At the western edge of the Salish Sea sits Cape Flattery, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean. Nearby is Neah Bay, the traditional home of the Makah Indian tribe, who call themselves the People of the Cape. This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty goes to Neah Bay to speak with tribal council member Mikah McCarty.
Liam Moriarty: How long have the Makah lived in this place; do know?
Micah McCarty: We’re taught that we’ve been here since the beginning of time, and the beginning of time for us means that’s when we were placed on earth from somewhere out in the stars. Archeological evidence has us here more than 4,000 years.
Liam: One of the things that strikes me sitting here on this beach, just around the corner from Cape Flattery, which is like the northwest tip of the continental U.S., is that it’s very open here. The Salish Sea is an inland sea. Everywhere else, you’re looking at land as you look across the water but here, we’re looking out — mostly it’s wide open.Do you suppose that having been in this place for this long, that that openness and that expanse of the ocean has helped carve who the Makah are as a people?
Micah: It’s definitely a defining factor. Early Indian agents would write about us and say better canoe people on the ocean than Makah probably never existed.
Because we’re at the confluence of the western Juan de Fuca and our economy and our traditional relationship with the ocean meant that we lived out there. And so for generations and even today still we have multiple generations of Makah still living out on the ocean, harvesting its bounties.
Liam: Speaking of that, the sockeye season’s been pretty good this year, hasn’t it?
Micah: It’s been really excellent and tasty too. We’re all enjoying sockeye. It’s one of our favorite fishes that swim through this area.
Liam: The state’s oil spill prevention rescue tug is stationed right here in Neah Bay. The tribe has also been involved in other oil spill prevention efforts. Can you talk about that?
Micah: For us as a modern tribal government, we are resource trustees. It’s my responsibility to make sure that my people have a sustainable access to traditional resources and to protect those is an utmost priority for us.
One of the things as a place-based people, you know; that we also feel we bring a value to the table in oil spill response; is that oil spill trajectory is an incredibly important thing to be able to understand —
Liam: You mean once the oil hits the water, where it’s likely to go because of winds and tide and that sort of thing?
Micah: Yeah; and our fishermen are probably second to none in understanding those dynamics in real time.
Liam: The Makah are situated out here on the western edge of the Salish Sea but the tribe is actually not a part of the Salish linguistic group like the other tribes.
Micah: Yeah; the tribes on the outer coast of Vancouver Island are the ones who we’re closely related to – Nuu-chah-nulth.
Liam: What does that mean?
Micah: Nuu-chah-nulth is a word that all the different tribes with the same linguistic background and similar histories — associated themselves by our proximity to mountains along the ocean.
Liam: One of the things sets the Makah off from other tribes, is your tradition of the whale hunt which is something you do share with the other Canadian tribes but in the U.S., at least the continental U.S., the Makah are the only ones with a right to the whale hunt written into that treaty of 1855.
What place does that have in your sense of yourselves as a people?
Micah: My understanding of that would be every Makah can say we came from a house of a whaler, and the whalers — they were the apex of a hunter gathering society.
Liam: That had to be incredibly dangerous, done out of canoes and with hand made weapons.
Micah: Well, the danger factor was always there but the spiritual and the mental preparedness part was such a discipline that some whalers lived like priests, in a manner that the society of hunted whales would accept this new spirit because it had been properly taken care of. So when we usher the spirit of a whale into the next world, we do that in a way that’s accepted by all those that came before. That’s something I think has been sort of a guiding principle, and setting a pretty high standard of what traditional values are for Makah people.
Y’know, “Forgive me, brother; I must take you” — all the way from salmon to whale.Liam: Being of a people with ancient roots in this place, and going into the 21st century, what do you bring forward from the past that will carry you successfully into the future?
Micah: Well, for one, I don’t think many of us suffer from an identity crisis. And I think what we have is a strong sense of place and a strong sense of stewardship.
Liam: It’s quite remarkable out here, Micah, and thanks for spending time with me, and thanks for inviting me out to see your place.
Micah: No problem; I enjoyed it. Happy trails.
- The Makah tribe’s homepage
- The Makah Tribe: People of the Sea and the Forest
An essay by anthropologist Ann M. Renker