and his brother Micah had their own ideas. They would test the limits of their tribe’s cultural freedom, by once again hunting a whale. Just as Alex’s grandfather and great-grandfathers had done. Many in the tribe latched on to the idea, citing its importance in the spiritual recovery of a tribe that was facing woes such as high unemployment and drug addiction.
The Makah started training, and they formed a commission. When environmentalists learned of this, they poured in. Paul Watson sailed in on two ships. He was the co-founder of Greenpeace, but had evidently been kicked out because of his preference for using violence to achieve his goals. He painted one ship to look like a killer whale, to scare away the gray whales. His staff blared orca sounds into the straits of Juan de Fuca.
For two years, the tribe trained physically and spiritually, launching their whaling canoe into the ocean and being intimidated by the protesters. Then the press came in droves, excited about the story, but frankly confused. Author Robert Sullivan, in his stunning travel memoir, A Whale Hunt, writes of the media,
“The stories they told of the Native American, sacred keeper of the land; the story of the conservationist, warrior on behalf of the earth; the story of the whale, the huge and potentially picturesque sea mammal that could sometimes launch majestically, gloriously, dramatically from the dark depths of the unfilmable panorama…the stories that were not the stories that the media were used to telling were these: the story of the sacred keeper of the land killing a whale, which is, to the press and public at large, the non-Indian symbol of the non-Indian sacred keepers of the seas; the story of the conservationist, lover of Native Americans’ sacred earth values, saying unloving things about Native Americans; and the story of the whale being eaten.”
Sullivan sticks with the Makah for two years, throughout the ordeal, and he paints Alex’s brother much how the media began to portray him. Not as a rural hick who cruelly intended the death of a great creature. Not the way Paul Watson wanted him painted, but as an intelligent, spiritual young man who understood nature, respected the whale and was committed to the traditional values of his people.
When all this was going on, I rooted for the Makah too. I for my own reasons. While I consider environmentalism a foundation of my beliefs, this all sounded like animal rights to me. This wasn’t about saving a species. This protest wasn’t coming from the dedicated scientists and journalists reporting to us about the essential problems with the ecology. Rather, these were the people who spend millions on saving cats and dogs, who weep for the lobster in the crockpot, who yearn for the welfare of a single domesticated pet while a species in the woods beyond is about to be vanquished forever. Whose commitment to the world would be so better spent on that dark reality of our declining ecosystem.
The whale was eventually hunted. On that morning, the environmentalists were still asleep, but the coast guard ships were protecting that Makah canoe from any potential violence. They speared their whale, and had proven to themselves and America that their culture was still intact – and that the treaty with the United States meant something.
Of this episode that put Neah Bay, Washington in the world’s spotlight, Alex says, “Sometimes just because you have a right, doesn’t mean you should practice it.”
But I saw a lot of similarities between Alex, the story of his brother and father, and his own stories of his grandfather. I wasn’t surprised when he said that his grandmother, Matilda, was instrumental in keeping the traditional dances alive in secret during the days when they were outlawed.
Right now, during the winter, Alex spends his time carving commission work and teaching an eighth grade Native American – a boy from a nearby tribe – how to read, and how to carve. Alex tells me he is carving as we speak. “As a community we’re definitely going in the right direction. We all have our place in the society to play our part. I know of individuals who are learning the Makah language from infancy…its going to come back. Teaching the language from infancy is what has to happen.”
“Oh,” he says when I ask about his family back home, “my daughter is becoming a wonderful artist.”