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.

Historic Bottles: The Oakland Chemical Company

An ad for dioxygen from the Oakland Chemical Company circa 1908

This bottle is an amber colored bottle manufactured using a 2-piece with cup mould and has a prescription finish. The seams on the sides of the bottle are indicative of this kind of mould. Embossed onto the bottle is the name “The Oakland Chemical Company” with a chemical symbol in the middle. The bottle likely contained what was known as dioxygen or previously, Oakland hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide was marketed as being safe for oral consumption, although today we know it should not be consumed and likely would have burned the throats of people who drank it.


The Oakland Chemical Company bottle









The date of manufacture for this style of bottle (2 piece with cup) is between the 1880s and 1930s, but knowing the company who sold product in the bottle, the date can be further refined to the late 1890s, early 1900s. The headquarters of the Oakland Chemical Company was in the New York City region, moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan and Staten Island. This product most likely would have been found in a household along with other medicines intended to treat ailments.

Survey of Calvary Cemetery: Trends in Death and Gravestones Over Time

Analysis of cemetery gravestones can yield interesting information about ongoing world events and general trends in religious behavior and burial practices. Charting the frequency of burials that our class surveyed reveals two peaks in death (Figure 1). One of the peaks around 1918 corresponds with the Spanish flu, a worldwide epidemic that caused millions of deaths, including many in the US. Another peak in the late 1930s, early 40s is likely associated with World War II; some of the gravestones from this period list the military affiliations of the people buried. Most of the gravestones placed during these peaks were the block style (Figure 2). Due to the large number of burials during these time periods, the cemetery was probably rapidly expanding and thus the number of very large monumental gravestones and plots decreased. The block style gravestone takes up less space than some of the other stone types and more people could be buried in a smaller area. Though our sample size was small, it was still revealing of world events and trends in gravestone styles. I imagine that an even larger survey size would reveal a more refined view.

Figure 1: Number of People Buried Per Point of Time

Figure 2: Changes in Gravestone Shape Over Time

Trash Talking

As archaeologists, much of what we study is garbage, the things that people before us left behind in piles known as middens. If we rely on these middens to provide insight into the lives of people who were living in the past, wouldn’t it also make sense that our garbage today can similarly provide insights into modern life? This is precisely what William Rathje and Cullen Murphy propose in their book Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage where they detail the ongoing Garbology project run by the University of Arizona.

Our historical archaeology class did our own mini week-long garbology project. While a week only allowed for the accumulation of a miniscule amount of garbage compared to the UoA Garbology project, it still highlighted how much can be learned about a person or culture through their garbage. The project made me aware of how much my own life experiences affected my interpretation of the garbage collection I was analyzing, especially with regards to how I came to conclusions about the size of the household, genders, ages, and wealth of the individuals being analyzed. The project also made me more aware of how much garbage I produce and what people could learn about me based on what I leave behind.

It is surprising how much can be learned about an individual through their garbage. This is particularly true for modern people since most of the objects discarded are still present, whereas in fifty to one hundred years all that may be left is the glass, plastic and metal that people threw away. This leaves the gaps of most of the organic material that would have been discarded. Garbology can help us to better understand what types of activities and garbage may not be represented archaeologically and what this means for our interpretations of archaeological assemblages.

Hope’s Bio

Holding a whale vertebra while my advisor, Ben Fitzhugh, casually leans on another bone in the background. PC: Hollis Miller

Hi! My name is Hope and I’m a first year graduate student in the archaeology program here at UW. I recently graduated from the University of Maryland where I received a B.S. in Anthropology. While an undergraduate, I interned at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for a year and a half. As an intern I helped analyze the dolphin and porpoise remains from an archaeological site in Oregon. I also learned about ancient DNA and assisted with different projects studying human interactions with maize, cassava, and crabapple.  I’ve done field work on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Kodiak Island, Alaska. At UW I hope to study how people interacted with marine ecosystems in the past, using ancient DNA to investigate past population structures of marine species that people relied on for sustenance and economic purposes. Regionally I’m interested in the North Pacific Rim, but particularly the Pacific Northwest and Gulf of Alaska. Thus far I’m loving living in Seattle and have taken every chance possible to get out and explore Mt. Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks along with all the gorgeous forests and beaches between. I’m obsessed with whales.