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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“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Such economic autonomy was noted by several other 20th Century observers of Makah life.
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)
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:
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.
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."
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."
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.”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
H.W. Elliot, “Makah Whale Hunt,” 1883
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.
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:
There is a body of traditional associations or meanings common to the Makah, but not shared with the whites.
But are these traditions enough to retain tribal sovereignty, or does sovereignty depend, as many elders claim, on resuming traditional whaling practices???