On March 11, 2015 Sea Shepherd founder and reality TV star of Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, Paul Watson, announced that Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) will make a presentation at an April 27 hearing in Seattle, Washington. The hearing is being hosted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to follow-up on its February release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) addressing a request by the Makah Tribe to exercise their treaty-reserved right to hunt whales. A second hearing will be held April 29 in Port Angeles, Washington. Paul Watson declared that “permission [to hunt] should not be granted” and claimed that “SSL is also exploring legal avenues of opposition to this proposal.”
The Makah Tribe has hunted whales along the shores of the northwest Olympic Peninsula for at least 1,500 years. In the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, the tribe ceded 90% (some 300,000 acres) of their land to the United States, receiving assurance that their hunting and fishing rights would be secured. Treaties with Indian Nations are the “supreme Law of the Land” under the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has described the federal government’s role in upholding treaties as “moral obligations of the highest trust and responsibility.”
Makah efforts to revive whaling have been part of a larger struggle by tribes across the country to exercise treaty-reserved fishing, water and resource rights. The Makah ceased whaling by the 1930s after industrial whalers decimated gray and humpback whales hunted by the tribe. The tribe resumed efforts to hunt after the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994. In 1999 tribal whalers successfully hunted a gray whale, bringing Native and non-Native people from around the country to Neah Bay to celebrate. In 2004 in Anderson v. Evans the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals imposed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) on the Makah Tribe. This ruling required the tribe to obtain a federal permit to hunt where they had always hunted. Though the decision violated the Treaty of Neah Bay, the court made clear that it had not abrogated the treaty. The NMFS hearings are being conducted under the requirements of this anti-tribal ruling.
Paul Watson’s March 11 announcement signals the coming revival of an organized opposition to Makah treaty rights that began in 1995 and continued through the 1999 hunt and beyond. Across this period a loose coalition of animal rights groups and whale watching companies have worked to block the Makah from exercising their treaty-reserved rights.
From the beginning some opponents of Makah whaling engaged in behavior and used rhetoric that can contribute to anti-Indian bigotry and undermine the legitimacy of treaty rights. Some spread misinformation about treaty rights, as when the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society falsely claimed in 2005 that the Treaty of Neah Bay had been abrogated. Sea Shepherd echoed the rhetoric of the organized anti-Indian movement, declaring erroneously that upholding Makah treaty rights would be “tantamount to extra special rights for a group of people based on race and/or culture.” Anti-Indian activists use this same language in their quest to terminate tribal governments and abrogate all treaties. Sea Shepherd, Project Seawolf, Australians for Animals and other groups allied their cause with then-U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf (R-WA). Metcalf (now deceased) was a leader in the anti-Indian movement who maintained a firm foot in the politics of organized white supremacy. Anti-Makah groups have lobbied, litigated and engaged in direct action, including harassing Makah whalers and the tribal community.
These organizations’ efforts to abrogate the Treaty of Neah Bay are racist to their core, seeking to violate a federally-protected tribal right through a campaign spewing misinformation and mean-spirited bigotry. This anti-tribal campaign is also wrong-headed for those committed to ecological restoration. The Makah are not now and have never been a threat to the gray whale population. Tribal struggles to exercise sovereignty and defend treaty rights are at the heart of efforts to stop coal trains and coal terminals, halt the Keystone XL pipeline, and restore salmon habitat and water quality. This anti-Makah mobilization threatens the treaty rights of all tribes and could drive a wedge between communities that need each other to gain genuine environmental and social justice.
In an upcoming analysis, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights will examine the anti-Makah coalition’s racist efforts to tear up the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay. The Institute will describe this movement’s misinformation about treaty rights and expressions of bigotry by movement leaders and members of the public. IREHR will also describe strategies and tactics that can be expected as anti-Makah fervor heats up once again.
In the meantime, the Institute offers two articles written by the Coalition for Human Dignity in 1998 as the anti-Makah campaign emerged in full force. These pieces describe the movement’s racist rhetoric, misinformation and alliances with the far right. These articles are offered in the spirit of solidarity with indigenous peoples seeking to exercise their treaty-reserved rights, defend their resources and determine their own destinies. By standing solidly together, we can turn back bigotry and organize for real and just solutions to our many common concerns.
For more on the April 27 and April 29 hearings see the NOAA website.