Makah Indian Tribe of the Makah Indian Reservation

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The Makah Indian Tribe of the Makah Indian Reservation are a federally recognized tribe of Makah Indians. Linguistically and ethnographically, they 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.

Official Tribal Name: Makah Indian Tribe of the Makah Indian Reservation

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Recognition Status: Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning

Common Name: Makah is the Salish name for this tribe, not their own name for themselves.

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State(s) Today: Washington

Traditional Territory: According to archaeological findings, the Makah people have inhabited the Neah Bay area for more than 3,800 years.

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Treaties: The Treaty of Neah Bay between the Makah tribe and the U. S. federal government in 1855 relinquished much of their original land. As per the treaty, the tribe was given the area of Makah Reservation. However, the agreement upholds their right to hunt whales and seals in the region.

Oral history of the tribe reveals that their whaling rights have been suspended and restored many times. It was as late as in the 1920s that whaling was called off because of the diminishing stock of humpback and gray whales.

When the gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species List, the Makah’s wished to go by the treaty and start hunting again. With support from the American government and International Whaling Commission, the tribe hunted a gray whale in May, 1999.

The American government granted only the Makah Tribe the right to hunt whales. No other tribe is allowed to do so. This can be regarded as an example of the tribe’s right to control and manage its own affairs.

Killing of a whale calls for celebrations with the meat and oil being distributed among community members. The weapons used for hunting have undergone many changes, and the 1999 kill was made using a big game rifle.

Reservation: The Makahs live on a reservation known as the Makah Indian Reservation that lies on the northwestern point of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, including the Tatoosh Island. They dwell in and around the town of Neah Bay, Washington. It is a small fishing village along the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it runs into the Pacific Ocean, near Vancouver Island.

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Registered Population Today: According to the tribal census data of 1999, there are 1,214 enrolled members, with approximately 1,079 members living on the reservation.   

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Government:

Charter: Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934
Name of Governing Body:  Tribal Council
Number of Council members:  A five-member tribal council was formed which elects a tribal chairperson each year.
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Number of Executive Officers: Tribal Chairperson

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Language Classification: The Makah language  belongs to the Wakashan family of languages. It has become extinct as a first language, with the death of the last fully fluent Makah speaker in 2002. However, the language is still spoken as a second language. The tribe is trying earnestly to revive the language and it has set up preschool classes where children are taught the language.

Language Dialects: Makah

Number of fluent Speakers: No first language speakers. Last fluent speaker died in 2002. However, there are semi-fluent second language speakers and the language is being taught to children.

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Bands, Gens, and Clans

Related Tribes: Nootka and Kwakiutl

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Modern Day Events & Tourism: Makah days in late August. The festival holds a grand parade as well as street fairs, traditional games, canoe races, feasting, song and dance, fireworks, and potlatches.

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Art & Crafts: Baskets made of cedar roots were used for storing foods and other things, and whole tree logs were carved out to build canoes for hunting sea mammals. They also made use of rocks, grains, beads and other materials in their crafts and accessories.

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Clothing: Primitive Makah men used to wear breechcloths, whereas women wore short skirts made out of cedar bark and grass. During rainy seasons, they used to wear tule rush capes while in winter they wore fur cloaks and tunics. Water-resistant clothes were made out of cedar barks.

Later they started wearing blanket robes following European influence. Today, they wear modern and contemporary clothing like jeans.

Housing: The ancient Makah people lived in villages occupying large longhouses made from the western red cedar tree. The walls were made of wooden planks that could be bent or removed to make room for ventilation or light.

Subsistance: Historically, a large portion of their diet was derived from the ocean, consisting of fish, whale, seal, and various shellfishes. They also hunted deer, bear, and elk in the surrounding forests. Women gathered berries, nuts, and many types of edible plants and roots. However, modern Makah people have adopted a regular western diet.

Economy Today: The unemployment rate among the population on the reservation is around 51%.

Religion & Spiritual Beliefs: The Makah religion believes that spirits are present in all things in nature. They respect nature and the spirits as their religion taught them to do so. They revere nature for food, clothing, and shelter. Today, some Makah people still practice their traditional religion while others follow Christianity.

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Tribe History:

A part of a Makah village near Lake Ozette was submerged by a mudslide in the early 17th century, and it was in the 1970s that the collapsed houses were excavated by the Makah Tribe and archaeologists from Washington State University.

More than 55,000 artifacts were retrieved, including toys, bows, and arrows. Many precious wooden artifacts were unearthed, exposed by tidal erosion after a storm in 1970.

The excavation at the Ozette Villiage followed shortly and continued for eleven years. The artifacts are on display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center that opened in 1979.

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