Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It


After a 70-year hiatus and a confrontation with the world, the Makah tribe resumes its communion with the gray whale

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
Shades Of Gray

A damp, cool spring evening envelops a cedar-plank house perched on a slight rise overlooking the rocky beach in the Makah whaling village of Ozette.

Inside, a young boy sleeps on a wooden bench. A toy bow and arrow lie next to his head. Nearby, a woman works -- someone has to tend the fire hearths in the building that serves as home to a Makah whaling chief, his relatives, and his slaves.

The twilight hours are bucolic, but the woman and child do not have much time left.

The rest of the two dozen or so people living in the 60-foot-long house are away. The latest catch from the sea -- whether a 40-foot gray whale or a canoe load of seals -- demands their attention to the hunt and the ceremonies.

The woman and child are immersed in the pungent smells of freshly butchered sea mammals and filleted halibut drying on racks that hang over the long house.

Baskets with patterns of whales adorning their sides are stuffed with dried fish, berries, shellfish, and roots gathered from nearby tidal pools and the steep hillsides of the rain forest, which looms over the beach and extends miles inland to snowcapped mountains that feed salmon-filled rivers.

An assortment of hunting gear -- yew-wood harpoons, sealskin floats, lines made from cedar bark, and harpoon tips crafted from mussel shells and elk antlers -- is carefully stowed away in the whaling chief's corner of the long house.

The headman's quarters are the farthest away from the long house's only door, a door that opens toward the ocean.

Scores of bows and arrows are stashed in the area of the long house belonging to the hunter of the clan.

In another corner, occupied by the fisherman, are small boxes made from a single, thin plank of cedar that folds onto itself. They hold hemlock fishing hooks -- ingeniously crafted devices used to catch thousands of halibut feeding on banks far offshore.

Cedar bark mats hang from the rafters and offer privacy for the sleeping benches of the communal household.

Outside, fishing, whaling, and sealing canoes carved from giant red cedar trees are drawn up on the beach. They are pulled over logs to keep them from being washed away by the high tide pounding the rocky reef that stretches past the breakwaters into the Pacific Ocean.

Perched on the westernmost point in the Pacific Northwest, Ozette is the perfect place to launch ocean hunts. Fur seals make their closest approach to shore, within three miles, while the gray whale often swims just offshore on its annual northbound migration to its summer feeding grounds.

This evening is no different from thousands before, and thousands yet to come, until the disaster strikes.

Without warning, the silty sand-and-clay hillside behind the long house liquefies, triggering a tsunami of suffocating mud that cascades toward the structure. Nothing resists, or survives. The mud swallows the house, collapses the walls inward, and carries the roof toward the beach.

The woman and child vanish inside the avalanche of soil.

The long house becomes a tomb buried beneath tons of mud.

The deadly slurry captures, then holds for an eternity, an instant of daily life of the Makah Indians. It is 1500 A.D.

At the other end of the continent, Spaniards are only beginning their conquest of the Mayan and Aztec cultures to the south. It will take hundreds of years, but the white men will eventually find the whaling peoples of the Makah Nation.

Five centuries later, a young newspaper boy, an Indian child, pedals his bicycle through the small town of Neah Bay, about 15 miles north of Ozette. A couple of cars cruise down the main drag of the town where 1,200 or so Makah make their home on a small bay facing north, toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The boy rides past the harbor where fishermen unload the day's halibut catch into wheelbarrows, past the totem pole- flanked general store that sells everything from paint to potatoes, past the town's only breakfast shop -- the Makah Maiden Cafe -- where frantic waitresses tell patrons to fetch their own coffee.

The boy stops at a steel-paneled warehouse, grabs a newspaper, and goes inside, where he finds archaeologists and Makah tribal members carefully sifting through thousands of artifacts being extracted from the 500-year-old long house at Ozette.

A powerful winter storm in 1970 has uncovered the remains of the ancient village, launching one of the greatest archaeological excavations in North America. Scientists from Washington State University, Makah tribal members, and volunteers from around the world have sifted through the remarkably preserved remains of the catastrophic mudslide.

The research center's director shows the boy the latest prize uncovered at Ozette -- a mussel shell harpoon tip that a whaling captain long ago embedded into the vertebra of a whale.

"I thought, "What power that man must have had to do such a thing,'" says 38-year-old Theron Parker, thinking back to that moment in his boyhood nearly a quarter-century ago.

That thought has long resonated with Parker, mixing with other visions and sounds of his youth.

The songs of his family are those sung by whaling chiefs.

The family heirlooms are the tools of whalers.

A persistent image is pressed into Parker's mind: a Makah whaler walking barefoot across the beach, holding a heavy harpoon and two sealskin floats, his long black hair enmeshed in a fur coat, a determined expression on his face.

Together, these fragments of a past way of life would endure -- whispering to Parker through the travails of drinking, drugs, and exile that would lead him away from his Makah homeland.

But like the gray whales that return each year, Parker was drawn back to Neah Bay, back to a tribe struggling to regain its balance after 150 years of death and assimilation that destroyed most of its once vibrant, wealthy, and powerful society.

About The Author

John Dougherty


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"