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The Last Harpoon

On May 17 last year, just before 7:00 AM, a crew of Makah Indians from Neah Bay, an impoverished reservation village on the extreme northwestern tip of Washington State, harpooned by hand, then shot dead, a gray whale. The sea was calm, with a gentle westerly swell. Drizzle was falling from the low sky, where helicopters carrying reporters and cameramen hovered noisily over the whalers’ thirty-five-foot cedar canoe. Close by, a motorized support vessel held the gunman with his .50-caliber rifle. Two boats lay a little way off—one crammed with more newsmen, the other containing biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service, who were there to see fair play at the kill. Beyond them, a Coast Guard patrol ship stood ready to enforce the five-hundred-yard-wide DMZ between the whalers and the motley fleet of protesters from animal rights and environmental groups. None of the activists had yet, quite, arrived on the scene because of the earliness of the hour, and their fleet had been seriously depleted by the Coast Guard having impounded many of their boats on previous days.

This was the less-than-grand climax to what Robert Sullivan calls, in a nicely balanced phrase, “the first modern traditional whale hunt.” Since October 1997, when the International Whaling Commission, meeting in Monaco, gave the Makah tribe permission to kill four gray whales a year (a decision sanctioned by the US government, with the Commerce Department chipping in with $310,000 by way of support), the hunt had been the subject of an impassioned shouting match. The quarrel between would-be whalers and protesters was complicated by the fact that one of the most sacred traditional myths of the environmentalist movement concerns the role of Native Americans as exemplary “stewards” of nature. The prospect of Indians killing a whale with a specially modified gun—described by Sullivan as looking like a bazooka—was an inconceivable affront to many white people’s received notions of “Native American spirituality” and of the Indian as someone who lives in an exalted state of harmony with the earth and its creatures.

The Makah Indians insisted that whale-hunting had been at the center of their tribal life for several thousand years, and that by resurrecting the tradition they were recovering their ethnic pride and identity, as well as exercising a right that had been ceded to them in their 1855 treaty with the United States government. The protesters claimed that this was a sham—that the Indians’ true motive was a financial one, with whale carcasses fetching more than $100,000 apiece on the Japanese sushi market. They saw the ritual hunt of the Makahs as the thin end of a large wedge that would lead to the reintroduction of commercial whaling in American waters.

Some unexpected positions were taken in the row—none more so than the Save the Whales stand made by Jack Metcalf, a right-wing Republican congressman from Washington State, and an anti-environmentalist supporter of “property rights” (which, of course, made him a natural foe of Indian treaty rights). Metcalf’s antipathy to “special rights for Indians” was quickly translated into a new-found enthusiasm for animal welfare, which he trumpeted around the state and in Washington, D.C., on every available occasion.

Metcalf’s conversion to the Green cause is a measure of the looking-glass world created by the impending whale hunt. The Indians’ usual friends suddenly became their enemies, while many new and rather peculiar pro-whaling friends crowded into Neah Bay from Greenland, Iceland, Japan, Russia, the Faeroe Islands, and Tonga, to offer their moral support. Along with the beleaguered whalers of the world came the journalists—first in small exploratory platoons, then in battalions.

As the crow flies, Neah Bay is only about 120 miles northwest of Seattle, but it is far more inaccessible and neglected than that distance suggests. Past Port Angeles, the road quickly deteriorates. Going by sea, a boat faces the ninety-mile-long (and often very rough) slog up the length of Juan de Fuca Strait. Before the whale hunt put Neah Bay on the map, the federally funded marina there was three-quarters empty even in high summer, and the handsome tribal museum attracted only a thin trickle of tourists from the coastal resorts on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. The village’s chief tourist trade lay with sports fishermen, who towed their boats out to Neah Bay by truck or car, launched them from the ramp, and sometimes stayed overnight in one of three run-down motels. Unemployment in Neah Bay—a bedraggled assembly of cabins and trailers set around a pretty half-moon beach, and backed by thick forest—ran at more than 50 percent. In 1995, per capita income was just $5,200. To the casual visitor, Neah Bay seemed starved for attention, in every sense of that loaded and modish term.

The whale hunt brought it more attention than any small community could comfortably deal with. Its motels bulged with journalists and their expensive equipment; Washburn’s, the reservation supermarket, did a roaring trade with the expense-account visitors. Such a flood of money had never been seen in Neah Bay, even in the days when salmon packed the strait wall-to-wall. This wasn’t the kind of glancing brush with media fame, cash, and klieg lights that, say, the discovery of Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” brought to Lincoln, Montana (a far bigger, richer, and less isolated place than Neah Bay) in 1996. The hunt took a year to prepare—and be protested against—before the first of many unsuccessful attempts to actually harpoon a whale was made in the fall of 1998, when the animals passed Neah Bay on their annual southward trek from the Bering Sea to the Sea of Cortez. It was resumed in the spring of 1999, when the whales swam north; and since the killing of the whale last May several more (unfruitful) expeditions have been made—though a temporary stop has been put to them by an injunction issued in June of this year by a panel of Ninth Circuit judges in San Francisco.

During this long period, the Neah Bay Indians appeared to learn a good deal more about the journalists than the journalists ever learned about them. They grew expert at calling snap press conferences and tweaking the story whenever it looked to be growing cold. They became familiar public figures, on the Today show as on the front page of The New York Times. So did their opponents, like the ubiquitous Captain Paul Watson and his whale-saving ships Sea Shepherd and Sirenian.

From the news editor’s point of view, the whale hunt had all the attractions of a protracted and highly photogenic war. Fought against a backdrop of romantic local color, it involved poor people, ancient history, exotic folk customs, vehement and articulate spokespersons, boats, nature, controversial ethical matters, and, for one brief moment, a patch of sea turning red with blood. Its only visual defect was the Pacific Northwest rain.

Robert Sullivan went to Neah Bay early (on a self-sought assignment from The New York Times Magazine), and stayed on through the dog days when other reporters went home. He attached himself to the whaling crew, pitched his leaky pup tent on the beach, became a regular at the Makah Maiden café. During the long wet spells when nothing much was happening, he read Moby-Dick for the first time, then reread it until he nearly had the book by heart. Keeping the ghostly company of Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg, Sullivan trailed after Micah, Donnie, John, and Wayne. The roaming solitary writer can’t afford to be too particular in his choice of friends, and Sullivan hung out amiably with anyone who was prepared to speak with him—Indians, protesters, visiting whalers, journalists—more as a lonely soul in search of conversation than as a reporter with an angle and a deadline. Out of his eighteen-month off-and-on sojourn in Neah Bay, he has written a book that is at once enthralling, fair-minded, and very funny.

By means of Melvillean digressions and Melvillean footnotes, Sullivan has cleverly intertwined his own narrative with that of Moby-Dick, to which AWhale Hunt is offered as a modest and ironic footnote in itself. But the book it most resembles, to my eye, is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. The persona that Sullivan constructs for himself is uncannily like that of William Boot, the reclusive young nature writer (“Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…”) who, because of a mix-up over his name, is dispatched to cover the war in Ishmaelia by the all-powerful Lord Copper of the Daily Beast.

The loopy innocence of William Boot works both as catalyst and foil for the linguistic chaos of journalese and sloganeering that is Waugh’s real target in the novel. So Robert Sullivan, last seen in the plashy fens of The Meadowlands, his book on the urban wetlands of New Jersey, offers himself as an innocent—someone who knows nothing about Indians, whales, environmentalists, journalists, or Herman Melville. He goes to Neah Bay as an idiot, in the original Greek sense of “a private person,” and his true business is as much with the corrupt and adulterated language that he finds spoken there as it is with the hunt itself.

Occasionally his mask slips, as when he describes the hunt as the “half-baked ark with which the Makah believed their culture might be saved,” or makes this most un-Bootlike observation:

The hunt became—in the chaotically formal and semiliturgical manner of the kind of postmodern news coverage that tends to surround such controversial public happenings—an event.

At moments like these, one is rather too sharply reminded that Sullivan is less of an idiot than he appears, and, like every other journalist on the scene, can speak in a professional dialect of his own. But such moments are rare. Mostly, he keeps his pose intact, doesn’t generalize, lets things happen to him as they will, and listens keenly, with cultivated promiscuity, to all the voices within earshot. Like Boot, he gets comically preoccupied with details that have nothing to do with the official story. Crossing his fingers for luck, he wonders, in a very Williamish way, if people from other cultures do the same—so he consults a busy German film director in the middle of a shoot. (Germans don’t, apparently; they make a fist with the thumb tucked inside.) From an Englishman, he learns that Ursa Major, known as the Big Dipper in the US, is called the Plough in Britain (“I was amazed by that”).

There’s a good deal of faux in his naïveté, but on the whole the strategy works well. In the rhetorical cacophony set off by the hunt, Sullivan’s voice, like that of an intelligent questioning child, rings clearly through the din of bad, grown-up language. The journalists and their editors, trying to side with both the Indians and the whales, tie themselves up in grievous knots. The Seattle Times hits the authentic note of feeble and conflicted judiciousness with this little nugget of journalistic cant:

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