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The Whaling People of the West Coast of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery

By Eugene Arima and Alan Hoover

Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors

By Charlotte Cote

Review By Alan D. McMillan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 123-5


Whaling played a prominent role in the traditional cultures of the people who live along western Vancouver Island and around Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula. As well as its importance in the economy, whaling featured prominently in spiritual, ceremonial, and artistic traditions, and whaling success enhanced the power of chiefs. The cultural importance of whaling makes it a central theme that runs through these two books. The people of this area, who along with a few neighbours were the only active whalers along the entire British Columbia and Washington coastline, are generally known as the Nuu-chah-nulth (in British Columbia) and Makah (in Washington). A third closely-related group, the Ditidaht (and their linguistic relatives the Pacheedaht) are at the southern end of the Nuu-chah-nulth distribution. One of the books under review refers to the “Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth” throughout, subsuming the Ditidaht in the latter, whereas the other attempts to avoid the awkward nomenclature by referring to these related groups as “the Whaling People.”

Charlotte Coté, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, writes from the perspective of a Nuu-chah-nulth person, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni. Using this insider perspective along with the anthropological literature, she documents the central role of whaling in their cultures and traces the continuity of whaling traditions into the present. Archaeological evidence from the Tseshaht origin village in Barkley Sound and the major Makah site of Ozette is used to show the antiquity and dietary importance of whaling. Even after traditional practices were suppressed through government policies of assimilation and whale stocks were depleted through commercial hunting, the Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah continued to see whaling as central to their identity. Although whaling had ceased, ties to “the whaling ancestors,” Coté argues, were “maintained through songs, dances, ceremonies, and religious and artistic expressions” (68). The work of the late Art Thompson, a noted Ditidaht artist and Coté’s brother-in-law, is used to show the role of art in transmitting traditions. Two dominant images in Nuu-chah-nulth art, past and present, are Thunderbird and Whale, attesting to the cultural importance accorded whaling.

A key event in Coté’s book is the successful Makah hunt of a grey whale in 1999. Unlike the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Makah have an 1855 treaty protecting their right to whale. After commercial whaling ceased, grey whale populations rebounded to sustainable levels. A resumption of whaling was seen as a way to reinvigorate cultural traditions and reaffirm identity. A Makah Whaling Commission (MWC) was formed from the families traditionally known as whalers. Coté documents the exhaustive efforts to gain national and international clearance for this hunt, and the bitter battles that followed as opponents questioned Makah cultural and treaty rights, occasionally raising racist stereotypes. The hunt required lengthy preparation, including training, spiritual cleansing, and consultation with elders. Its aftermath was a joyous event in the Makah community of Neah Bay, as they celebrated the survival of their whaling heritage. As a former head of the MWC stated regarding the importance of whaling to their identity: “It’s who we are” (206). However, legal setbacks and government regulations have frustrated further whaling plans. The Nuu-chah-nulth watched these events with interest and incorporated provisions for future whaling into their treaty negotiations.

Coté also dedicates a chapter to restoring healthy communities today. Traditional foods, including whale meat and blubber, can play a key role. In addition to their cultural significance, such foods provide health benefits to communities suffering from high levels of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

The Whaling People, by Eugene Arima and Alan Hoover, is an updated edition of Arima’s 1983 book, The West Coast (Nootka) People, from the same publisher. Although much remains the same, this version, with a new co-author, incorporates such recent developments as the Maa-nulth treaty signed by five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations and the legal decision in the Nuu-chah-nulth fisheries case (Ahousaht et al.). As in the earlier edition, much of the text is taken up with stories and other oral traditions drawn from ethnographic sources, particularly Edward Sapir and Philip Drucker, to present information from a Nuu-chah-nulth perspective. Once again, drawings by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Tim Paul, some recycled from the previous edition and some new here, enliven the pages. Numerous photographs also enhance the text. The organization is almost identical to the first edition. Four chapters present ethnographic information, including the economic base, social organization, and the spirit realm, while one (“The Long Past of the Whaling People”) provides a sense of history, from the time before Europeans to recent events.

Although much of the historic information is valuable, the treatment of Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah life prior to European arrival is inadequate, showing little knowledge of recent archaeological research. The discussion, which is little changed from the first edition, is largely restricted to a summary of the archaeological sequence at Yuquot in Nootka Sound. Differences in excavated materials to the south, with implications for cultural change or movements of people, are ignored. Nor is there any discussion of Ozette, despite the unique insights into late precontact Makah life offered by its excellent preservation of organic materials. Unlike Coté, these authors seem unaware of archaeological information relevant to whaling practices and antiquity, particularly from sites in Barkley Sound, despite the whaling theme of the book.

A few errors and problems are evident. British Columbia entered confederation in 1871, not 1868 as stated (181). The Ahousaht are mistakenly placed in Effingham Inlet in Barkley Sound (20), when a now-extinct group with a similar name was meant. The authors name “a tribe of whalers just east of Cape Flattery” (116), apparently without realizing that the transcription refers to Ozette (a spelling they use elsewhere), on the open coast directly south of Cape Flattery. They accept without comment the claim that Chief Mokwina of Nootka Sound “ate a slave each month” (165), despite considerable uncertainty regarding the presence or extent of cannibalism. Similarly, they state that Juan de Fuca in 1592 was “the first European to visit the territory of the Whaling People” (160), when there is little evidence for an initial encounter until Spanish ships reached western Vancouver Island in 1774. Coté also errs on this point, describing Cook’s arrival four years later as “first contact” (103). Finally, placing precise group boundaries on maps may be inadvisable as such territories are contested. In The Whaling People, the Tseshaht are denied all their traditional territory along Alberni Inlet and the Somass River, where their community is located today.

Both books are “good reads,” intended for a general audience. Both are attractive, well illustrated, and reasonably priced. Numerous stories and myths (Arima and Hoover) or accounts of personal experience (Coté) add interest to the text. These volumes should do much to bring the fascinating cultures of these whaling people to wider public attention. 

Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions
by Charlotte Coté
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010., 273 pp. $24.95 paper.

The Whaling People of the West Coast of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery
by Eugene Arima and Alan Hoover
Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2011., 271 pp. $19.95 paper.