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The Makah: A Case Study of Resilience and Resistence. “Makah Maiden,” Edward S. Curtis, 1916. One visual indicator of how the Makah resiliency and resistance is seen in this photograph of a Makah man standing on the beach at Neah Bay in 1897.

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the makah a case study of resilience and resistence
The Makah: A Case Study of Resilience and Resistence

“Makah Maiden,” Edward S. Curtis, 1916


One visual indicator of how the Makah resiliency and resistance is seen in this photograph of a Makah man standing on the beach at Neah Bay in 1897

The image of Young Doctor, the canoe maker, demonstrates how the Makah adapted to white culture - without giving up their own. While he is wearing jeans, he also has a traditional blanket around shoulders and a traditional kerchief tied head-band style.

Today, we will examine five unique features of the Makah Nation – features that when coupled with their resilient commitment to tradition and their resistance to Euro-American culture and customs – have provided them with a great deal of autonomy.

unique attributes of the makah
Unique attributes of the Makah
  • The Makah continue to live on part of their traditional tribal lands.
  • The Makah Nation’s remote geographical location has helped them maintain much cultural, economic, spiritual, and political autonomy despite various federal assimilation endeavors.
  • The Makah are the only Native American people whose right to hunt whales is guaranteed by treaty with the United States
  • The Makah have been involved in a long legal struggle for their right to hunt the gray whale and maintain their cultural self-determination.
1 the makah continue to live on part of their traditional tribal lands
#1: The Makah continue to live on part of their traditional tribal lands.

The land belonging to the Makah is 47 square miles, much of which is dominated by rocky coastline and small mountains between 500-1,000 feet high - with the highest peak at 2,000 feet. It is one of the most isolated, rugged, and remote Indian Reservations in the continental United States.

The reservation is located at the farthest end of the Northwestern United States and is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, to the north by the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, and to the south and east by Olympia National Park.


This map provides a clear picture of the vast amount of land the Makah lost – over 300,000 acres of their traditional homeland. They were, however, able to hold onto their territory at the northwestern portion of the Peninsula – territory that included four of their five traditional homelands. Ozette remained outside Reservation boundaries.


On the map:

  • #1 is the site of Ozette Village - an ancient village no longer inhabited by the Makah
  • #2 is the Makah Cultural and Resource Center
  • #3 is the site of Neah Bay - the largest village on the reservation
  • #4 is Koitiah Viewpoint
  • #5 is Cape Flattery Viewpoint and Lighthouse
  • #6 and #7 are Hobuck Beach and Campgrounds.)

Retaining and living on part of their traditional land put the Makah in an excellent position to maintain much of their tribal autonomy.


#2. The Makah Nation’s remote geographical location has helped them maintain much cultural, economic, spiritual, and political autonomy despite various federal assimilation endeavors.

  • Economic Autonomy
  • Until 1931, the reservation was so remote that it was only accessible by water.
  • It also included only two possible agricultural areas that had only a few acres of cultivatable soil.
  • Consequently, the vigorous federal assimilation measures that required Indians to settle on agricultural land and become farmers was not possible for the Makah.

So, as Euro-Americans increasingly arrived in this remote region to compete for the rich fishing resources surrounding the reservations, the Makah recognized the opportunity for commercial competition and economic autonomy.

In 1868, commercial sealing schooners hired Makah tribal members to accompany them to the Bering Sea. Some Makah became relatively wealthy from this relationship and some annual incomes were reportedly $5,000 a person.
  • In 1880, a Makah tribal member invested his sealing earnings in the tribe’s first small schooner. By 1893, the Makah owned ten schooners and were competing directly with their white counterparts.
  • In 1897, the federal government outlawed commercial hunting of pelagic seals and the following year, federal officials began seizing Makah-owned commercial schooners that were still hunting seals. In response, the Makah turned to the commercial halibut industry.

Halibut Fishing 1903


By the 1950s, when whale, seal, and halibut hunting had either been banned or was no longer profitable, the Makah had turned to other sources of economic autonomy:  salmon fishing, working in the canning industry, selling timber stumpage to local timber companies, building roads for the government.

In 1920, due to the threatened destruction of the gray whale, a ban began on commercial whaling.  The Makah voluntarily stopped their whaling practices in 1926.


Drying Fish at Neah Bay, 1900

  • By 1931, the average income of each Makah family was $600 - a figure bolstered by their low cost of living.  They took fish from the sea, raised their own vegetables, and owned their own houses and land. 
  • As a federal agent noted, “as a whole, the economic status of these Indians is exceptionally good when one stops to consider the fact that it has all been through their own efforts and industry.”

Such economic autonomy was noted by several other 20th Century observers of Makah life.

  • According to Elizabeth Colson writing in the 1950s, the Makah possessed
    • “…adequate resources to allow them to expand their economy and enter into economic relationships with the whites … The Makah … have never had their economy so disrupted that they have been forced to turn to occupations for which they had no previous training … they found themselves in a position where they could exploit more profitably their traditional subsistence resources because the presence of the whites in neighboring areas made available to them new techniques for application within their usual occupations and also opened to them new markets for disposing of their surpluses … One agent commented, ‘These Makah Indians are really much better off as a whole than many settlements of white people on the Sound or elsewhere.’”
  • As a federal agent noted in the 1940s, , “as a whole, the economic status of these Indians is exceptionally good when one stops to consider the fact that it has all been through their own efforts and industry.”
  • Makah resiliency and resistance contributed to such autonomy.

To repeat, the Makah’s resiliency and resistance were supported by the Nation’s remote geographical location. Because hired help was always scarce, commercial fishing required the work of all villagers - including children. This meant that assimilation and educational efforts on the reservation were disrupted for almost half the year while the village brought in the commercial take.

Indeed, when a whale or any fishing expedition was finished, the entire village was needed to bring in the catch.


Such economic autonomy also led to some degree of cultural autonomy. In 1891, Indian agent John McGlinn reported to the federal government that every Makah over the age of 50 clung “tenaciously to their own barbarous habits.” The same types of reports consistently appeared for the next 60 years.

Neah Bay, 21st Century

Neah Bay, 1865


But any cultural autonomy had been hard fought. Between the late 19th and early 20th Century, the federal government began a campaign among the Makah to “kill the Indian and save the man” – a campaign that consisted of boarding schools and cultural encroachments.

Boarding Schools (Chemewa)

Cultural Encroachments

boarding schools
Boarding Schools
  • In 1862 the U.S. government opened the first boarding school on the Makah Reservation a good distance from the most populated areas of the Reservation. School age Makah children were required by law to board at this school which was run by the federal government.
  • By the late-1870s, most Makah children were sent further away to boarding schools in Washington and Oregon, most commonly Cushman Indian School in Tacoma, Washington and Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon.

In his article about the Makah Nation and its effort to exercise cultural self-determination, attorney Robert J. Miller notes that the federal government used cultural and religious oppression in the boarding schools designed to:

    • “wipe out the Makah language,”
    • control and "even eradicate the Makah's culture,"
    • force them to abandon their own religion and accept Christianity,
    • "withdraw the children from their culture and families and raise them as 'white children.'"

He additionally notes that Makah parents were arrested if they did not send their children to boarding school.


Many first hand reports indicate that federal agents working at or involved with the boarding schools worked diligently to make Makah children into hardworking American boys and girls.

  • In 1875, Indian Agent C.A. Huntington traveled for three weeks throughout Washington and Victoria with a group of Makah children from the reservation school. As Erikson, et. al. indicate, the purpose of the tour, in part, was "intent on revealing non-Indian lifeways to these children. Yet the tour also provided an opportunity to display the children as exemplary products of a civilizing project."

Elizabeth Colson indicated that by 1950, federal agents "were able to obtain control of almost every child for a greater or lesser period and place it in schools run by the government for the express purpose of teaching it American ways of life and preventing it from learning Makah ways."

  • Further, Colson found that virtually every Makah over the age of 55 had spent some time in government boarding school. Additionally, almost all those younger had attended boarding schools away from their village which were not as rigid but nonetheless had served the goal of "separation from their own people."

Colson concluded that "the formative years of almost every Makah were spent partially under the control of people who were American in culture. All were taught English and forced to use this language

in their contacts with each other and employees of the agency....They were taught also, through bitter experience, that the way to adjust to the presence of the whites was to hide any nonconformities in their own behavior under a mask of white culture."

Chemawa 1905


Cultural Encroachments

In addition to forcing Makah parents to send their children to boarding school, federal agents on the reservation spent a great deal of time forcing Makah adults to dress like while men and women, abandon their cultural traditions - especially dances which were considered "heathenish and barbarous" - and give up their tribal secret religious and curing societies.

As seen in this turn-of-the-century photograph, these tribal members are “intelligent, worthy Makahs,” presumably because they are dressed in Euro-American clothing.


Further, federal agents segregated elder tribal members ages 55 and up so that the younger Makah would not be influenced by these elders and would thus be more susceptible to learning “civilized” American ways.

As Miller found, the federal government supported these cultural encroachments not only to force Makah assimilation into white society, but also to end traditional, cultural practices that might influence Makah children as they grew up. To Miller, these "attacks" were nothing less than efforts on behalf of the federal government to "exterminate the Makah's identity.”

Makah Family 1900


The federal government even discouraged the Makah from building their traditional cedar bark longhouses and instead, suggested they build more typical American homes.

“To any but the people born and raised in them these villages are dirty.”

Longhouse 1900


Despite boarding schools and many federal efforts to destroy Makah tradition, the Makah responded in a way that allowed them to straddle two worlds. Indeed…

  • By the turn of the 20th century, the Makah spoke both their tribal language and English, wore both traditional and white man’s clothing, used both ancient and modern tools, and labored in both the local and the market economies.
  • For instance, In the photographs below, we see a Makah dance celebration in 1941 downtown Seattle in which both traditional Indian and non-Indian clothing are worn, as well as a photograph of cultural leader Charlie Swan performing traditional dance in traditional ceremonial clothing at the 1945 Makah Days celebration held annually in August. Swan wears a button blanket and wooden mask, and he holds a painted drum.

Thus, throughout most of the 20th Century, the Makah quietly yet openly resisted the white man’s influence and resiliently held fast to many of their customs. And as we have previously noted, the Makah’s remote geographical location also supported such resistance. But toward the end of the century, the Makah demonstrated renewed resilience and resistance in their efforts to reestablish whaling as the center of their economic, cultural, spiritual, and political universe.

#3: The Makah are the only Native American people whose right to hunt whales is guaranteed by federal treaty.
  • The relationship between Makah and whales is very old; archaeological deposits of humpback and gray whale at date back 2,000 years.
  • Whales provided economic sustenance - oil, meat, bone, sinew and gut for storage containers - and provided the basis for cultural rituals.
  • The ability to continue that relationship was reinforced by the federal government when it negotiated the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855.
Traditionally, the hunt required time-honored ritual. Preparations for the hunt began in the winter. Whalers went off by themselves to pray, fast, and bathe ceremoniously. Each man had his own place, followed his own rituals, and sought his own power. Months went into the special preparation and whalers devoted their whole lives to spiritual preparedness.

Edward Curtis, 1915


In addition to the whalers preparing for the hunt, skilled craftsmen carved cedar canoes ranging from 32 to 40 feet to be used in the hunt. This photograph was taken in 1914 of a man sitting on an upended half-carved canoe, taking off wood chips with a D-adze. Once the training and the canoe was completed, the hunt began in early Spring.

Paddling silently, whalers studied the breathing pattern of their quarry. As the whale finished spouting and returned underwater, the leader of the hunt directed the crew to where it would next surface. There the men waited.

When the whale rose, the paddlers held the canoe just to its left, their speed matched to the animal's. As the back broke the surface, the harpooner struck and the crew instantly paddled backward, putting all possible distance between the canoe and the wounded prey.

A float at the end of the line acted as a marker so the whalers could follow their prey. If need be, they set additional harpoons and stayed out over night. Eventually the time came for the final kill which was done using a special lance.

The next step was to tow the whale home - a distance of only a few miles if its spirit had heeded prayers to swim for the beach, perhaps 10 miles or more if not. Songs eased the paddling, welcomed the whale to the village, and praised the power that made it all possible.

Asahel Curtis, 1910


Asahel Curtis took this photo in 1910 of Makah men cutting up a whale after the hunt while other men and boys stand around and watch.

Although the Makah voluntarily stopped hunting whales in the late 1920s after the threatened extinction of the gray whale, they yearned for a return to whaling - a return that they believed could stimulate a cultural rebirth.


Again using both their resistance and resiliency, in 1995 the Makah petitioned the International Whaling Commission to resume whaling. This act is directly related to the fourth unique characteristic of the Makah people - their long legal struggle to resume the whale hunt.

4 the makah have been involved in a long legal struggle for their right to hunt the gray whale
#4: The Makah have been involved in a long legal struggle for their right to hunt the gray whale.

H.W. Elliot, “Makah Whale Hunt,” 1883

the battle begins
The battle begins…
  • In 1995, the Makah Nation asked the United States to represent them before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in their request to resume hunting.
  • On October 23, 1997, the IWC approved a renewed Makah whale hunt after a lapse in hunting of more than 70 years. The Commission allowed the Makah to kill up to 5 whales a year through 2002. Some members of the Makah nation began to immediately make preparations for the first hunt  which was to guided by strict tradition.

In May, 1999, the men from traditional whaling families who had trained for almost a year paddled their 32-foot cedar canoe out to hunt a whale for the first time in over 70 years.


As the news of the successful hunt spread, the village of Neah Bay welcomed the whale to the community as their ancestors had over the centuries. Canoes from many surrounding villages came to help the Makah bring the whale to the people.


After the whale came to shore, prayers were offered to thank the whale for giving its life to sustain that of the Makah and to free its spirit for passage to the other side. After proper respect was paid, the whalers began carving and distributing the meat and blubber to the people to taste for the first time what had been a staple for their ancestors for thousands of years.


The whale was butchered through the night and the meat and blubber was either frozen, smoked or stewed.

Later that week, Neah Bay was host to the largest celebration in its history. American Indians from all over the U.S. and Canada and indigenous people from all over the world came to celebrate the Makah's return to whaling.

But the celebration was marred by the reaction from some members of the environmental community - they not tried to stop the whale hunt from occurring, they filed suit to permanently prohibit the Makah from whaling.

Thus, as the 21st Century unfolded, the Makah entered another period of resilience and resistance by continuing their struggle to reunite their culture with their whaling tradition.


In conclusion, while it is clear that several generations of Makah children and adults were subjected to continual efforts to strip them of their religious, economic, cultural, and political traditions, it is also clear, as Elizabeth Colson notes, that through resilience and resistance, they have maintained many of their tribal attributes:

    • The Makah and whites have "... developed an interacting society" in which they "live together at the same village, work together on the same jobs, trade together at the same establishments, and visit together in each others' homes" - yet still the "Makah remain a distinct group.
    • There are principles or theories controlling Makah behavior where it affects other Makah … and which do not govern the Makah in their relations with whites.

There is a body of traditional associations or meanings common to the Makah, but not shared with the whites.

  • Finally, the Makah exist in a political structure which is not shared with the whites and they continue to think of themselves as a distinctive people in contrast to the whites. All these indicate that the two groups have not merged into one body with a common culture."

But are these traditions enough to retain tribal sovereignty, or does sovereignty depend, as many elders claim, on resuming traditional whaling practices???