Neah Bay Harbor in fog

The Artist and the Whale Hunter

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.