Five Makah Indians are due in federal court next month to face charges of illegally killing a gray whale in the waters off Washington state. The men say they did it out of frustration: Their tribe has a recognized treaty right to hunt the whales, but it has been waiting years for a government permit.
The hunters' actions have had more than just legal consequences. The rest of the tribe has come to see them as both troublemakers and heroes.
Wayne Johnson, one of the men, says he's afraid to go back to the Makah reservation and face the leaders of his tribe. His troubles started on a sunny day last September, when he decided he was no longer going to wait for a government permit to go whaling.
"It was a beautiful morning; it was whales everywhere. My grandfathers were looking down at me, and it was time to take a hunt," he recalls.
An Attempted Hunt
For centuries, Makah whalers would paddle out into the cold sea off the Olympic Peninsula, kill a 20-ton animal with harpoons made from mussel shells and tow it back with their canoes. Johnson wanted to show that his people still have those skills, but on that September day, things didn't go so well. He and his four-man crew only wounded the whale before the Coast Guard arrested them.
"I could hear the whale breathe," he says, imitating the sound. "Blood was squirting out. And I could hear this, and I was pleading with the Coast Guard — 'any one of the five of us could put this whale out of its misery.' ... I'm going to hear this for the rest of my life."
The injured whale lingered for hours in the waters off the Makah reservation. Eventually, the Coast Guard allowed another tribe member, Joseph McGimpsey, to go out in a boat and pray over the whale until it finally died and sank.
Today, McGimpsey's prayers are for Johnson and his crew.
McGimpsey is a middle-aged man who cultivates the memory of his whaling ancestors; in his living room, he keeps an old iron harpoon as a memento. He supports what Johnson did that day — as far as he's concerned, the federal permitting process is a bogus bureaucratic obstacle engineered by animal rights groups. He says Johnson was just reclaiming his whaling heritage.
"It's still in our blood, and we will continue to do it. It'll be a cold day in hell when they take that right away from us. It will be war," he says.
Not everyone on the reservation feels as combative. Down by the docks, where the tribe has its fishing fleet, the atmosphere is a little more cynical. It doesn't take long to hear jokes about Indians who charm white reporters with mystical tales of whale-hunting ancestors. And there's grumbling about how the illegal hunt might bring animal-rights protestors back to the reservation.
"You know, the tribe feels a lot of different ways," says Micah McCarty, the chairman of the tribal council. "There were a lot of mixed emotions at the community meeting we held on the day of the incident."
McCarty says people worry the illegal hunt could jeopardize the tribe's other hunting and fishing rights. The tribal government was quick to express its official disapproval — it even tossed the crew in jail for the night. Still, the council chairman can't help but betray his sympathy for their actions.
"You know, it's — maybe it could be analogous to the Boston Tea Party. You know, if civil disobedience didn't exist, this country wouldn't have become America," McCarty says.
For now, Johnson is in limbo: To his tribe, he's both a hero and a headache. He says he's being pressured to plead guilty to the federal charges, to avoid the spectacle of a trial.
Meanwhile, the tribe's policy is to keep waiting for the whaling permit, which members hope will come through in a couple of years. No one can tell yet whether last September's hunt will make that day come sooner or later.