• Print
  • TWEET

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:

Uncertainty about techniques, motivations and repercussions has made The Times’ editorial board reluctant to support a gray whale hunt off the Washington coast. Both the Makah tribe and the United States government, however, have made a compelling case that the hunt embodies restrained stewardship after a species’ triumphant comeback.

Lord Copper (“The Beast stands for strong mutually antagonistic governments everywhere”) could hardly have put it better.

The English language is in trouble in AWhale Hunt. Its cause is not well served by the fence-sitting contortions of the journalists, any more than it is by the head of the German consulate in Seattle, who proclaims that “in my heart I think I am an Indian,” or by the self-important fax issued by the producers of the movie Lethal Weapon announcing that they cannot bring themselves to support the hunt. Pious cliché is the order of the day. In the protesters’ camp, the predominant language is one of ripe, sentimental anthropomorphism, nicely encapsulated in a passage quoted by Sullivan from Captain Paul Watson’s memoir, Sea Shepherd: My Fight for Whales and Seals, where he describes the last moments of a whale killed by Russians from a Soviet processing ship:

His eye fell on Fred and me…two tiny men in a little rubber raft, and he looked at us. It was a gaze, a gentle, knowing, forgiving gaze. Slowly, slowly, as if he did not want to disturb the water unduly, as if taking care that his great tail did not scrape us from our little perch, he settled into the quiet lapping waves.

Then there is the argot of the Indian whalers. In the nineteenth century, the Northwest Coast Indians used to communicate with whites in a makeshift creole known as Chinook Jargon. In the last twenty years, a kind of New Chinook has emerged, in which first-hand grandmothers’ stories and secondhand ethnography are jumbled up with New Age mysticism and the quasi-technical lingo of twelve-step recovery and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by the management expert Steven Covey. This mixed language is widely spoken in Neah Bay. One of its adepts is Micah McCarty, a woodcarver, and a member of the whaling crew in its first season, whom Sullivan calls a “Save the Whales whaler.” McCarty gathers sea urchins from the beach at low tide as part of his “subsistence pathway.” He begins each day by saying a water prayer, “thanking the Creator for the gift of water.” He tells Sullivan:

I’ve been doing a lot of spiritual preparation of my own. That’s been an ongoing deal. That’s the mind, body, soul-edification process. And I’ve started gathering things that are relevant to the position my grandfather had….

McCarty, the designated harpooner on the first crew, says, “I want to be honorable enough to be chosen by the whale.” Sullivan comments: “Activists who were against the Makah whale hunt oftentimes seemed to relate to Micah’s version of the whale hunt, especially when he talked about being in harmony with nature—he used their vocabulary.” So, too, this kind of hazy, obfuscatory language enabled the whalers to “relate” to the protesters, as when Keith Johnson, the president of the Neah Bay Whaling Commission, told a press conference:

I keep quoting that Steven Covey book…. I don’t know, maybe he’ll call me up one day, but it says, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”So we understand the whale. We understand the whale rights people. We understand that they really love the whale.

But such dubious “understanding” worked better in press conferences, from where it entered the ever-growing (and ever more fuddled) journalistic account of the hunt, than it did in the day-to-day life of Neah Bay and its besieged patch of sea.

Two of the hunt’s most ardent opponents were Steph Dutton and his wife, Heidi Tiura, who had founded a whale-saving organization named In the Path of Giants. The couple came to Neah Bay in kayaks, with a brilliant solution to the quarrel, which they had hatched back home in Monterey and turned into what they believed was an irresistibly persuasive slide presentation. Instead of killing whales, the Makah Indians would, with training provided by In the Path of Giants, become whale-watching entrepreneurs, taking tourists out in boats to view the migrating grays. Dutton and Tiura presented themselves to the tribe not as “protesters” but as “observers.” Sullivan perfectly catches the linguistic car crash that ensued when Dutton first stepped out of his kayak onto Makah soil:

Steph: (With his head held high as he walks to the Makah canoe, with an air that said, Big plans.) Hi, my name is Steph Dutton and I just want to introduce myself…you guys look good out there.

A big guy on the whaling crew: Fuck off.

Despite this unpromising beginning, the presentation was made to the tribal council, whose members responded warmly to it:

I had heard that the council members had enjoyed Steph and Heidi’s slide presentation, especially the shots of the gray whales breaching: some of the council members were thinking they could use the presentation as a kind of training film for the whaling crew, which had to learn how to approach whales.

That moment has a parallel in another Waugh novel, Black Mischief, in which General Connolly at last succeeds in obtaining a truckload of boots for his barefoot troops. The troops, mistaking the boots for an overdue issue of rations, obligingly eat them.

Given that the hunt consisted of long periods of inactivity, punctuated by tangled verbal exchanges, internal squabbles, an unseemly fist fight, and such unalluring preparations as practicing harpooning on harbor seals (they missed) and jumping, in wetsuits, into the ice-cold waters of the bay in winter, it’s remarkable how Sullivan has managed to spin so fluent and suspenseful a narrative from such unpromising raw materials. The book coheres around its unlikely hero, Wayne Johnson, the captain of the whaling canoe, a character who grows before our eyes into a complex, riven, and unexpectedly sympathetic figure.

Wayne is Sullivan’s ironic counter-Ahab. Shambling through the early pages in his Raiders jacket, a cigarette never far from his lips, divorced, out of work, living with his mother on the reservation, and worrying about his son, who is getting into trouble down in Oregon, luckless with his beat-up automobiles, attending anger-management classes imposed on him by a court in Port Angeles, Wayne looks likely to disappear from the story altogether at the end of each next paragraph. He has few admirers in Neah Bay, and none of the obvious qualities of a natural leader. He does not even intend to be aboard the canoe when it comes to the kill.

What endears him to Sullivan, and to the reader, is that in this gaseous rhetorical war, Wayne Johnson is as rhetoric-free as any man could reasonably be. “I’m not too good with the spiritual stuff” is his signature-line. Treaty rights, subsistence pathways, being in harmony with nature, Native American identity, are all the same to him. He returns from the International Whaling Commission meeting in Monaco with one vivid memory—of the caffeine kick induced by strong French coffee.

He has, instead, the rueful, realistic wit of the born loser. “You’re fired,” he likes to say whenever Sullivan shows up late, and it’s a joke about how Wayne isn’t in a position to fire anyone. He refers to the hunt as “this whale thing.” To the protesters, his captaincy of the canoe is one of the hunt’s most objectionable features, precisely because Wayne has no elevated language to bring to the table. Captain Paul Watson contemptuously says, “What you have here is a bunch of boys from the hood. Wayne Johnson. He’s just a thug…. This whole thing with Wayne Johnson taking over, it means that the thugs have won.”

But Johnson is far from being “just a thug,” and one of the great pleasures of the book is watching him acquire conviction, a strengthening if tremulous assurance, and a kind of gruff tenderheartedness for the well-being of his crew, until he emerges as the most competent and responsible person aboard the boat. By the final chapters of the book, Wayne Johnson is, at last, in a position to fire people, and he comes close to firing Theron Parker, the new harpooner and self-appointed star of the canoe. In circumstances that would tax anyone’s forbearance, Johnson finds hidden reserves of self-control and keeps Parker on the crew. There’s more triumph in that moment than there is in the killing of the whale.

The language of paperwork is a perpetual bafflement to him. “What’s a per diem?” he inquires, in exasperation, as he fills out a form required by the tribal council. Later, he’s found puzzling over an ethnological document, propped on a soda can, which describes how portions of the whale used to be divided among the hunters in the old days, as well as more papers from the National Marine Fisheries Service:

“Look at this,”he said. “Look at all the stuff we gotta do with the biologists when we get the whale. We gotta assist in measurement of ovaries and earplugs, measure the”—he sorted through a stack of papers—“measure the whatever, but I mean, look at all this! And I’ve gotta get my butchering team up. I never knew how much work there was to be done but then I was always out in the boat.” He continued, “There’s all kinds of things we have to do. There’s spiritual training and there’s butchering. The saddle of the whale, it has to be cut out and it hangs for three days in the house of the captain with the eyeballs.”

Required to speak in public, Johnson usually dries up with stage fright. So it is strange to discover him, after the whale has been killed, staying up late into the night working on a speech, described by Sullivan as “not so much a speech as a simple list of people he wanted to thank.” It required long hours of revision and rehearsal. “He read it over and over. He vowed to read it carefully, not to be nervous, to stay calm.”

When the great celebratory feast of whale meat and Jell-O is served in the high school auditorium, many speeches are made. The captain of the whaleboat waits his turn, but when the time comes he is not invited to stand:

The people in charge of the festivities never got around to letting Wayne speak. This made Wayne so angry. This made Wayne so angry, in fact, that he left his table and walked disgustedly over to his house. He sat there on the couch all night. He didn’t want to talk to anybody.

Yet the organizers clearly had a point: at this climactic episode of glorious unrealism and high-flown talk, they had no need of the services of a realist like Wayne Johnson at their feast.

On May 18, the morning after the killing of the whale, Sullivan called at Johnson’s house, and found Wayne drinking coffee and looking flat-out exhausted:

…He’d give a press conference later. Then he took a shower and got dressed and drank a cup of coffee from his whale-art-covered mug and went downtown. “Come on,”he said, opening the door. “Let’s go see who hates me.”

There remains the problem of the whale. As the whale-hunters, in all their fumbling inexperience, were very different from whale-hunters in the past, Indian or white, so the whale they killed appears to have been a strangely mild and docile, late-twentieth-century sort of whale. Sullivan wasn’t out on the water when Theron Parker successfully lodged his harpoon in the whale’s flesh; his graphic close-up description of the kill seems to be based on a mixture of firsthand accounts by the whaling crew and action replays of the lavish video footage.

When the harpoon struck, the whale submerged, quite slowly, turned on its side, surfaced, flapped the water once with its tail, received a second harpoon thrown by Parker, towed the canoe along for a while—again quite slowly—and was then shot dead. It wasn’t in the least like any nineteenth- century account of a harpooned whale—the thrashing tail, the stoved-in boats, the enraged animal turning its great bulk and muscle on its pursuers.

Many of the protesters explained the whale’s behavior by saying that it—or rather she—had been tamed by years of exposure to whale-watchers; that she thought of men in boats as her natural friends; that she was appealing to the whalers to rescue her from the inexplicable agony in which she had suddenly been engulfed. That is a plausible explanation. It might certainly be true of some whales, but may not be true of this one.

Another reason for its behavior presents itself. During 1999, a lot of gray whales washed up dead on the beaches of Washington’s Pacific coast, and in Puget Sound. Exactly why they died—and are still dying—isn’t known. The most likely cause, or at least the one most voiced in the Seattle press, is that gray whales have recently become so numerous that they are exhausting their supplies of food (they eat small crustaceans known as amphipods). In the last year or so, each spring and fall migration has been attended by an unprecedented number of apparently natural casualties.

Watching the hunt on television, my own first thought was that the Makah whalers had managed to home in on a whale that wasn’t long for this world anyway, and that only a sick whale was likely to fall victim to such amateurish hunters. If that’s true, it gives a flicker of life to the Seattle Times editor-ialist’s wan phrase about the hunt embodying “restrained stewardship after a species’ triumphant comeback.” Though, as so often when the word “stewardship” is applied to Native Americans and nature, it means in effect only that the Indians lacked the numbers and the technology to do much serious harm.

No very great harm was done last May. It now looks as if the whale killed then may be the last whale ever to be harpooned in US waters. In 1998, Gary Ray from the Makah Tribal Center told Sullivan that the whale hunt was “gonna be like a blood transfusion for this community,” and—for a brief moment—it was. It happens that this year the halibut and salmon fisheries have been in better shape than for several years, and the marina and the motels are full as I write this. But the flood of press attention has left no lasting economic impact, according to a Makah council member whom I spoke to on the phone. “Things are pretty much back to where they were.” One is reminded of the great blood transfusion described by William Empson in “Missing Dates”:

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills

Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires

To which Empson, by the way, added the characteristic footnote: “It is true about the old dog, at least Isaw it reported somewhere.”