Chris Pearson

Trading Land for Sea

     The Olympic Coast is no walk along the beach. The thrashing surf of winter storms have turned exposed rock into craggy cliff faces and rugged coves. Dark greens of conifers and moss, soggy with marine fog, roll out from the forests and mountains of the Olympic Peninsula where they meet the sea. The ecotone between the two is the boneyard of driftwood that has washed ashore. A windy day on the water can demonstrate the unfathomable force of the waves as they toss about trees that lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. Yet, despite the unrelenting power of wave and rain that shape this magnificent landscape, the coast makes a fine home. Eagles, crows, and seagulls post up in the canopy of cedars and spruce close to the beach, looking for fish and other scraps of sea life. Coyotes and raccoons ply the beaches. 


Deer browse through the forest understory. Upland the herds of Roosevelt Elk move in their seasonal patterns up and down the mountains for want of the perfect grass. The waters off the coast are rich in wildlife, too. Salmon run from Washington and Canadian rivers down the coast to California. When they do, orcas, seals, and sea lions feast. Further out, the migrations of larger whales, grey and humpback, can be seen from shore.

     For all the hardships to endure in this wild corner of America, human inhabitants have harvested the abundance for nearly 4,000 years. The Makah tribe now lives in the town of Neah Bay, perched on the tip of the lower 48. Throughout the centuries they have traded and warred with neighboring tribes to the south as well as their genetic cousins on Vancouver Island. But nothing could alter their territory as much as the Treaty of Neah Bay, signed by the tribal administration and the US government in 1855. Why would the elders at the time willingly sign over a large tract of inland territory and confine their reservation to a small strip of land where the Straight of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean? With the loss of traditional hunting and foraging grounds to the might of a well-armed tribe from the opposite coast, what would sustain their tribe for generations to come?

     I first visited Makah lands without knowing that I was doing so. Lake Ozette, a campground and hiking trails south of Neah Bay, is a popular outdoor recreation site in Washington. In the summer of 2008, I embarked on a solo hiking trip to kiss the Northwest goodbye before moving to Minnesota. The hike from the campground moves in a triangle with side lengths of about three miles each: to the coast, along the coast, and back. The hiking is easy going out the beach. The terrain is flat. Crossing a bog is done over a boardwalk. The beach appears easy to walk on, but in reality, there are a great many logs and algae-covered rocks to negotiate. Each step risks a hard slip. As I walked north on the beach, the fog gave way to a grey whale carcass lying close to a tidal island. It was low tide, so I walked up to it. A mild stench of rotting meat and brine filled my nostrils. Sand flies buzzed everywhere. In the ocean, a whale carcass will drop to the bottom and serve as a buffet to many sizes of decomposer. But, here on land, there weren’t too many groups with that kind of appetite. Not in a National Park, at least.


     Farther up the beach sits a hut on a grassy patch elevated from the tides. I went inside expecting to see traces of dereliction. Much to my surprise, it was full of bones. Some were small, but many were clearly whale bones. Ribs as tall as me. Diameters as thick as my head. All that is allowed in the modern era is rearranging the natural artifacts—no souvenir-taking—and here they were organized as a shrine. What I couldn’t see without placards to point it out was that Ozette had been a Makah village until the 1700s when a landslide covered the site. Ozette village was destined to remain buried until, in 1970, a storm cut into the embankment and exposed wooden artifacts. Archeologists began an excavation that unearthed some 55,000 pieces including longhouses. To preserve this cultural heritage, the Makah tribe founded the Makah Museum in Neah Bay.

     In the fall of 2016, I led a group of middle school students on a week-long trip to the Makah reservation. As part of our cultural exchange, a Makah historian gave us a tour of the museum. One of the most striking displays is a whaling canoe. The bones of a small whale are suspended above it. The Makah hunted and fished, but whaling was at the heart of their culture. I was fascinated to learn how the Makah built all their whaling implements out of the natural landscape. Many of them came just from one species of tree. The cedar tree was known as “the tree of life,” because it had so many uses. Naturally resistant to insects and rot, planks of cedar composed the walls and roof of the longhouses. Cedar bark was stripped and soaked to make it pliable and weaved into baskets and clothing. The tree was so revered that to make a canoe, the Makah only used trunks of downed trees. The trunk would be cut to length and the exterior worked with stone tools. Fires were set atop the log to burn out the indentation that would form the belly of the canoe. To take a whale, the canoe had to be outfitted with plenty of gear. Seal skins were turned inside out, filled with air, and tied off with rope to turn it into a mammalian balloon with which the hunters would weaken a whale when it tried to dive. The spearman would use a spear made of yew, the densest tree in the region, and mollusk shells carved into a blade. Ropes attached to the spear would then keep the whale tethered to the canoe. The ropes were thick enough to secure a freighter to a dock, and like the boat, were made of cedar.

     Years of training went in to being the harpooner. Starting as a teenager, a man had to work his way up the ranks on the boat. Over about ten years, he would have held every job and made every tool. Before graduating to harpooner, he had to kill a bear. He needed the bear pelt to protect his back from the ropes that would run across it in the frantic action to keep a whale from diving. To work the whaling crew, everything in his life had to be in order—no marital strife nor family problems. He needed pure focus out on the water.

     Before the hunt, each of the eight crew members would retreat to their personal ceremonial space to fast, purify themselves, and pray. Their whole way of being was one of spiritual preparedness to draw in the power needed to take a whale. Other members of the village would sing songs and perform rituals as well. The wife of the harpooner would assist him while he was away by engaging in a whaling ritual whereby, she would mimic the movements of the whale over several days. At home on the shore, she would “appear”. She would pantomime the dive, the hit, the struggle, and the death. By moving in this form of sympathetic magic, the Makah believed that the spirit of the whale would be drawn towards them.

     Just before daybreak, the crew would approach the whales’ route. They would watch for the spray of the blowhole. Frequency indicated whether or not the whale would dive. When it did, the harpooner would direct the rowers to the site where he expected the whale to surface. They paddled at a speed equal to the whale’s. As the whale’s back broke the surface of the water, the harpooner would launch his weapon. With skill and luck, the harpoon would hit the back and lodge the blade tip into the thick skin. The shaft was designed to break off, but the blade had rope tied to it. With one end of rope on the whale and the other in the canoe, crewmen would tie the sealskin buoys to the line. This process continued until the whale was sufficiently weakened. When the time had come, the harpooner would leap from the canoe onto the whale’s back and deliver the killing blow with a lance through the skull. 

     If village and hunters aligned, if spear tip penetrated flesh, then the crew had only to tow back to shore a whale. A diver would jump in the water and sew the whale’s mouth shut. If he didn’t, water might fill the belly and sink the whale. When the crew returned to the village, all the members would descend on the beach in song and ceremony to greet the whale’s spirit. Oil and blubber and meat would be distributed based on social hierarchy. A potlatch would be prepared. The harpooner could earn his own village and status as its chief through the number of whales he landed.

     When the Makah elders made their treaty with the US government, they sacrificed 300,000 acres to maintain their whaling rights. This would ensure the protection for the Makah way of life for many generations to come, so they believed. But by the 1920s, commercial whaling had nearly driven the grey whale to extinction. In response, the Makah voluntarily rescinded their right to whale.

     It took decades for the population to return to levels that would support commercial whaling again. But by the time it did, there was no Makah alive who knew the ways of whaling. When the grey whale was delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 1994, the Makah saw their opportunity to reclaim a central component of their cultural heritage. To do so, the community came together to survey what knowledge of whaling the elders remembered or had been passed down. Knowing the eyes of the world would be upon them, the Makah also worked with professional veterinarians to determine the most humane way to make the kill.

     On May 17, 1999, the whaling crew paddled a traditional cedar canoe out towards the whales’ migratory route. From the canoe, they harpooned a juvenile and secured floats. A second boat, a motorboat, joined the hunting party. Instead of jumping on the whale and stabbing it with the traditional lance, a gunner on the motorboat aimed a .50 caliber rifle. Two shots rang out, piercing the brain of the whale. Rather than the hours or days it took for a whale to die by traditional methods, the rifle did the job in about eight minutes.

     When my group of students and I visited the reservation, people told us how the hunt brought the community of about 1,500 together.

     “Everybody’s freezers were full of meat,” one woman told us.

     “It was our tribal right to take the whale,” another man said. “The government made it law in 1855.”


     Just south of the Ozette village archeological site, hikers can find the recent history of the Makah laid out in stone. Carved into a rockface on the coast is a whale. There are also a couple faces, a ship, and a gun. Archeologists estimate the carvings to be between 300-500 years old, except for the ship which research suggests dates to the year 1800. I first visited the site, known as Wedding Rocks, as a backpacking guide for the YMCA. Along with Reed, my co-leader, we led a group of nine teenage boys on a two-week backpacking trip down the coast. To Reed and I, seeing the petroglyphs was an exciting feature of our backpacking trip and a way to connect with the people who formerly inhabited this part of the coast.

     “Are you guys done yet?” Asked a boy on our trip as Reed and I took pictures. Most of the kids sat on a log. They took no interest in the petroglyphs. Many of them took little interest in the hike, either. They just wanted to return home. At the time, I faulted them for their disinterest in such a beautiful place with a rich, tangible history. But their impulse was human. These boys had been separated from the lives they knew that involved industrial machines, technological gadgets, friends, and family. This was the way of life by which the kids defined themselves. The Makah fought to return to their old ways that had for millennia defined them as a people.

     The whale hunt of 1998 remains for the Makah as an isolated incident. Since then, the tribe has been locked in legal battles with animal rights’ activists who oppose hunting and with the U.S. government that is requiring a waiver from a moratorium on marine mammal hunting as part of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Makah want to harvest twenty whales over a ten-year period. The International Whaling Commission already allots a quota of 141 whales per year to Russian and Alaskan native communities. Those communities have donated from their quota any whales that the Makah can hunt.

     If that day should return for the Makah, they will once again parade down the streets of Neah Bay to celebrate what nature has provided. For now, the struggle to harvest another whale takes place worlds away from the Pacific Ocean in the courtrooms of Seattle. Should the Makah prove victorious in reclaiming the rights granted to them through the treaty of 1855, whaling may live again as the focal point for the Makah community. If not, then the skeleton of the 1998 grey whale that hangs above the whaling canoe in the Makah museum will loom as a testament to a way of life lost to the paper and ink spears that now rule America’s land and sea.

Chris Pearson writes about travel and nature. He is currently writing a memoir about traveling the US on the Greyhound. He is also co-founder of Misfit Lit, a literary and arts magazine that will be published as an NFT. This year, he will graduate with  MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Tacoma, Wa with his wife and daughter. 

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