The Makah tribe was a Northwest Indian Tribe that lived in an area known as Neah Bay for thousands of years.
Living on the West Coast meant that red cedars were widely available, and the Makah people became skilled in using them for various resources. One of those resources was building large longhouses that were equipped with planks that could be moved to provide extra ventilation and light.
According to the Makah Tribe's official website, this is how their longhouses were built and used:
Within this territory, the Makah had many summer and permanent villages. The five permanent villages, Waatch, Sooes, Deah, Ozette, and Bahaada, were located along the shore of the northwesternmost point of the continental United States. In the early 1800s, these villages were home to between two thousand and four thousand Makah. Each village contained several longhouses composed of cedar planks and measured approximately 30 feet wide and 70 feet long.
The Makah and their extended families would share these structures, and it was common to have several generations living in each one. During the summer, people traveled to various summer camps, such as Kidickabit, Archawat, Hoko, Tatoosh Island, Ozette River, and Ozette Lake. These summer camps were closer to the traditional fishing, whaling, and gathering areas of the Makah.
Over generations of using these cedar trees, the Makah tribe also used the bark to make water-proof clothing and the cedar roots for basket weaving. The tree trunks could be made into canoes to allow them to hunt ocean marine life.
The Makah tribe were skilled hunters on land and water.
On water, they hunted seals, fish, shellfish, and even humpback whales. On land, they were skilled at hunting Elk and Bear. They knew how to use every part of each animal they hunted.
They would also eat what was naturally available to them, which included nuts, berries, and other edible plants.
Makah's history was passed down orally, and there is no written record. This means that much of what we know is due to archeological excavations.
The Makah tribe is unique in that archeological evidence has been found that shows us much of what life was like for the tribe. This is different from many Native American tribes who faded with the disease and American expansion.
According to the Ozette Review:
In the early 17th century, a mudslide engulfed part of a Makah village near Lake Ozette. The mudslide preserved several houses and their contents in a collapsed state until the 1970s when they were excavated by Makahs and archeologists from Washington State University. Over 55,000 artifacts were recovered, representing many activities of the Makah, from whale and seal hunting to salmon and halibut fishing. Artifacts included toys, games, and bows and arrows. The oral history of the Makah mentions a "great slide" that engulfed a portion of Ozette long ago.
Makah Tribe and Whaling
Makah's oral history relates that their tradition of aboriginal whaling has been suspended and re-established several times. Most recently, the practice was suspended in the 1920s because the commercial whaling industry had depleted the stocks of humpback and gray whales; all hunting was called off.
After the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List, the Makah re-asserted their whaling rights. With the support and guidance of the United States government and the International Whaling Commission, the Makah successfully hunted a gray whale on May 17, 1999.
According to federal law, the Makah are entitled to hunt and kill one baleen whale, typically a gray whale, each year. Archeological records and oral history indicate a significant number of humpback whales were historically hunted as well.
The Makah had gone over 70 years without catching a whale.
The Makah whaling technique is difficult and labor-intensive. The men hunt from cedar canoes, each seating six to nine people and, more recently, from small fishing vessels. They take these into the Pacific Ocean adjacent to their reservation territory. Various traditional criteria are used to determine the best whale to harvest.
By counting the whale's exhalations, the hunters determine when the whale is about to dive and determine from this the best time to strike. Approaching the whale's left side, the hunter strikes when the whale is 3–4 feet deep to avoid the force of the whale's tail.
The harpoon is 16–18 feet long, composed of two pieces of yew wood spliced together. Historically, hunters used a mussel shell tip in conjunction with barbs from elk horns.
Since the late 20th century, hunters have used a steel "Yankee style" head, but they have retained the yew wood shaft because of its flexibility, water resistance, and strength.
Held fast to the whale, the harpoon shaft comes loose, to be recovered later, and a line is thrown from the canoe with seal skin floats attached to provide drag to weaken the whale. In the past, a series of smaller lances were used to repeatedly strike the whale, gradually weakening and killing it, often over a period of hours and, in some cases, days.
Recently, hunters have adopted the use of a big game rifle after the harpoon strike to ensure a more efficient kill. The International Whaling Commission permits four cartridges in whaling: .458 Winchester Magnum, .460 Weatherby Magnum, .50 BMG, and the .577 Tyrannosaur, which the Makah fired in the 1999 hunt.
Once the whale has been killed, a crew member called the "diver" jumps into the water and cuts a hole through the bottom and top of the whale's jaw, to which a tow line and float are attached.
This holds the whale's mouth shut and prevents the carcass from filling with water and sinking. Hunters tow the whale to shore, where it is received by members of the village.
Traditional ceremonies and songs are performed to welcome the whale's spirit. Following this, the whale is divided in a precise and traditional fashion, with certain families having ownership of particular cuts.
The "saddle piece" located midway between the center of the back and the tail is the property of the harpooner. It is taken to his home, where a special ceremony is performed.
The meat and oil are distributed to community members, and a great deal of it is consumed during a potlatch.
The Makah assert that their right to whaling is guaranteed in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, which states in part: "The right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the United States."
In September 2007, five members of the Makah tribe shot a gray whale using a .460 caliber rifle, similar to that used in hunting elephants, despite court-imposed regulations governing the Makah hunt.
The whale died within 12 hours, sinking while heading out to sea after being confiscated and cut loose by the United States Coast Guard. The tribal council denounced the killing and announced their intention to try the individuals in tribal court.