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Whale Jerky and the Importance of Telling Stories


Take a look at a map of the United States. What is the most Northwestern of the lower forty-eight states? Answer: Washington. Now take a look at the upper left-hand corner of that state. See the little nub of land poking out, reaching out for Canada? That obscure finger of land is the home of the Makah Indian tribe.

For thousands of years they have lived on Cape Flattery, trading with neighboring tribes and hunting sea mammals, or in other words hunting seals and whales. Because the meat they brought in was so plentiful, their name means "generous with food." You might be generous too if you had a gray whale sitting on the dining table. The Makah have been getting a lot of attention lately because of their decision to resume their tradition of hunting gray whales. The gray whale is the second largest animal on Earth after the on average 100-ft long blue whale.

They stopped hunting for over seventy years because the population of gray whales dropped to near extinction levels. After the whale population rebounded and stabilized, the Makah raised their voices and asked the US government for permission to hunt gray whales again. The government decided to allow the Makah five whales per year.

That was back in 1996, and so far they have only brought in one whale. They used a very powerful gun capable of penetrating the thick skull of a gray whale, and after dragging the three-year-old female in with a tugboat, they cooked up the whale for a crowd of 3,000 hungry tribe members. While this was a positive experience for the tribe, many environmentalists were horrified to see the resumption of whale hunts. Throughout the entire hunting season the whale hunters were followed by a small armada of boats driven by whale lovers who tried to block the path. By the time the first whale was brought in, the town was filled with television crews covering the controversy and images of Makah eating whale meat with Coca-cola were transmitted all over the world.

All the attention paid to the whale hunt overshadowed the most interesting part of the Makah reservation: their town that was buried in a mudslide five hundred years ago.

Back in 1970 a winter storm exposed some planks of wood near an abandoned Makah village called Ozette. Archeologists were called to the scene and ended up working for eleven years to uncover half a dozen houses that were destroyed by a landslide centuries earlier. Experts believe that a wall of mud crashed down on the village traveling at 60 mph. The people inside did not have time to get out, and just like the volcanic remains at Pompeii, their lifestyles were recorded by their disastrous death.

The collection of artifacts they have recovered from the site is huge, and some of the pieces are on display at their museum. Only 1% of the 55,000 pieces can be seen on any given day, including some pieces that give hints to how everyday life was for the Makah five hundred years ago.

The Makah have no written language, but their history is recorded through an oral tradition. Their history was passed down in special songs and dance performances. The youngsters had to pay close attention to catch every detail of the song and dance. By listening carefully, the Makah people passed down their tribal history. One major lesson taught in these performances is that the Makah people believe they have lived on Cape Flattery since the beginning of time.

Since they kept track of all their history; myths, disasters, and storms through words, scientists who wanted to find out when the slide happened had to do it the traditional way. They had to ask the elder members of the tribe.

Some of the oldest tribal elders indeed recalled stories told to them when they were young about a mudslide that had occurred some five hundred years previous. Later scientific dating of the items recovered from the mudslide site confirmed that they were about the same age as the elders recounted.

Some of the items like blankets and chisels had obvious uses, but to figure out what some objects were used for the elders had to be consulted again.

For example, they found an artifact that was about the size of a horse saddle, had speckles on it, and had a curved top. Every tribe member the scientists showed it to was stumped when they saw it. Then they consulted a few of the oldest members or the tribe. Searching way back into their memories as children they remembered their oldest great-grandparents telling them that it was a special representation of the "sea-wolf".

According to Makah mythology, killer-whales, or orcas, are in fact wolves who have gone into the sea. The Makah people call them sea-wolves because they hunt gray whales in packs. To honor these natural whale hunters, the human whale hunters would construct these elaborate icons embedded with shell.

Without the village elders to tell the history of this strange antique, its purpose would have been lost forever. The importance of the Makah people's oral tradition of history is immense. Without the stories passed on from the eldest members of the tribes, we would have no way of knowing many of the things that went on in the ancient village. Their present knowledge has made this site one of the most significant archeological finds in North America.


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The mysterious ways of the secretive Pueblos
Irene - Take me to the river! Slippery salmons swimming upstream
Rebecca - The wild and wacky world of Seminole Indian alligator wrestling
Neda - A ghost town turns into a whirling dervish dance festival
Nick - Getting in touch with the Native American past through the heart of a woman
Team - The first inhabitants of North America: A picture of a proud and strong people
Team - Tomorrow's leaders, today's American Indian youth