The role of whaling in past and present colonial relationships of the Northwest

For my final assignment in this class I decided to investigate the role that whaling has played in the ongoing colonial relationships in the Pacific Northwest. I focused on three groups from the region: the Makah of the Olympic Peninsula, the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, and the Alutiiq of Kodiak. Whaling has been practiced by each of these three groups for at least thousands of years and is a significant component of their cultural identities. Whaling was still practiced at the time of Euro-American arrival and whale oil, among other natural commodities, played a significant role in the development of colonial economies. Even though extensive whaling and trading of whale oil had taken place prior to European presence in the area, there was now increased hunting pressure on the animals and their populations began to decline. Makah whalers, for many years, were just as successful, if not more so, at hunting whales and processing the oil from them. However, once whale populations became depleted and moved farther from shore, colonial whaling ventures were able to take more whales and attempted to block Native access to this stock of whales. The last whale hunted by the Makah prior to recent times was in the 1920s. 

Makahs butchering a whale circa 1930. From Library Archives of the Makah Museum

In early 1970 a large storm eroded a bank and revealed five longhouses that had been buried by an earthquake in 1700. Excavations at this site in the village of Ozette, revealed a deep history of whaling by the Makah people. The vast quantity of whale remains along with ample whaling technology revealed that the Makah had been whaling for more than just subsistence. In order to store artifacts and share the knowledge obtained from excavations at Ozette, the Makah Cultural and Research Center was established. These excavations had renewed community interest in resuming the practice of whaling.

In the 1990s the gray whale was finally delisted as an endangered species and the Makah were allowed to hunt a whale in 1999. There was much opposition to this hunt from environmental groups. The hunt, however, was a major step in the cultural revitalization efforts of the Makah and has hopefully inspired other indigenous groups to renew their own cultural practices that were oppressed by colonial actions. 



Cote, Charlotte. 2010. Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-Chah-Nulth Traditions.Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Miller, Robert. 2000. “Exercising Cultural Self-Determination: The Makah Indian Tribe Goes Whaling.” American Indian Law Review25(2): 165-273.

Reid, Joshua. 2015. The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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