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.: specials --> ken --> musings on the makah whale kill
musings on the makah whale kill
19 May 1999
The controversy over the Makah whale kill this past week has gotten me thinking a lot about the monotonous culture clashes this nation -- heck, that the planet in general -- seems to be afflicted with.
First, however, I have a confession to make.
I'm not an animal-rights extremist. I eat meat. I like meat. I don't have a problem with the meat I eat because I've met some of the animals that make up the meat. I'm confident that both cows and chickens and turkeys and sheep tend toward the deeply stupid, and that they're not endangered, so I really don't have a problem with that.
However, I do draw some lines in my meat-eating. Here's an example: I don't eat meat made from humans. It has little to do with its inherent unsanitariness, and its probable spam-like flavor -- the critical thing for me is whether what I'm eating has (or rather, had) a certain level of sentience. For that reason, I tend to stay away from pig, dog, cat, elephant, and other critters that have exhibited (in my experience, or as exhibited by reliable evidence) some level of sentient quality. For example, sheep are really stupid and therefore edible, but goats tend to be clever and prone to mischief, so they're off the eat-me list.
Note: This applies to the general case. I know that there are some really stupid dogs and cats out there, and truth be told, if I knew of a specific one that was really stupid, and it wound up (I'm reaching here, so no complaint letters about me being a danger to your dearest pal Foobles, the Wonder Poodle) being served as dinner, and we were out of everything else, even ramen, I wouldn't have much of a problem with it. But there are sufficient counterexamples that for the general case, I draw a line, even though for specific cases, I could conceivably cross it. (In other words, if a lot of people think you're stupid, you may want to reconsider being on the same transmountain airline flight that I'm on.)
Your mileage may vary, of course, but that's how I draw the line. And truth be told, I believe that most marine mammals also exhibit similar signs. We're just beginning to understand how dolphins communicate, for example, and whales have shown a surprising capacity to learn and create. And for that reason, I'm unwilling to treat them as an unfeathered humoungous turkey of the sea. Whales and dolphins are special, and should be cherished in cases where they do no harm.
I also draw the line based on one other criteria: commonality. I can't imagine, for example, a kakapo is all that much more intelligent than a turkey, but I'm not about to eat one. (If you don't know what a kakapo is, I highly recommend "Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, which can be found at
and costs a measly $8.00. Suffice it to say that they've nearly been wiped out by now, and that they're interesting and special enough to be worth saving.)
Now, the grey whale isn't the most endangered whale in the world -- anymore. It had been hunted to the verge of extinction, but has now recovered to the point of having a population of a few thousand.
However, by way of contrast, the right whale is still down to 400 specimens, and that's after having been protected from hunting (by the Endangered Species Act) for over fifty years.
In short, whales don't recover from hunting very easily. And the Makah offed a young female -- which has a much greater impact on the population over time.
Enough with confessions. What has prompted me thinking was the repeated statements by representatives of the Makah that this was all about culture, and reclaiming a heritage, and why didn't the whites just butt out?
Aside from my annoyance at being called a "white" (I'm a Scot-Prussian-Jewish-German-Cherokee-English American, thank you very much), this sentiment is just so rife with errors that I've begun to wonder if the Makah have actually thought through their position at all.
Other commentators have gone over the culture-reclaiming usage of the .50 caliber gun, the motor boats, and the cellular phones -- I don't really need to point out the inherent problems with that.
My concern is simply this: The pointless clinging to a cultural snapshot of the past is stupid.
It's not about reclaiming culture. Culture, by its very nature, evolves and changes over time as the circumstances change, and as the perceptions of the people grow, and as the population cycles out the old and brings in the young.
There are good reasons to change culture. We're trying to figure out what needs to change in our culture now after the Littleton tragedy. We're still struggling over the educational system, over the separation of church and state, and over issues of personal freedom, because we recognize the ideal and the benefits thereof.
There are also good reasons to remember the culture of the past. But remembered culture isn't culture -- it's heritage. Heritage is important: it helps us remember who our forefathers were, and lets us learn from their mistakes, and helps enlighten the historical contexts surrounding historical events. Forgetting heritage is a terrible thing -- it cuts us off from the lessons of the past.
But dragging an old culture into the present often has exactly the effect of reanimating a corpse -- it's sometimes interesting, it's sometimes educational, but sometimes, it's just outright horrifying and unpleasant.
Here's an example: I occasionally attend the Highland Games. It's an event mostly centered around the culture of Scotland and Ireland. Kilts are worn, haggis is available, and bagpipes and drums play. The stone is tossed, the caber is hurled, and in general, a good time is had by all. (At least by those that avoid the haggis.)
However, some things are better left in the past. For example, you won't find attendees trying to assassinate members of historically rival clans. Nor will you find horses being sacrificed, or cats set afire, or what have you. They may have been part of the culture at that time, but there's no need to bring that back, no matter how crucial it was to your particular clan. And even if there were, what's the point of doing it at all if you're going to be using a flamethrower on the cat just to ensure a quicker kill at a greater distance, to reduce the chance of getting a nasty scratch?
The Makah website gives three reasons for wanting to off a whale or twenty:
"There has been an intensification of interest in our own history and culture since the archeological dig at our village of Ozette in 1970, which uncovered thousands of artifacts bearing witness to our whaling tradition."
"Many Makahs feel that our health problems result, in some degree, to the loss of our traditional diet of seafood and sea mammal meat."
"Many of us also believe that problems besetting our young people stem from lack of discipline and pride. We believe that the restoration of whaling will help to restore that discipline and pride."
And later in the document, as a parting shot, they say, "[ . . . ] our opponents would have us abandon this part of our culture and restrict it to a museum. To us this means a dead culture. We are trying to maintain a living culture. We can only hope that those whose opposition is most vicious will be able to recognize their ethnocentrism -- subordinating our culture to theirs."
It must be nice having "you're just being ethnocentric" as a toss-off response available whenever you need it.
Look, a "living culture" is one that is subject to change. Bringing back a dead custom does not result in a living culture; it's a zombie with a fresh coat of varnish on it, better left in the past. You want to pursue an interest in history or culture? Study it. Support archeological digs, further scientific study, reconstruct language, record oral histories, do something that will actually preserve that heritage. You want to figure out your health problems? Nice approach -- take two gobs of blubber and call me in the morning. Why not try to figure out where the health problems lie rather than pointlessly theorizing? And finally, this is the best you folks can come up with to reinstill discipline and pride? This is it? Why not do something that the entire tribe can be genuinely proud of, that will last generations? Are you so unimaginative?
I'm not making out the tribe to be some sort of anticetecean society. The Makah really worked hard to come up with a management plan that minimized the impact on the grey whale population, and are taking far less (as they point out on their website) than the 160+ whales a year taken by the Chukotki (an indiginous people in Russia).
But there are some strong indications that this isn't just a rediscovery of culture. The Makah are retaining a PR firm, for example. And I'm considering using the Freedom of Information Act to ask the National Marine Fisheries Service for a copy of the business plan the Makah filed in 1995.
And there's that clause in the original 1855 treaty which reads, "the right to whale in keeping with the rights of other citizens [of the US]" -- which reads, to me, that the Makah know perfectly well that they're overextending the rights of the original treaty.
All in all, I can't help but consider this an unfortunate incident. I don't believe that the Makah are doing it for any viable reason, and I don't believe that this will promote any sort of benefit for the tribe other than a purely monetary one.
And frankly, that's just not enough reason to blow a whale away.