• Alyssa Barton

A Few Things We Should Learn From the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah

Updated: May 18, 2019



A photo of the site of the Ozette Village on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington from the National Register of Historic Places.

I really encourage those interested in learning more about indigenous cultures or the tribes of the Pacific Northwest to give Charlotte Cote's Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors a read. It is incredibly well researched and written. I was moved by the author's eloquent descriptions of how and why certain cultural components are so vital to the survival of indigenous communities; of the tension that can arise between environmentalists (and animal rights activists) and indigenous peoples attempting to exercise their rights to engage in cultural practices; the consequences of different social structures on our well-being; and how the revival of traditional practices can revitalize indigenous communities. I discuss a few examples of these concepts below.

The Potlach

From what I understand, the potlach is a practice of hosting a large communal dinner where food and other offerings are given away to guests. Anglo-Euro descent Americans the word “potluck” today to describe a gathering where everybody brings a dish to share, but the potlach is so much more.

Per Cote, historically, the potlach was often utilized by chiefs or high-ranking families to display wealth and establish prestige. These ceremonies also helped cement communities together, with higher ranking community members supporting those in need, thus all were taken care of. Those in power spread their wealth around and in so doing, gained the trust and respect of the community while establishing themselves as worthy of their powerful positions.

The potlach is a tradition. Not only do they involve a feast, but also ceremonies and customs specific to each tribe, including dancing and song telling stories of tribal spirits, ancestors, and historical events. The potlach is therefore also a cultural practice that shares, cements, and further defines tribal identity.

Names were also passed on at potlaches, and could include coming-of-age ceremonies. Names are considered property by the peoples Cote discusses. “Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah people received numerous names throughout their lifetimes that marked important periods or specific occasions. Names are obtained by inheritance and are still owned by the families. In precontact times, individuals could also obtain new names through dreams, visions, and supernatural encounters. These new names also follow the strict lines of descent and are only transferred to individuals connected through kinship… A name does not officially belong to a person until it has been announced and conferred at a public potlatch ceremony… The ownership of the name is traced back to its origin and to those who had carried it before, and honor is added to it each time it is handed down. It is up to the individual receiving the name to live up to the standards it has set and to carry it with great respect.” P. 101. Thus, names are tied to the potlach ceremony in that the ceremony serves as the vehicle to transfer and formally adopt names.

Canada and the United States intentionally campaigned to eradicate tribal culture and assimilate indigenous people forcibly into white-Anglo European-American culture in the 1800’s. Children were removed from parents and forced to attend schools where there were forbidden to speak their languages and required to learn English. They were given anglicized names (the Duwamish Princess Angeline and Chief Seattle of Seattle, Washington, aren’t their given Lushootseed names, folks). By removing children from their families and cutting off access to language, these children lost the keys to understanding their culture, their history (which was passed down orally), and their identities.

Cote documents how indigenous subsistence practices were crowded out or outlawed, and former fisherman and whalers in the Pacific Northwest took jobs as sealers and in other modern industries. The United States government took great effort to transition indigenous cultures to become agrarian farmers. Further, “Canada legally outlawed the potlatch in 1884, and any indigenous nation caught conducting any kind of ceremony was subject to prosecution,” including imprisonment. “Ceremonial masked dances and public giving of gifts became offenses punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.” [internal citations omitted.] P. 53. America also outlawed the potlach.

As a result of the potlach ban in Canada, “many chiefs sent petitions to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, in protest. In their letters, they defended their ceremonies and elucidated how essential the potlach was to their culture and their societies. The chiefs explained that everyone in their communities benefitted from the potlach through the giving away of material goods and food, and when people could no find work or were too told to look after themselves, the potlatch would ensure that they were taken care of. They asserted that there was nothing “criminal” in their potlatches; in fact, the events were entertaining and were their “chief sources of pleasure and amusement.” [internal citations omitted.] Moreover, as one chief, Maquinna at the Nuu-chah-nulth village of Mowachaht, explained to an Indian agent: ‘what was most important to him was how the potlatch brought him closer to his family members who had died, and when performing his sacred ceremonies, it was “as if his dead son came back to him,’” adding spiritual weight to the practice. P. 54.

Names, Stories, and Language

In addition to the thoughtful exploration of the importance of the potlach, I found the author’s description of place and place-names fascinating. She discusses the vital importance of indigenous peoples’ sense of place, as well as the role of place-names, and the importance of language and story-telling as central features of cultural identity.

Names are tied to place, and places are linked to history and culture by names. “Place-names can serve many purposes. Basso says that both places themselves and place-names ground people in their environment and provide them with ‘symbolic reference points for the moral imagination and its practical bearing on the actualities of their lives.’ Thus, he posits, “the landscape in which the peoples dwell can be said to dwell in them.” Place-names are like pictures. They can also stimulate an enormous range of mental and emotional associations with time, space, history, events, people, and social activities. They have the capacity and power to evoke and consolidate the personal and cultural meanings attached to or instilled in a particular landscape. From these place-names we develop a sense of self. Basso says that this ‘sense of place roots individuals in the social and cultural soils from which they have sprung together, holding them in the grip of a shared identity.’ P. 77.

“A sense of place, embedded within land- and seascapes, serves as a peg on which people hang memories. These social memories and meanings become fixed within these land and marine spaces. Thus, a people’s sense of self and place become intertwined. These land- and seascapes have spiritual significance… the spirits of our ancestors live on in the names and spaces allowing us to maintain an important connection to them, as expressed by Stó:lō cultural historian Albert (Sonny) McHalsie: ‘When I visit these places I feel an important connection to my ancestors. I sense their presence and I pray to them, asking them for strength, guidance, and protection in whatever I may be doing there.’“ [internal citations omitted.] P. 77.

Cote gives beautiful descriptions of listening to her grandfather tell stories as a child. Throughout, she emphasizes that story-telling is critical for indigenous cultures who primarily passed on their legacy and history orally. “Dakota scholar Cavender Wilson (1999) writes [on the importance of tribal story-telling to the Dakota peoples], ‘…These stories are not told by people who have been “conquered,” but by people who have a great desire to survive as a nation, as Dakota people. Consequently, these are not merely interesting stories or even the simple dissemination of historical facts. They are, more important, transmissions of culture upon which our survival as a people depends. When our stories die, so will we.” [internal citations omitted.] P. 85.

In many ways, the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah culture, language and history has been preserved through efforts by both Anglo and Indigenous anthropologists and scholars who took painstaking efforts to write down the language and record interviews with tribal members about history, customs, and cultural mythology. To preserve, it is critical that we listen, look, learn, and record.

As with the potlach, language, and the passing on of history through oral story-telling, whaling and whales are central to the cultural identity and history of the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah.

Whale Hunting

Cote spends a significant amount of time explaining the history and mythology of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples and the deeply embedded role played by whales – in particular, gray whales. They used every product from the whale and gray whale meat comprised as much as 80% or more of the diet. She argues that a return to consumption of whale meat would benefit tribal peoples’ health but also reconnect them to their culture and re-instill a sense of identity and cultural pride.


Cote argues that the tribal treaties of the 1800’s, wherein the indigenous tribes reserved their rights to hunt and fish, also reserved the right to whale – or so they intended.

“When negotiating treaties with Isaac Stevens in the 1850’s, the western Washington tribes were unyielding in making sure that their salmon resource would be guaranteed to them. All the treaties signed by these tribes contained similar language regarding fishing rights: ‘The right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secure to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.’” P. 116. Cote argues that this language was intended to preserve the right to whale we well.

“However, as soon as Washington became a state in 1889, its officials ignored the Stevens treaties and began enacting legislation to regulate rivers and waterways in the name of conservation, regardless of whether these areas were treaty-protected fishing grounds. Native people attempted to harvest the fish, but faced arrests and fines for fishing without state licenses or for fishing out of season. Washington State’s obstruction of tribal fishing rights was challenged in the courts, and the legal decisions, in most cases, upheld the treaty rights. In 1905 the court ruled in U.S. v. Winans that tribal members had the right to cross privately owned lands to access their usual and accustomed fishing grounds outside of the reservation boundaries…The court ruled that ‘the treaty was not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them.’” [internal citations omitted.] P. 116.

Despite the intended reservation of the right to whale, from the late 1800’s up through the late 1900’s, the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah opted to abide by U.S. and international laws restricting the hunting of whales. These restrictions were set in place as whale population numbers dwindled and restrictions became necessary to conserve and restore depleted stocks. It wasn’t until the past several decades in the 1990’s, when the grey whale populations had increased and the grey whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994, that the Makah sought to re-establish their right to whale and petitioned for a permit to hunt and consume a whale.

The grey whale population, at the time, was so great that scientists concluded that there might be more whales than the environment could sustain – leading to starvation and increased deaths. Scientists concluded that 400 could be killed per year to maintain a healthy and sustainable whale population. Yet it took years of petitioning, arguing, and court battles for the Makah to win the right to hunt and kill a whale – which they did amongst much controversy - in 1999.

The Whaling Debate

The Makah petitioned for the right to hunt and consume grey whales, consistent with their long tribal history, culture and identity, after the species was removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Despite widespread support for the decision to revive traditional whaling practices, Cote thoughtfully documents how “anti-whaling protestors effectively initiated a discourse that regenerated ethnocentric notions of Native people and Native culture, which was, for the most part, racist. The whaling opponents utilized images of the ‘Indian as noble,’ ‘Indian as savage,’ and ‘Indian as environmentalist’ to create a rhetoric founded on misconceptions, stereotypes, and myths. The anti-whaling activists comprised a loose coalition of marine conservationists, animal rights activists, people from the whale-watching tourism industry, and people opposed to the Indian treaties. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (headed by its president, Paul Watson) was the most vocal of the anti-whaling groups, and it spearheaded the campaign to stop the Makah hunt. Other well-known environmental groups stayed out of the debates.” [internal citations omitted.] P. 150.

Letters from the Anglo-public submitted to newspapers demonstrated moral outrage at the killing of a whale, a lack of understanding that the process and techniques the Makah planned to use were to ensure the most humane and painless death of the whale while posing the least risk to human life, and a lack of understanding of the significance of whaling to the Makah. Cote also shows how the general public didn’t understand how the Makah could lay claim to a return to traditional whale hunting practices while using high powered rifles, motorized boats, and high-tech tracking devices to chase and kill a whale.

“These ideas of Native culture are based on problematic images constructed by non-Natives at their first encounters with indigenous peoples, which have persisted throughout U.S. and Canadian history. When [white people] came to this land, they encountered diverse and distinct indigenous cultures with separate language, traditions, governments, and laws. But the realities of indigenous peoples were ignored and they were flattened into one general category, ‘Indian,’ which contained two contradictory images: the ‘noble Indian’ and the ‘savage Indian.’… “The ‘real Indian’ became identified as the Indian encountered at the time of contact, locking indigenous cultures in the past, unable to progress into modernity. Berkhofer writes, ‘…If the Indian changed through the adoption of civilization as defined by Whites, then he was no longer truly Indian according to the image, because the Indian was judged by what Whites were not. Change toward what Whites were made him ipso facto less Indian.’” [internal citations omitted.] P. 152.

“Therefore, as [David Frances, in his book The Imaginary Indian] explains, the ‘imaginary Indian could never become modern.’ Consequently, the inability by non-Indians to accept change, adaptation, or modernization of Native cultures ultimately denies Native people their history. Cultures are dynamic and fluid; they change and transform according to internal and external forces…however, non-Native society has consistently attempted to lock Native society and culture into a specific time.” [internal citations omitted.] P. 153.

Despite the backlash and controversy, the Makah successfully hunted a whale in 1999. Since that time, neither the Makah nor the Nuu-chah-nulth has been legally granted the ability to hunt a whale consistent with their tribal history and culture, though efforts continue to this day.

The author’s thoughtful exploration of the different perceptions and imagery constructed by white Anglo-American culture about native Americans, and the purposes by and for which these stereotypes were constructed and are maintained today, requires the reader to consider the role and implications of these stereotypes today in our own realities. It might better serve us to start breaking down these stereotypes and replacing them with more accurate histories.

The Revival of Traditional Practices Can Revitalize Indigenous Communities.

Cote tells stories and Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah myths throughout, including tales of the Thunderbird, Wolf, and other important characters from the Pacific Northwest past.

A 2,000 year old Makah village was unearthed at Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington and efforts to excavate the site began in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thousands of artifacts have been recovered. “For the Makah, the Ozette discovery not only strengthened their connection to their whaling tradition but also invigorated their community with renewed interest in” their culture including traditional practices, language, and arts. P. 128.

Further, interviews with members of the Makah crew that hunted the 1999 grey whale show that members experienced overwhelming happiness, gravity of taking a large animal’s life, but above all conviction that crew-members performed the appropriate ceremonies and took the necessary steps – doing everything right – so that “when they asked the whale’s spirit to come home with them, it did.” [internal citations omitted.] P. 139.

“The tribal chair, Hubert Markishtum, stated that it was not that the Makah believed that a whale hunt would ‘solve’… issues of youth alcoholism and drug abuse [that the community suffers from], but that they thought it would teach the young about discipline, cooperation and spirituality. [Cote] asked both Micah and Theron, as well as other tribal members I met while in Neah Bay, if the hunt had had a positive impact on the Makah community, and they all strongly agreed that it had… the youth began to take such a strong interest in their culture. Young children ‘began speaking their language a lot more, more and more each day…I attribute that to our whaling. It’s built pride in them.’… a year later, Theron said he could still see the community changing as a result of the hunt; the interest in Makah culture and traditions continued. Theron told me that the grade-school children began putting on song and dance performances. They danced and gave narrations about what the dances were and where they came from.” [internal citations omitted.] P. 141.

Cote makes a strong argument that traditional customs and practices can revitalize indigenous communities, and that those communities have a right to learn, understand, and engage in those customs and practices.


I feel strongly that the lessons of this book can help transform our mainstream culture's lives and values, too, or at a minimum, it can broaden any readers understanding of the complexity of weighing and balancing the laws and values of the dominant culture against the history and practices of our tribes and first nations.


Cote, Charlotte. Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors. (2010) Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.


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©2019 by Alyssa Barton