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The Makah Nation

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 activity.

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 trading medium.

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 Governor Isaac Stevens, who represented the United States. The elders knew the time had come to prevent their tribe's way of life from extinction. The Makah reliquished 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 mid-1920s.

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.


See Indian Wars Time Table .
Native American Cultural Regions map .

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