The name "Makah," which was bestowed by neighboring tribes, means
"generous with food."
For millennia the Makah, who spoke the Wakashan language that survives to
this day, resided at the most northwestern point of what became the
lower 48 states. They are still situated on today's Olympic Peninsula in
Washington State. Their reservation is the community of Neah Bay. The
tribe is the only Native American group that retains the right to hunt
whales as affirmed by treaty. Commercial fishing is an essential tribal
A brief history
The pre-contact Makahs' home consisted of an extensive coastal and
inland area that provided many natural resources for their survival. The
Makah men were tough, expert watermen who harvested such seafood as
salmon, seals and whales. They carved red cedar canoes customized for
various uses, including conveyance of trading items to other tribes.
The Makah resided in several permanent villages and summer encampments.
In the early 19th century, the tribe probably numbered up to 4,000
souls. Like their counterparts in the Northwest, extended,
multi-generational families lived in long cedar plank dwellings; each
village had several of them. With the arrival of summer, people trekked
to camps that were situated nearer to such subsistence activities as
gathering, fishing and whaling. Such foods were dried or smoked and
stored for the winter.
They made the most of what they harvested and left little waste.
After porpoise and seal meat was eaten or stored, the
skins were cured to serve as whaling floats. Seal fat was melted into oil that was
used at meals to flavor foods. Sea otter pelts were a highly prized
Humpback, gray, right, sperm, finback and blue whales were hunted for
their blubber and flesh. Oil rendered from whale blubber was a
valuable commodity, bringing whaling families a handsome return in
wealth and prestige. Whale bones were fashioned into a variety of tools
and personal adornment. The Makah discovered a new market with trade
ships from Europe as early as 1789.
The advent of Europeans, oblivious of white diseases they introduced
into the Indian environment, wreaked a disaster on the Makah, beginning
late in the 18th century. Tribal members in the thousands succumbed to
epidemics of such scourges as influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis. The
tearing of the Makah social fabric was dramatic, creating fright, abject
sorrow and disorientation. So many family members were lost, and the
social dislocation was so great, that many traditional lifeways were not
passed down to successive generations.
In 1855 at Neah Bay, 42 Makah leaders, representing their tribe, signed
a treaty with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, who represented the United States.
The elders knew the time had come to prevent their tribe's way of life
from suffering extinction. The Makah relinquished 300,000 acres of tribal land to
the U.S. in exchange for a smaller reservation, to keep its whaling
rights and protect its people's physical and social welfare.
Four years later, the Congress ratified the treaty. Ratification led to
massive cultural changes in the name of assimilation, imposed on the
Makah by the federal government. Indian agents, missionaries and
teachers attempted to assimilate the Makah into mainstream American
society through laws that suppressed their language and customs.
However, the Makahs' adroit adaptation of traditional subsistence
activities to new markets for whaling and seal products helped them to
resist such attempts at assimilation as governmental attempts to convert
them into farmers.
Eventually, the dominant society's attempts to limit their access to
land and resources would threaten the Makahs' capacity to survive as a
people. Ignoring the Makahs' treaty fishing rights, Washington state
game officers bullied Native Americans for fishing without licenses --
which the state would not issue to them because they were not U.S.
citizens until 1924. Eventually the courts gave the Makah access to 50
percent of the allowable salmon catch.
Whales were threatened with extinction by commercial whaling at the turn
of the 20th century, which compelled the Makah to give up whaling in the
In the 1970s, the old village of Ozette was excavated, which eventually
yielded many thousands of ancient objects. The project rekindled the
Makahs' interest in their culture and language, as evidenced later in
the conception of the Makah Cultural and Research Center. One aspect of
their past culture drew their particular attention: whaling.
Conservation efforts in the intervening years had encouraged gray whale
numbers to return to more normal levels. In 1994, following the gray whale's removal from the
endangered species list, the Makah advised the
U.S. government that they intended to resume whale hunting as allowed by their unique treaty. The action provoked strong opposition by
environmental groups. In 1999, following strenuous physical and
spiritual preparation, Makah watermen conducted their first successful
whale hunt in more than seven decades -- sparking celebration, notoriety
and consternation. The Makah have since been embroiled in several court
battles to cling to their whaling prerogative.
The Makah Nation today
The fishing community of Neah Bay is the heart of the Makah nation.
Cultural events as well as their sea-based economy are concentrated
there. The Neah Bay Marina accommodates numerous business and pleasure
craft. Village and marina businesses cater to residents and visitors
Located on the Sooes River, the Makah National Fish Hatchery
specifically accommodates public viewing of salmon migrating over fish
In addition to commercial fishing, numerous Makah people earn a
livelihood as artisans. They market such items as delicately carved
masks to various outlets and collectors.
The Makah Cultural and Research Center conserves and enhances knowledge
of the Makah Nation's history. Of particular interest is an authentic
reproduction of a longhouse that visitors can step inside to view.
The annual Makah Days in August is a community festival that includes a
grand parade, street fair, canoe racing, culture-specific games and
food, fireworks, dancing and singing.
Traditional songs, dances and stories are the property of the
descendants of those who created them, and subject to their exclusive
use. They are performed at potlaches, weddings, naming ceremonies,
memorial services and other events.
The Makah also adhere to their traditional heritage by teaching new
generations their ancient Wakashan language.