In 1999, the Makah tribe killed a gray whale. The killing ignited a firestorm of controversy that spread around the world.
The hunting of whales was a right guaranteed the Makah by the Treaty of Neah Bay signed in 1855. It is a right unique among the treaties between the United States and the sovereign aboriginal nations. It’s clear and unequivocal. In return for surrendering their sovereignty and tribal territory, the Makah were assured they could hunt whales off the coast of Cape Flattery forever. Given our historic disregard of aboriginal treaties, it may have been a bad bargain.
The Makah had been hunting whales from cedar canoes since before the birth of Christ, perhaps even before the birth of Rome. It was central to their culture. They stopped whaling in the 1920’s. There were simply too few whales left to hunt. Commercial whalers had ravished the fishery, hunting with ruthless, unrestrained efficiency.
In 1999, the Federal government granted the Makah permission to take five Pacific gray whales each year. The stipulation was that the whales had to be hunted in the traditional manner. The protest was so strident that Coast Guard patrol boats were necessary to defend the Makah whaling canoe from animal rights activitists during the hunt. Only one whale was taken.
Four years of legal challenges have since mired the Makah in court. In 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Makah could not go whaling again until a new environmental-impact statement and a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act were issued. So much for treaty rights. Last month, the Makah formally requested the waiver.
It will likely be several years before the issue is settled. Opposition groups will raise legal objections at every opportunity—the legal equivalent of a running skirmish. Already protests are being raised in letters to the editor of the Seattle Times.
One recent letter read "I've always marveled at how people can say they ‘respect’ and ‘honor’ the noble beasts they kill. This is just one more example of a society refusing to understand the fact that whales are intelligent mammals." [Italics belong to the author.]
At the core of most arguments by animal rights activists against Makah whaling isn’t the risk to the gray whale population but the intelligence of whales. Simply stated, it’s immoral to kill something as smart as a whale.
But where do you draw the line? At what point does an animal become smart enough not to eat? Pigs are pretty smart. Is it more moral to eat stupid animals? Should the saintly live on a diet of slugs and slime mold?
And how do we measure an animal’s intelligence, anyway? Do aquatic animals need different criteria than terrestrial? Can the same test be applied to mammals and reptiles? We’re not even agreed on how to measure our own intelligence much less that of another species.
Basing the morality of your dinner menu upon the intelligence of the main course seems to me a slippery slope. The only rationally defensible position is that of a vegetarian and even vegetarians are hard pressed to defend the taking of any life, even a vegetable's life, to support their own.
The awesome, awful mystery is that life feeds on life. There is a web of indebtedness that enmeshes the whole food chain. The subsistence hunter who stalks his prey and kills by hand is intimately aware of that debt. For aboriginal peoples the hunt was a profoundly serious mystery that encompassed the life and death of both hunter and hunted.
Surrendering participation in that mystery to professionals—stockmen, slaughter houses, and butchers—has distanced us from a fundamental reality. Life feeds on life. The hunter eventually becomes the prey. We have grown arrogant in our isolation, unwilling to admit our dependence, and resentful when that dependence is dramatized by the Makah.
In the natural world, a balance is maintained, often at great cost to particular populations. In the world we have created, payment of that debt hasn’t been forgiven, merely postponed.
The issue we should be addressing isn’t whether the Makah hunt whales from hand-carved canoes but the insanely self-indulgent culture we have created that is voraciously consuming this planet’s resources. The debt, when it comes due, may be more than we can pay.