September 11, 2007

Unheroic Makah hunters

Of whales and heritage

By David NeiwertAs I noted in my 1998 piece:

Traditional Makah whalers--who were chosen braves from a few select families--underwent rigorous preparation for the hunt that included long steam-lodge sessions and enduring nettle treatments. But only a few of the modern Makah hunting group are partaking of such rigors; they were chosen mainly for their strength. Several enjoy party-animal reputations, guys in desperate need of something constructive to do--but hardly the leading young men of the village.

There is a reason the old Makah hunters were considered so heroic: The hunts were extraordinarily dangerous, requiring the highest level of skills as canoeists and harpoonists. None of the current group of Makahs has displayed any of these skills. In fact, they are such poor canoeists that they plan to have the traditional cedar canoe towed by powerboat to the whale's vicinity--at which point they plan to row out to meet the beast, armed with their paddles, harpoons ... and, of course, the traditional high-powered rifle that will perform the final dispatch.

The Makahs' defenders explain away their variance from original traditions as a necessary accommodation to modernity, saying that modern Makah have the same right to modern weaponry as anyone else. Be that as it may, it's also clear from descriptions of traditional hunts that the whole enterprise was bound up with an appreciation for, even a love of, the animal being hunted. Warrior purification, according to these accounts, was about making a man worthy of taking the life of such a great beast; and when a whale was caught, they believed it gave itself up to them as a gift to the tribe, and it was honored at the subsequent feast accordingly.

This was mostly lacking at the 1999 hunt, and it was strikingly absent from yesterday's whale killing. The perpetrators--a number of men working in two boats--did nothing to honor this whale when they shot and harpooned it. They just wasted it.

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