restricted access 28. The Makah Whale Hunt
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253 twenty-eight The Makah Whale Hunt one evening in the spring of 1997, i received a phone call at home from Ben Johnson Jr., chairman of the Makah Tribe. It was very unusual to get a call at home from the chairman, especially because it had been three years since I had retired. The tribe wanted me to help them in connection with the whaling controversy that had erupted. I was puzzled. John Arum, one of my former partners at the firm, was dealing with the legal aspects as far as I knew, and I told Ben that. “No,” he said, “we want you to handle public relations.” This was even more puzzling. I asked Ben to be more specific. “Well, you know there’s a lot of people writing articles and attacking us because we plan to go whaling, and we feel our side of the story needs to be told.” “But Ben,” I replied, “you need a public relations firm. I’m not a public relations expert, I’m a lawyer. I can get you the names of some very good PR firms if you’d like me to.” “No, we don’t want no PR firm,” Ben said. “Our whaling commission and the council decided that you’re the best person to explain our history and our rights. We’ve been getting a lot of calls from the media, wanting to come out here and interview us, and we’ve turned them all down because we don’t trust them. We would like you to handle the media.” I reflected on Ben’s request. After I retired, I hadn’t looked back. My contacts with the people in the firm were infrequent and, after moving 254  the makah whale hunt into photography, I had distanced myself psychologically from my identity as a lawyer. I certainly didn’t want to go back to the active practice of law. Besides, I had made a rule for myself: I won’t do anything that I don’t want to do. Surprisingly, when I applied this rule to what Ben was asking, I found it made the answer simple. I wanted to help the Makahs. So I said yes. What were the Makahs proposing to do and why? They wanted to conduct a hunt for a gray whale. Doing this was extraordinarily complicated , though the Makahs’ reasons were not. The Makahs had been the premier whalers of the Pacific Northwest coast for centuries. The artifacts that had been excavated at the Ozette dig clearly showed that. The historical record was also unequivocal. In the nineteenth century, before the discovery of petroleum, whale oil was in great demand as a lubricant. The Makahs were in the happy circumstance of being able to supply a commodity that had a ready market. To sell whale oil meant cutting the blubber and boiling it in large kettles, or “trying it,” and then pouring the resulting oil into barrels, which the Makahs transported by oceangoing canoes to the Hudson’s Bay Company post on Vancouver Island. In one year, the Makahs reportedly sold twenty thousand gallons of whale oil. All of this was well known to the federal government.1 In the 1850s, commercial whaling was a thriving industry on the East Coast. To encourage settlement of the West, the government printed flyers touting the abundance of whales in the waters of the Pacific, in hopes of enticing some of the New Bedford fleet to the Northwest . That did not happen, leaving the Makahs with a near monopoly of the whale-oil trade, at least until commercial whaling interests were attracted to the area much later. When Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens was given his instructions on making a treaty with the Makah, protection of their lucrative whale-oil commerce was specifically provided for. The treaty contained a clause explicitly guaranteeing the continued right to take whales, as well as fish.2 It was the only treaty he negotiated with the Northwest tribes containing such language; indeed it was the only treaty ever negotiated by the United States that contained such a promise. Not only did Stevens assure the Makahs that the United States had no intention of interfering with their whaling, he went further. He promised them that the federal government would supply them with the makah whale hunt   255 equipment to help them with their whale-oil industry.3 This happy picture was marred when whaling fleets expanded into the Pacific starting in the...