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.
A McCarty relief carving of raven dropping a clam on a rock.
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.”