Contesting LeviathanActivists, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict

Contesting LeviathanActivists, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict

Les Beldo

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780226657370

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


In 1999, a whaling crew from the Makah Indian Nation hunted and killed a gray whale off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The hunt marked the return of a centuries-old tradition and, predictably, set off a fierce political and environmental debate. This book examines the Makah whaling conflict, its implications for Makah identity and sovereignty, the spiritual discourse of whalers, and the motives and strategies of antiwhaling activists. The two sides’ competing interpretations of whales and whaling culminate in attempts by both to translate their agendas into the authorized, bureaucratic language of federal fisheries management. One of the main arguments of this book is that we cannot understand the Makah whaling conflict—and, especially, these efforts at translation—without attending to its moral dimension, or the differing ideas about how humans ought to treat whales. Despite shifting public sentiments toward whales and dolphins in the US over the last fifty years, the US federal government continues to manage whales as if they were large fish. The conception of gray whales as countable, harvestable “stocks” enables Makah officials to claim affinities with the authorized discourse of the state. In order to have a seat at the table, anti-whaling activists must do the same, thus tacitly affirming that it is morally acceptable to kill whales. These findings call into question anthropological expectations regarding who benefits from the exercise of state power in environmental conflicts, especially where indigenous groups are involved.