Look to the horizon off Washington State's Olympic Peninsula where the fog rolls in from the Pacific, and it's hard not to imagine the past of the great Northwest. CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports.
Improbable as it may seem, one small Indian tribe is trying to re-capture it - paddling back to the future in a dug-out canoe. They are the Makahs. And, as Eric Johnson will tell you, the Makahs are whale hunters.
"I've always thought about what it would be like to hunt the whale," Johnson says. "My grandfather used to talk about the hunting all the time. Whaling is part of who a Makah is."
Eric Johnson is captain of the whaling crew which one day - very soon perhaps - will set out in a canoe to harpoon a migrating gray whale.
"We're not savages because, you know, we hunt the whale, because we, you know, like to eat some whale meat, get back to our culture," Johnson says. "And it ain't just about eating and hunting this thing. It's about getting the community together."
For 2,000 years, the Makah were a whaling community, a tradition celebrated every summer in the town of Neah Bay.
"We are here to re-establish the relationship that we have way back when my ancestors were there," one Makah explains.
Now that the gray whale is off the endangered species list, the Makah have approval from the International Whaling Commission to resume hunting for the first time in 70 years.
"This is giving everyone a focal point, something to come together on...something to be proud of, not just to be considered another teepee, horse-riding, you know, drunken savage, is how...typical Native Americans are portrayed, you know?" Johnson says.
The Makah are typical in some ways. The jobless rate in Neah Bay is 50 percent. And while the modern world has arrived there - espresso bars to satellite TV dishes - old ways have not been entirely abandoned.
A Makah warrior with a harpoon stands outside one house, and there's a whale carving atop the high school. In wood shop, students can still make a paddle or canoe.
The Makahs' desire to revive their whaling tradition has, inevitably, triggered a culture clash. The Makah, who regard whaling as a cultural and spiritual necessity, face an outside world where some people see whales as part of a warm and fuzzy extended family in the water world.
Several animal rights and environmental groups are opposed, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has attacked and sunk 10 whaling boats around the world over the last 20 years. This time, the weapon will be underwater speakers blasting the menacing sounds of killer whales, orcas.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson says the group will use a tiny submarine painted to look like a killer whale.
"We'll be using the sub to pretento be an orca in the area," Watson explains. "So what we're hoping to do is to scare the gray whales out of the area, because they'll see something that looks like an orca, and it sounds like the orca. This is sort of a 'Robo Orca,' and I think it'll be an effective deterrent."
Watson says if the Makah hunt gray whales, there's nothing to stop others from claiming cultural rights to do the same.
"I think this is a pretty important issue because...what's really at stake here is the possibility of overturning the global moratorium on commercial whaling and allowing the Japanese, Norwegians, and Icelanders to escalate their kill by thousands, if they can claim cultural necessity," Watson says.
The Makah have been training for well over a year for the hunt. They can take up to five whales but likely will take just one. But the hunt will be anything but traditional. A harpoon will be used. But so will a 50 caliber anti-tank rifle.
"We'll harpoon the whale, and the same time we'd like to effect this shot about a foot and a half back of the blow hole here," Tribal Whaling Commission Chairman Keith Johnson explains, pointing to the skeleton of a whale.
Johnson explains why the target is so specific: The 50-caliber will penetrate the blubber and the meat and hit the central nervous system - the brain - which should bring instantaneous death to the whale.
When he is not training the crew, whaling captain Eric Johnson is helping to teach the next generation of Makah at the Head Start school. He points out that the gray whale is off the endangered species list.
"You know, the whales outnumber the Makahs right now more than 1,000 to 1. It's 20,000, and its population is building...even with the hunting," he says.
Some disagree with this view.
"We're fighting for the preservation of creatures that have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve," Sea Shepherd member Lisa Disefano says. "They're an intricate part of this environment, an intricate part of this world, and everything that we see wonder and beauty in."
She argues the Makah can have their culture and religion without killing and eating the whales, too.
"Why not go through everything that you have to go through in terms of creating the hunt, creating the feeling, creating the community togetherness?" asks Disefano. "But don't kill the whale. Symbolically kill the whale. I don't see anything wrong with that. The Makah would be heroes."
Heroes to the outside world, perhaps. But in Neah Bay, where the Makah honor two flags - the American and their own - they would not be true to themselves:
"A lot of this probably wouldn't be happening if the history books, you know, taught the whole story," says Eric Johnson. "It's all about Lewis and Clark and you know, How the West Was Won. Nobody talks about what we've lost, you know?"
For Keith Johnson, the whale hunt and the rituals are like a religion to the Makahs.
"It's so important to who we are as a people...And we know this is our land, and this our way of life that has sustained us. And it's bringing this all back to us to maybe meet the challenges of the 21st century."
The Makah face more immediate challenges. This past week, the Sea Shepherd's main ship left Seattle to take up position off Neah Bay, and despite a 500-yard security zone being enforced by the Coast Guard, there are reports animal rights activists in kayaks may try to interfere with the hunt.
Meanwhile, the Makah hunters wait. They have also looked to the horizon where the fog rolls in, and not just imagined the past. They've seen it - and can't wait to get there.
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Copyright 1998 CBS. All rights reserved.
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