Makah Indians

The Makah are a Southern Wakashan people that are closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulth and Ditidaht peoples of the West Coast of Vancouver Island, who live across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in British Columbia, Canada.

Their territory is around the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington.

The Makah Indian Reservation on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula includes Tatoosh Island. They live in and around the town of Neah Bay, Washington, a small fishing village along the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

The Makah people refer to themselves as Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx , which, depending on the source, translates to “the people who live by the rocks and seagulls,” “the people who live on the cape by the seagulls,” or “people of the point,” as well as several other similar phrases.

In 1936, the Makah Tribe signed the Makah Constitution, accepting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and establishing an elected tribal government.

The constitution provided for a five-member Tribal Council. Each year the council elects a Tribal Chairperson. The Council develops and passes laws for the Makah Reservation.

Tribal census data from 1999 show that the Makah Tribe has 1,214 enrolled members; some 1,079 live on the reservation. The unemployment rate on the reservation is approximately 51%.

The Makah tribe hosts its annual major public gathering, Makah Days, in late August. It features a grand parade and street fair as well as canoe races, traditional games, singing, dancing, feasting, and fireworks.

Many Makah tribal members derive most of their income from fishing. Makah fish for salmon, halibut, Pacific whiting, and other marine fish. They are one of the few Pacific Coast Tribes who traditionally hunted whales, and still have whale hunts today, as is allowed by their treaty agreements.

Archaeological records and oral history indicate a significant number of humpback whales were historically hunted, as well.

Makah oral history relates that their tradition of aboriginal whaling has been suspended and re-established several times.

Most recently, the practice was suspended voluntarily in the 1920s because the commercial whaling industry had depleted the stocks of humpback and gray whales and all whale hunting was called off.

After the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List, the Makah re-asserted their whaling rights. With the support and guidance of the United States government and the International Whaling Commission, the Makah successfully hunted a gray whale on May 17, 1999. According to federal law, the Makah are entitled to hunt and kill up to four baleen whales, typically a gray whale, each year.

In 2007, after waiting three years to receive approval for the yearly whale hunt guaranteed by treaty rights, 5 Makah men took matters in their own hands and killed a whale as an act of civil disobedience to draw attention to the issue.  

They used a .460 caliber rifle, similar to that used in hunting elephants, despite court-imposed regulations governing the Makah hunt. The whale died within 12 hours, sinking while heading out to sea after being confiscated and cut loose by the United States Coast Guard.

The Makah language, also known as qʷi·qʷi·diččaq (qwiqwidicciat) is the only Wakashan language in the United States.

Other tribes speaking Wakashan are located in British Columbia, Canada, immediately across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and northwards as far as that province’s Central Coast region.

The Makah language has been extinct as a first language since 2002, when its last fluent native speaker died. However, it survives as a second language.

The Makah tribe is working to revive the language, and has established preschool classes to teach its children.

Makah History and Culture

Archaeological research suggests that the Makah people have inhabited the area now known as Neah Bay for more than 3,800 years.

The ancient Makah lived in villages, inhabiting large longhouses made from western red cedar. These longhouses had cedar-plank walls. The planks could be tilted or removed to provide ventilation or light.

The cedar tree was of great value to the Makah, who also used its bark to make water-resistant clothing and hats. Cedar roots were used in basket making.

Whole trees were carved out to make canoes to hunt seals, gray whales and humpback whales.

The Makah acquired much of their food from the ocean. Their diet consisted of whale, seal, fish, and a wide variety of shellfish. They would also hunt deer, elk, and bear from the surrounding forests.

Women also gathered a wide variety of nuts, berries and edible plants and roots for their foods.

Much of what is known about the way of life of the ancient Makah is derived from their oral tradition.

Abundant archeological evidence excavated at the Ozette village site (see below) has provided great insight into the lives of the Makah.

In the early 17th century, a mudslide engulfed part of a Makah village near Lake Ozette. The mudslide preserved several houses and their contents in a collapsed state until the 1970s, when they were excavated by Makahs and archaeologists from Washington State University.

Over 55,000 artifacts were recovered, representing many activities of the Makah, from whale and seal hunting to salmon and halibut fishing. Artifacts included toys, games, and bows and arrows.

The oral history of the Makah mentions a “great slide” which engulfed a portion of Ozette long ago.

Archaeological test pits were excavated at the Ozette site in 1966 and 1967 by Richard Daugherty. However, it was not until 1970 that it became apparent what was buried there.

After a storm in February 1970, tidal erosion exposed hundreds of well-preserved wooden artifacts. The excavation of the Ozette site began shortly after.

University students worked with the Makah under the direction of archaeologists using pressurized water to remove mud from six buried long houses. The excavation went on for 11 years.

It produced more than 55,000 artifacts, many of which are on display in the Makah Cultural and Research Center. Opened in 1979, the museum displays replicas of cedar long houses as well as whaling, fishing, and sealing canoes.

In 1834, a dismasted, rudderless ship from Japan ran aground near Cape Flattery.

The Makah took the three survivors of the broken ship and cared for them, holding them as slaves for several months before taking them to Fort Vancouver. From there, the United States transported them by ship to London and eventually China, but they never reached Japan again.

On January 31, 1855, representatives of the Makah tribe signed the Treaty of Neah Bay with the U.S. federal government, ceding much of their traditional lands.

The treaty required the Makah lands to be restricted to the Makah Reservation and preserved the Makah people’s rights to hunt whales and seals in the region.

The Makah language was not used during the negotiation of the treaty, and the government used the Salish name for the tribe.

Makah is an incorrect pronunciation of a Salish term meaning “generous with food.”


Article Index:

Makah whale hunting

The Makah Indian Nation’s proposal to hunt gray whales has fewer negative impacts than five of six alternatives considered in a draft federal study released May 9. The National Marine Fisheries Service conducted the study of the possible impacts of Makah resuming gray whale hunts, in response to the nation’s request for a waiver of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is accepting public comment on the study until July 8. 

NMFS developed alternatives to consider based on Makah’s proposal and on comments submitted at public hearings in 2005. One of the alternatives is to take no action on Makah’s request – essentially, to deny it. But “divorcing” the Makahs from whaling would erode cultural identity and increase tensions “between [the] Makah Tribe and others, including [the]
federal government,” the study states.

In allowing the Makahs to hunt in the manner they propose, “Makah whale-hunting rituals, spiritual training, songs, dances and ceremonial activities could increase over current conditions, and regularly recur, reinforcing Makah cultural identity,” the study states.

Whale hunting is a Makah tradtion carried on for hundreds of years

“The opportunity to regularly harvest, process, share and consume whale products could increase tribal members’ sense of community. The whale-hunting ceremonies could provide an additional social framework, which could contribute to community social and spiritual stability.”

The Makahs would hunt up to four whales a year for five years.

The study’s release comes almost nine years after the Makahs’ last whale hunt and three years after their request for a waiver.

Article 4 of the Treaty of Neah Bay, signed in 1855, allows the Makahs “[t]he right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

The Makah voluntarily stopped hunting gray whales in 1926

Makah voluntarily stopped hunting gray whales in 1926 because whale populations had been depleted due to non-Native commercial whaling; the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on all whaling in

The gray whale was removed from the U.S. endangered species list May 5, 1995, and the Makahs hunted their first whale in more than 70 years May 17, 1999. But subsequent court decisions, in response to lawsuits filed by animal rights groups, required an environmental impact assessment before hunts could resume.

Illegal gray whale hunt last September

Five Makah men who hunted a whale Sept. 8, 2007, saying they were frustrated by delays in obtaining a permit to exercise their treaty rights and practice a hunt that is central to Makah culture. Four months earlier, the IWC renewed
Makah’s quota for the harvest of up to 20 gray whales over five years for subsistence purposes.

Frankie Gonzales, Wayne Johnson, Andrew Noel, Theron Parker and William Secor Sr. were charged in U.S. District Court with violating the MMPA and conspiring to violate the act. Each charge is punishable by a one-year jail
sentence and $100,000 fine.

On April 7, Gonzales, Parker and Secor agreed to plead guilty to harpooning and shooting a gray whale without the federal waiver. In exchange, the U.S. attorney dropped the conspiracy charge and will recommend probation and
community service. Johnson and Noel, however, pleaded no contest so they could appeal.

All five are scheduled to be sentenced June 20. They still face prosecution in Makah Tribal Court for hunting without a tribal permit, a violation of Makah’s marine mammal management plan. The maximum penalty is a year in tribal jail and a $5,000 fine.

In an earlier interview, Makah Chairman Micah McCarty called the illegal hunt “a very visible attempt to raise a treaty rights issue through civil disobedience.” He said a survey showed “at least a high 60 percent or low 70 percent” of Makah people want to have whale reintroduced into their diet. Of those that aren’t interested in eating whale meat, most believe in Makah’s treaty right to hunt.

McCarty feared the unauthorized hunt would not only jeopardize Makah’s request for a waiver, but would jeopardize treaty rights.

“We were really concerned a trial would set a precedent for usurping the treaty,” McCarty said. “I don’t think this will affect the treaty. It could have been worse.”

Instead of a judge and jury making a decision that the MMPA trumped the treaty – the Constitution calls treaties the “supreme Law of the Land” – three defendants pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count and two others will proceed to the appeals process without having admitted guilt.

Jack Fiander, a Yakama attorney for the defendants, called the result “very lenient.”

The court did, however, strike down the defense’s attempt to defend the right to hunt whales – with all of its spiritual ceremonies, preparation and rituals – under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. And Emily Langlie, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle, said, “This case was not about a tribe’s right to hunt. This case was about an illegal hunt under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

McCarty called the court’s decision regarding the AIRFA “problematic.”

The case had no bearing on the draft environmental impact study. “Legal proceedings against the individuals are a separate matter for the federal and tribal criminal justice systems,” the study states.

The study looks at the likely impacts of whale hunts on the whale population, the Makahs, the local marine ecosystem, public safety, public sentiment regarding whales, and tourism/whale-watching.

According to the study:

* Makah proposes to hunt gray whales using a hand-thrown, toggle-point harpoon to strike the whale and a .50-caliber rifle to kill the whale; time of death is about eight minutes, but that time is expected to improve as hunters gain additional experience.

* The nation’s regulations would prohibit the striking of a whale calf or a whale accompanied by a calf, and would prohibit the hunting of a gray whale between June 1 and Nov. 30 to prevent the hunting of whales that may be
part of a seasonal resident gray whale herd.

 * Makah’s regulations would provide for detailed photographic monitoring of all landed whales, for comparison with photos in the National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s photo-identification catalog of the seasonal resident herds.

* Whale “products” would be restricted to local consumption and ceremonies.

The plan can be read online at

Public hearings on the study are scheduled for May 28, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m., in the Vern Burton Memorial Community Center, 308 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles; June 2, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m., Lake Union Park Armory-Great Hall, 860 Terry Ave.
North, Seattle; and June 5, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., in the NOAA Auditorium, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Md.


This article first appeared at Indian Country Today. Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at

Update on 5 charged in unauthorized Makah whale hunt

AUTHOR: Claudia Rowe, Seattle PI Reporter

The five members of the Makah tribe who took it upon themselves to stage an illegal, unsanctioned whale hunt in the Strait of Juan de Fuca last September have now been formally charged on a number of offenses.