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 …