Free Buddy

The lose-lose war at Neah Bay.

October 31: Waiting for Buddy

Big-city mayors, who have a homeless problem, could take a hint from the Makah whalers—who have a resident problem. For a month, the Makahs have said they're ready and raring to go kill a whale, if only they could find one that's not protected as a "resident." They've agreed with federal fisheries officials to spare the whales hanging around the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to take only "migratory" whales snowbirding down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to their Baja love lagoons. In October, any whale in the area is presumed resident unless proven otherwise, and everyone except the impatient Makahs seems to agree that the transients don't show until November or December.

Worse yet, the self-appointed whale guardians of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, floating offshore in two pirate-flagged ships, have done what no one thought to do before: They've given the resident whales names, including the inspired "Buddy." How can you kill a "Buddy" when the whole world is watching?

Easily, the whaling advocates reply; just wait until November 1. That's when the presumption of residency evaporates and the Makahs get to decide which whales are migrants eligible for hunting. They say it's a simple call: Today a resident, tomor- row a transient. (Wouldn't the cities love to declare their homeless Buddies instant "residents"?)

A month ago the Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared, "Day of Reckoning at Hand for Whale Hunt." Now, tomorrow, hunting season really starts. Really.

The protesters, who've been patrolling offshore in some 20 boats, blasting humpback whale songs over their loudspeakers (gray whales don't provide such compelling soundtracks), now escalate. They drive a small caravan onto the reservation, but are turned back by tribal police at the cemetery, with much angry jeering on both sides. The protesters insist they're just trying to exercise free speech and drive on a state highway that happens to cross a sovereign Indian nation.

Givers of food

That night, there ensues a different sort of escalation—which the protesters aren't there to see. The Makah Tribal Council hosts a "Celebration of Treaty Rights" potlatch to commemorate the start of whaling season. It begins more or less at noon, with a dinner of beef and chicken—none of the seal the Makahs have already begun taking, much less any whale. I only last till 1:30—am. I'm told later the party went till 3, which is early; often these dances and potlatches, held to celebrate weddings and festivals like the summer Makah Days, go till the next day's light.

In this case, "Celebration of Treaty Rights" clearly means "Celebration of the Whale Hunt." The hastily assembled event marks a new red-letter day in tribal history: the first anniversary, give or take, of the Monaco meeting at which the International Whaling Commission approved the Makah hunt. Rightly or wrongly, the hunt is viewed as a make-or-break test of the treaty rights; its unheralded patron is Sen.Slade Gorton, whose dogged attacks on tribal sovereignty only seem to prod the Makahs and other tribes to assert it more. Use it or lose it.

One speaker after another invokes treaty rights and whaling, usually in the same breath. Their sermons are punctuated by singing, drumming, and dancing by the Makahs and their visiting cousins, the various Nuu-chah-nulth groups from Vancouver Island. Children, grown women, and elders dance intently while the men drum. There are welcoming dances, paddle dances, even the fabled chiefs' dances—hypnotic but invigorating (as they must be to continue all night), joyous and solemn at once and by turns. They are not staged for the media; early on, the master of ceremonies forbids filming, taping, and photography by non-tribespeople; out go the cameras and their crews with them. And on goes the potlatch. Across the gym's south end hangs an immense white curtain blazoned with the tribal insignia, which is translated variously as "Seagull People" and "People of the Cape." A large truck backs up to the side door, packed with the fruit of a successful hunting expedition to the Port Angeles Wal-Mart. Like a fishing boat discharging its catch, or a whale disgorging prophets, it spews out cardboard cartons, which a line of volunteers passes, bucket-brigade style, behind the curtain.

Soon enough, and on and on through the evening, children and teenagers distribute the goods, beaming at the privilege of playing Santa Claus to the grown-ups and little 'uns. Children scamper about, showing off their new neon skateboards and Tickle Me Big Bird dolls. Many adults get Mirro cookware. In between major gifts, the kids press candy, fruit, and punch in our hands—Halloween in reverse.

However the missionaries and government agents tried to stamp out the "wasteful" potlatch ritual, it seems to have adapted well to serve a variety of modern purposes: Christmas in October; useful goods for the poor; honoraria for emissaries from other tribes (who are potlatched gas money "to show our appreciation for people who've traveled so far").

And, maybe, good old-fashioned electioneering. One attendee tells me quietly (and other tribespeople later affirm) that this potlatch, funded by the Tribal Council, "is really all about Marcy's re-election." "Marcy" is Marcy Parker, the council's vice chair, only woman, and IWC delegate. She is a diminutive but flinty woman, viewed by many at Neah Bay as the real power behind much tribal politics and policy—including the whaling. Again and again over the next two weeks I will hear that the hunt "is Marcy's baby." Despite the fiercely macho and exclusively male character of traditional Makah whaling, the fight over reinstating it is increasingly dominated, on both sides, by strong women. Along with Parker, there's Alberta Thompson, the lone persistently outspoken dissenter against the hunt, who dares do publicly what other tribal elders dare only on the sly: commit the ultimate apostasy by throwing in with Sea Shepherd. And there's Lisa Distefano, Sea Shepherd's second-in-command—and, in one colleague's words, "human side"—who's stepped to the fore while founder Paul Watson fades back. (A wise move, if deliberate; with his bullish manner and dismissive remarks on Makah culture, Watson comes off as a whale-loving Captain Ahab in reverse. "Sea Shepherd is nothing but a cult," I hear one sweet little lady say. "If he told them to drink Kool-Aid, they would.") And there's the Makah Whaling Commission's executive director, Denise Dailey, who last week replaced its president, Keith Johnson, at the daily (yes, daily!) press briefings on the hunt's progress or lack thereof. (Johnson's coach-like cheer had come to seem increasingly forced.)

Of them all, however, only Marcy Parker has to stand for election next month, when her council seat comes up. And if all politics are local, then isolated, clannish Neah Bay is about as local as a place can get. The persistence of family ties, of family feuds carried on from one generation to

another, is legendary here, and real. Questions of policy and principle verge ineluctably into questions of family: whether various clans are getting their say and fair share according to precedents outsiders cannot even guess at.

These questions inevitably color the whaling effort, starting with its annual quota of five whales—one for each of the five original Makah villages now consolidated at Neah Bay, whence today's main families descend. And they energize both support for and skepticism about the hunt; as Micah McCarty, a former crew member who vows to rejoin some day, says, "It's all about lineage." One elder skeptic (and scion of whalers), Charles Claplanhoo, laments both that the hunt isn't being conducted in suitably traditional fashion and that the old whaling families aren't fully represented. Others complain that not only do Johnsons dominate the Tribal Council and Whaling Commission (Parker was Marcy Johnson before her marriage), but that the whaling crew itself is overloaded with her relations, including son Eric, its captain. Parker replies, "If some families chose not to participate, that's their choice."

The anti-whaling activists and in-tribe critics claim the hunt is a patronage scheme, with whalers and whaling commissioners receiving stipends the tribe can't afford. "I'm not going to comment on that," replies Parker. Commission director Dailey says they aren't paid; McCarty says lack of payment makes it hard for the whalers to stick at it. After the flap arose, Eric Johnson stopped drawing salary as the commission's assistant director.

Even if nepotism were rampant, would that mean tradition is dead? Hardly. Nepotism is just family and tribal relations wrapped in bureaucratic authority. The ancient hunters of Ozette likely argued over family rights—more gracefully, no doubt, without the weight of federally mandated governance and media and activist intrusion.

We know the songs

At the potlatch, I chat with Janine Bowechop, director of the wonderful Makah Tribal Museum, where the Ozette whale-hunting artifacts are displayed. Bowechop is an urbane and educated curator and a frequent flyer to DC and New York. "For Sea Shepherd to say we have a dead-end culture—that's a lie!" she fumes. "We know the songs!" And then, as though wary of sounding like a pious pushover, Bowechop rails against the way presumptuous outsiders also impose just the opposite image on people like her: that of "your stereotypical good Indian who knows the earth and lives in a teepee and waits for the buffalo to come back." We know the songs. We aren't your "good Indians." Both these are sentiments I'll hear often around the res; I imagine printing a T-shirt that reads, "Native, bad, and proud of it!"

And yet, doesn't whaling evoke the stereotype Bowechop disdains? Teepees never stood here, and longhouses don't anymore. But the Makahs pride themselves on knowing the sea, and so resent others telling them about "resident" whales. And they did indeed wait for the gray whale "to come back."

As evening turns to night, a second meal is broken out—and again the sweetly smiling teenagers bring everyone, beginning with tribal dignitaries, heaping paper plates: ham, meat loaf, beans, potato salad, and whole pies for anyone who wants one. No wonder "Makah" means "givers of food" (or "well fed") in the S'Klallam language. When midnight strikes, the MC, artist John Goodwin, intones, "Now they stop being resident whales, and they become migratory whales. I don't know how anyone can tell the difference, but there it is."

November 1: The eco-armada

I sleep in, fortunately, and miss the chance to set out on one of the protest boats anchoring off the Snow Creek Resort, a bait shop and RV park just outside the reservation that's become the whale savers' advance camp. So I head to the reservation—where the protest fleet gathers as it never has before, like a low-budget reprise of the Spanish Armada, at the entrance to the inner harbor. The largest contingent is a delegation from Victoria's whale-watching companies: four bright yellow Zodiac inflatables emblazoned "Prince of Whales" and the bigger aluminum tour boat Orca Spirit. A few more Bayliners and Zodiacs putter around. One Jet Ski—an incongruous feature at a conservationist rally—roars about in front. Behind the little boats looms a bigger one: Sea Shepherd's Sirenian, a former Coast Guard cutter painted a forbidding black. A loudspeaker blasts AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," and bullhorns shout messages of persuasion (which fall flat) and provocation (which hit home). The tribespeople on the seawall, evidently practiced hecklers, give at least as good as they get.

"Save the whales!"

"Eat the whales!" And a quieter aside: "Eat Buddy."

"We're here for you!"

"Go home to your families! We don't want to hear what you have to say!" And to the Canadian whale boats: "Go home to your queen, even she doesn't want you!"

"Why so much violence?"

"Don't tell us about violence! You've been forcing your violence on us for years with television!"

"I know you'll miss us. We're not going anywhere, though!"

"Suck balls!"

"What makes you think you own the whales? You're so damn arrogant!"

"What makes you think you own them?"

The baiting continues until two neatly coiffed middle-aged women ("my aunties," he later explains) take the loudest heckler aside. "It's OK to watch, but you shouldn't yell at them," one explains. "That's what they want. It only makes them stronger."

Abashed, their nephew watches quietly from then on. But many more pick up the beat. Some hurl stones at a Sea Shepherd Zodiac.

"Don't throw stones," says another cool head. "They just want you to do that, to make you look bad on TV."

Suddenly, some older tribespeople, and young Micah McCarty, appear with different weapons: their ceremonial drums. They form an undulating, expanding circle, and thump and sing the old songs with joyful passion. "Defusing the situation," nods one approving older tribesman. The rock throwing and hubbub stop; the whale savers seem nonplussed.

But this proves only a breather. On a pier beyond the drums' reach, another group is spraying water and hurling stones, bolts, and concrete chunks at the Sirenian (which does not return the fire). As before, neither the Tribal Police nor the Coast Guard try to stop them. The mother ship, the Sea Shepherd herself, gaudily painted with life-size whales and seals, steams forward, jetting water from her fire pumps, but is too big to enter the inner harbor.

On a floating dock stands an unmistakable figure: Alberta Thompson, in a startlingly bold appearance. She talks to Tribal Police Officer Eric Svenson, who's keeping order by the dock, and waves to Distefano. She chats with young whaler McCarty, who tells her, apologetically it seems, "There's a lot of strong feelings wrapped up in this."

"It's all a matter of how you were raised," replies Thompson. She walks off the dock—and all hell breaks lose, here and on TV screens worldwide.

The Sea Shepherd Zodiac pulls up close, pushing the limits of a tribal order that protest boats not dock. Distefano steps off—and is pushed into the drink, reportedly by the son of the then­tribal fisheries director who first proposed the whale hunt. She walks to the shore with studied calm and is arrested. Several tribespeople grab the Zodiac and haul it and its other two occupants to shore, where they too are arrested.

Makah Whaling Commission president Keith Johnson joins the jubilant throng and asks Officer Svenson what's to be done with the Zodiac. "You're a council member," replies Svenson. "It's yours now."

Another Zodiac nears, and a fourth Sea Shepherder, Ken Nichols, splashes ashore; Watson has dispatched him to recover the lost boat. Svenson tells Nichols to stop; he keeps walking. Svenson, another officer, and two civilians force him down; his face comes up bloodied from the pavement. This is the shot seen round the world—the worst publicity imaginable for the Makahs. Many of them suspect Nichols deliberately smashed his own face. From a few feet away, I see no sign of that, nor of any deliberate injury by the police.

Out come the drums again. Tribespeople young and old begin dancing on the boat launch, this time triumphantly. I notice one of the aunties, so eloquently nonviolent before, among them: "I can't help it!" she says giddily. From all the whooping and hollering, you'd think the tribe had landed its whale. Then McCarty and another tribesman run off and come running back with the crowning touch: a huge, bleached whale skull.

Aftermath: The guest list

It's widely reported that Alberta Thompson had invited all four Sea Shepherders ashore for dinner. In fact, she invited only Distefano—with Svenson's permission, she claims. Svenson says he told Thompson that Distefano could come in by land, not water; she says she never heard that from him. But it was clearly an act of calculated provocation. "They knew exactly what they were doing," says Distefano ally Heidi Tiura.

Later I ask Distefano if she meant to be arrested when she landed. "I didn't mean to be assaulted," she replies.

The four Sea Shepherders are released uncharged. The only combatant in the melee charged with anything is Bret Siler, the one on the Jet Ski—by the Coast Guard, for reckless operation of a watercraft. Tribal Police Chief Lionel Ahdunko warns Alberta Thompson he will arrest her tomorrow for inciting a riot, but the threat never materializes. That night, Heidi Tiura spirits Thompson away from the reservation and hides her for two days at Snow Creek—"right below their noses." Then she takes her down to Santa Clara, and the two give a talk on saving whales that Tiura says brings spectators to tears. Returning, they bump into Jean-Michel Cousteau in the airport; he's come to urge the tribe to spare the whales. Cousteau kneels before the elderly Makah apostate.

But Sunday's demonstration-cum-naval-assault seems to have done nothing to discourage the whaling. Rather, it's piqued resentment and support for the hunt even among those who'd held back before. "This is my home," says Vince Cooke, whose house is hung with photos he's shot of gray whales. "That harbor is my front yard. It's wrong for them to come into it like that." Now he sees completing the hunt as an essential point of pride. So does Jeff Hottowe, the tribal marina manager, who 20 years ago became famous for risking his life to save a gray whale tangled in fishnets. (He rode and dove with the whale like Ahab as he hacked away the nets with his knife.) But seeing "Sea Shepherd attacking our sovereignty, these terrible people invading our waters" rouses his support for the hunt. He hits the phones, calling in old favors to get the region's most revered Indian leaders to come make their own Veterans Day show of support.

I have an inkling of how they feel. Even though this isn't my home, and despite the ugly violence on the shore side, I felt under invasion as the whale savers' armada approached.

November 7: Blow like a heart

Returning to the End of the World, I decide to see how the other side lives. It's a balmy, glassy-watered Sunday morning—a good day to kill a whale. I stop by Snowy Creek just as the alarm goes off: whalers spotted off Cape Alava. The eco-mariners scramble to their boats and Jet Ski and roar off—then return sheepishly a few minutes later. Another false alarm. How do they still manage to get so excited at every rumor of a hunt?

Heidi Tiura and Lisa Distefano, the protest queens, are setting out to paddle the shoreline, looking for whales. I borrow a kayak and tag along: What better place to corner an interview? Distefano drops back, but I follow Tiura to Neah Bay. She points out the stellar qualities of this weird and lovely wild coast: bulbous kelp mats, sea caves and striking natural petroglyphs, the point where Seal Rock, which from most views looks more like a sail than Sail Rock, comes to look exactly like a rearing sea lion.

Tiura also talks about the offer she and her partner Steph Dutton made the tribe (and which it rebuffed): If it doesn't kill a whale, they'll help it build a whale watching/kayaking/natural-history tour business like the Sea Dog School they operate in Monterey (which also does whale research and education projects, assuming the feds don't jerk its funding because of their protest work here). Lots of outsiders talk of the rich ecotourism possibilities here, but Tiura actually seems to have the ability and will to make it work. She's a born teacher and guide, warm and infectiously enthusiastic, as well as a manager—the den mother who holds the anarchic protesters together.

When we're almost back to Snowy Creek, we see what we set out to: a gray whale browsing near the shore. "Nice heart!" exclaims Tiura. Sure enough, in the long afternoon light, the mist from the whale's twin blowholes forms a perfect heart.

Back at Snowy Creek, I drink beer and debate animal rights and wrongs with a few whale savers. I can't help thinking, as I do around some Makahs I've met: My, what nice people. So eager. So naive. And so ignorant of their adversaries. One, Sandy Abels, explains how she got here. "After I heard Steph and Heidi's presentation on the gray whales in Maine, I quit my job, sold my car, and moved to Seattle so I could help save them." Bret Siler, a stand-up guy who manages a water system in Oregon, is devoting his boat, Jet Ski, and accumulated vacation to the fight. He makes a confession: "I don't have a strong grasp of what 'culture' is. No one's been able to explain that to me."

That confession is refreshing ("culture" is an overused buzzword) but indicative of a wider disregard among the whale savers for what the Makahs cherish most. "There are no Makah anymore," says one. "None of them are purebred," chimes another. "They want all the privileges of citizenship and none of the disadvantages, like serving in the military." I wish they could have been at the potlatch, or at least at the launch of the new Neah Bay American Legion hall.

November 9: Strait cowboys

Why are the whale savers so eager to provoke and antagonize? The harbor rumble erupted in part out of sheer frustration on both sides. "We wanted to let them know we're still here," says Siler. "We didn't know what we'd do in the harbor." And should the hunt happen? "We'll deal with it when the time comes. We don't have a plan or an agenda."

Maybe not on the front line where Siler rides his Jet Ski. But Sea Shepherd does have a strategy or two. Part of it is to expose what Tiura and Distefano call "greed and corruption" in tribal offices. And so the rumors fly: So-and-so is "a crackhead." X "was stopped twice at customs with drugs." Y is "dealing to the kids." Z "likes 14-year-old girls." All this bolsters their conviction that they're fighting the good fight against bad guys. And when something sticks, they go to the law. They exposed one whaling-crew gunner's outstanding warrant for a previous assault conviction. They've tried, and failed, to get US authorities to file civil rights charges over the harbor ruckus. Now Police Chief Ahdunko seems a natural target. Last week he was brought to court on false-reporting charges that got him fired from his last job, as police chief for Nevada's Washoe tribe. His aide, Eric Svenson, was also fired from the Washoe police.

November 10: Glaring faults

Watching tribal officials sweat under such scrutiny, I feel queasy myself. Whaling has exposed this isolated hamlet to a media glare usually reserved for serious subjects like presidential scandals, Olympic knee-cappings, and celebrity murders. Of course, something very rotten may lurk beneath the political tideflats of Neah Bay. But what small town could take such scrutiny without some embarrassment?

Consider: This is land's end, the far corner of the Lower 48, the place past the last bend in the road. Ordinarily the tribe's lucky to lure a few visitors to its splendid, empty museum. Now its motels are packed with reporters, and TV trucks perch above the breakwater. Day after day, week after week, the press and tribal officials re-enact rituals honed at White House and Desert Storm press conferences. Formerly, Keith Johnson would come give the daily briefing outside the Makah Maiden Cafe. Now the press corps must troop out to the Tribal Center—in the old Air Force compound 4 miles from the center of town. Each day, the same questions: When will you go whaling? Why aren't you whaling today? And variations on the same answers: Soon, soon, we're raring to go. Weather's too rough now. Just need to fix the starter on the chase boat. Rumors rise and are denied: No, no, Eric's still canoe captain. There's no dissension on the crew.

Now, however, with the sun brighter, the air balmier, and the water smoother than they've any right to be in November, the same answers grow frayed. Denise Dailey doesn't bother with excuses: "All I'm hearing is the timing's not right. It's up to the crew when to go."

There's something slightly ghoulish and deeply silly about this journalistic whale watch. It recalls both a deathwatch and the countdown to the final bell in a playoff game—except no one knows if or when that bell will sound. Consider the journalistic resources it's sucked up: two reporters and a photographer from the P-I, and at least one of each from the Times, on site since early September; three (lately two) TV trucks; and a handful or a hundred other notebook- and camera-slingers, depending on how imminent the hunt seems. Imagine the investigations all this talent might undertake, all the deserving souls it might comfort and afflict, the Pulitzers it might win, if it weren't . . . stuck at Neah Bay waiting for someone to shoot a whale—something that happens without fanfare more than 1,000 times a year around the world.

The regulars pray dearly for that or anything else that might end their captivity. Meanwhile, as AP reporter Peggy Anderson puts it, "We go to Forks for fun."

Some on the reservation (probably a minority, but until the council election, who knows?) would dearly like the hunt to go away. "It's been too long," sighs one elder who, alarmed at Alberta Thompson's travails, fears being named. "They should get it over with, one way or another." Even supporters like Jeff Hottowe lament the whaling program's expense: "We've got better things to spend the money on, like schools and books." The Makahs' dilemma recalls that of congressional Republicans stuck riding the impeachment process they've launched. They've got a whale by the tail.

About two weeks ago, a scheme was broached to reduce the perils of chasing a whale on the open sea in winter: carry the canoe out in a big boat and drop it nearby to finish the job. The reservation buzz has it that the whale would even be shot from and towed back with the big boat. The canoe crew would merely affix airbags with harpoons after the whale is shot. But such a largely "untraditional" hunt would invite even more condemnation.

Then another out appears. Keith Johnson suggests the tribe might agree to "suspend," if some moneybags would come across with enough bucks—say, $350 million. (Remember Shaw's virtuous woman who wouldn't dream of sleeping with him for only a few pounds?) "This just proves the hunt's for sale," sneers Distefano, though she concedes "the smartest thing to be done right now is to buy them out."

Whaling director Dailey doesn't like the idea: "I would never sell our treaty rights. And is this commercial whaling if we take money not to do it?" Anyway, she notes, such buy-out offers trickle in periodically and always go up in smoke: "They never leave a number, and they don't call back."

November 12: McCaw to Makahs

What a difference two days make. Today, representatives of the Cousteau Society and Craig McCaw—the billionaire philanthropist and whale hugger, who gave $12 million to repatriate the celebrity orca Keiko to the wild—chopper into the Makah reservation at Sea Shepherd's urging. Afterward McCaw's aide, Bob Ratliffe, insists that contrary to a Seattle Times headline, "buying off" the hunt wasn't discussed and isn't contemplated yet: "We just wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help. We threw out some ideas, maybe naively, but innocently"—concerning ecotourism. But when Craig McCaw calls, do you think the Makahs (or anyone else) don't see dollar signs? Ratliffe says tribal officials were "very warm and welcoming."

Two other potential peacemakers, members of British Columbia's Gitsan band, also come to meet with the whaling leaders; afterward they catch a ride out on McCaw's big white helicopter. They've been invited by Sea Shepherd volunteer Peter Brown. (The Gitsan and Sea Shepherd earlier joined forces to disrupt the Columbus quincentennial in the Caribbean.) Brown says he's been trying for some time to promote a "win-win" deal to end the whaling and reward the Makahs: "I want them to realize we're not just a bunch of racists."

And why not deal? "Suspending" rather than utterly renouncing the hunt would still uphold the sacrosanct treaty and the dignity the tribe has so strenuously defended. Sea Shepherd could claim a rare, real victory for helping stop a whaling program rather than ramming whaling ships.

If they work this out, the would-be whalers and whale savers ought to spend a little time together. After all, like Israelis and Palestinians, they have so much in common. Each side often accuses the other, wrongly, of being only in it for the money—donations and Hollywood bucks for Sea Shepherd, and eventual commercial whaling for the Makahs. Neither imagines the other might be sincere. And yet they seek the same things from the whales: meaning, purpose, a brush with a creature so vast and exotic, yet familiar, that it must be holy. "We do have something in common," concedes Rod Marining, the Sirenian's helmsman. "They get a spiritual lift from killing whales. We get a spiritual lift from looking at them."

Both are People of the Whale, fighting over this hallowed creature the way Christians, Jews, and Muslims have battled over Jerusalem. Perhaps they should hold an ecumenical conference—on a whale-watching boat.

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