Book Review:
Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions

  • Posted 6/06/2014
  • Essay 10787
By Charlotte Coté
Foreword by Micah McCarty
Paperback, 273 pages
Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index
University of Washington Press, 2010
ISBN 978-0-295-99046-0

This book begins with the Makah Nation's successful 1999 whale hunt, the tribe's first since the early 1900s, by which time commercial whalers had hunted gray whales almost to extinction. Animal-rights activists opposed the Makah Nation's 1999 hunt, a viewpoint that Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors aims to combat with a thorough explanation of whale hunting's cultural, social, and spiritual significance to the Makah. Author Charlotte Coté,  who is the second person in the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation to receive a Ph.D., balances non-Native academic arguments with what she calls "Native-centered space," meaning Native-based narratives that illuminate whaling within Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) history and culture. They are, Coté explains, "A whaling people" (p. 9). 

Using frequent examples from Makah/Nuu-chah-nulth oral tradition, the book underscores how action (the whale hunting, necessary to survival) and story (recounting the hunt, necessary to educating the young and also to providing spiritual sustenance) blend over time to define a people's identity. Whaling was essential to Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth cultures for perhaps 4,000 years. 

Coté places whaling within the landscape of other traditions of Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth daily living. Besides offering detailed scholarship about the whaling culture, the book educates readers about birth, kinship, food, power structures, rituals, religion, clothing, and death -- all aspects of life. First contact and the subsequent disruption of Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth culture are also explored in depth. 

In 1855, the Makah tribe signed the Treaty of Neah Bay with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. It is the only treaty between tribes and the United States government that protects the tribal right to whale. Nevertheless, the book explains, Washington territorial officials did not encourage or even protect this right. Disease, removal of Native children into Indian boarding schools, and missionaries were all part of the attempt to destroy Native culture.

But it was the commercial whaling industry's almost totally decimation of gray whales that struck perhaps the deepest blow to these people whose self-definition was based upon their relationship to the massive mammals. The role of story in helping the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth maintain integrity throughout the decades when they could not hunt whales is one of this book's most intriguing and moving aspects. Several chapters also address the Makah Nation's ongoing legal struggle to defend their treaty right to whale. 

A beautiful, clear, thorough history. Highly recommended.

By Paula Becker, June 6, 2014

Submitted: 6/06/2014

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