A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan


Started reading: ~02/27/01
Finished reading: ~03/14/01
Notes written: 03/27/01

This book describes the observations and experiences of a journalist who decides to spend a significant amount of time with the Makah as they prepare for their hunt of the grey whale. Significant is something like at least a year, or so it seems (I don’t think it is ever explicitly stated). He gets to know the tribal members, especially those directly involved in the hunt, and meets many of the other people involved, including the protesters. The book focuses on Wayne Johnson, who is the captain of the hunting crew and who is also the person that seems to have the most to gain from the hunt in the sense of what the hunt stands for, from a tribal perspective: Wayne is, in some sense, lost, and it is through the hunt and the responsibilities he has during the hunt that he attempts to find his place in the tribe and the outside world, much in the same way that the tribe is attempting through the hunt in the first place.

We meet many people of the tribe, most of whom are in favor of the hunt, though the tribal politics rears its head and ostracizes some of the members. The story begins when the tribe first announces they are going to hunt a whale, and goes through their efforts of finding the right kind of gun to do a humane kill, of building a canoe, of training for the hunt, and of actually hunting the whale. Not much is said of why they are using the gun, a point that made many people feel that the hunt was not traditional. It seems that the Makah wanted to make the hunt as humane as possible, and the traditional way would have been to harpoon the whale and attach floats that would slowly weaken the whale until it died of blood loss and exhaustion. So, while the hunt was not conducted in the most traditional form, it wasn’t done so because they wanted to keep the whale suffering to a minimum. In addition, it is mentioned that the Makah always adapted to new materials that they encountered that helped in their hunts.

In the middle of the story, the author makes a pilgrimage to Mexico, to a bay where the grey whales are known to migrate to and where they birth. During this trip he learns quite a bit about the whales and their relationship with humans, about the white hunting trade that occurred there. He meets some of the protesters who are based in California and we learn a bit about why they are fighting the hunt.

Overall, we are learning about how the tribe learns from the hunt, from their efforts to prepare and from the final hunt itself. They attend meetings with other whale hunting groups in the world, and invite them to the reservation. They have a big feast after the hunt in which many people, mostly other tribes, come and celebrate. The hunt is mostly viewed as a restoration of their customs and as an affirmation of their individuality as a culture. At times, one feels that part of the purpose of the hunt is just to be defiant, to tell the world that they are tired of being told what to do and that they are going to do what they want. However, they do get all of the legal permissions that they need to conduct the hunt.

In the end, it is hard to say what they accomplished. Certainly, at least temporarily, the tribal members felt more pride in being Makah. The children were proud of their ancestry, they wanted to participate in a hunt. The world learned something, though not necessarily positive, about the Makah. And Wayne Johnson was able to accomplish something, to do something for his people, to find a place for himself, at least for a time. Only time will tell if this will be the beginning of a mini-renaissance for the Makah, but it seems that it at least has the potential to be so.

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