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The plan sparks environmentalist and property rights backlash that destroys these coalitions—turns case

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The plan sparks environmentalist and property rights backlash that destroys these coalitions—turns case

Blow 98

(Richard Blow, is a contributing writer to Mother Jones and a senior editor at George magazine. “The Great American Whale Hunt,” Mother Jones, September/October 1998 Issue,

IWC meetings are usually contentious, but that year's meeting was reportedly feistier than most. If the Makah had a subsistence need, opponents said, then so did aboriginal peoples around the world who also had not whaled for decades. Already, representatives from Canadian tribes were proclaiming that they intended to follow the Makah's lead. The United States, environmentalists pointed out, was broadening the definition of aboriginal subsistence whaling in a way that could undermine the whale-hunting moratorium. The IWC's dryly written meeting report speaks volumes about the extent of opposition to the United States' plea: "France… asked how subsistence requirements could arise after 70 years of non-whaling.… The Netherlands expressed concern at the widening of the scope of whaling activities…. The People's Republic of China…regretted that the request was not completely in accordance with the IWC definition of aboriginal subsistence…. Oman asked why the Makah, who had survived without whaling for 70 years, could not continue to survive without whaling…. Australia questioned whether IWC nutritional subsistence criteria had been met…. Chile expressed its doubts…. The People's Republic of China and New Zealand had similar concerns on continuity and need, a position shared by Mexico…." Japan, however, "commended the USA's presentation and expressed understanding of the welfare of the Makah." Meanwhile, the reported coziness between the Makah and the Japanese delegation aroused the suspicions of the anti-whaling groups -- Sea Shepherd, PAWS -- that believed the Japanese had either put the Makah up to the hunt, or were covertly backing them. After all, in 1996, the year of that conference, Japan and Norway had kicked in at least $20,000, according to the Seattle Times, to help start a pro-whaling group, the World Council of Whalers, just across the strait from Neah Bay in British Columbia. Even if the Japanese couldn't immediately buy the Makah's whale meat, the hunt was one more assault on the whaling moratorium. Opposition to the U.S. was so vehement that Baker withdrew the Makah proposal, announcing that he would bring it up at the next IWC meeting, in Monaco in 1997. Why had NOAA decided to support the Makah hunt in the first place? Whaling, Baker says, "has always been a part of their culture." Even though they haven't whaled for more than 70 years? "They have occasionally come upon stranded whales and have had no problems dealing with those, butchering them, and sharing them with various members of the tribe," Baker insists, incorrectly. In any case, is the memory of the whale in a tribe's artistic culture enough to satisfy IWC requirements for aboriginal subsistence whaling, including the criteria for continuing nutritional need? Baker says yes. What is clear is that the Makah's treaty right allowing them to whale put the government in an awkward position, torn between an international moratorium and a historical treaty. Which took precedence? NOAA didn't want to test either one. Challenge the whaling moratorium, and the agency would ignite international fury, not to mention the wrath of domestic environmental groups. But contest the Makah's treaty, and it would risk a political firestorm from all American Indians, all of whom live under similar treaties with the federal government. Says one source close to the U.S. delegation at the time, "One hundred percent of the U.S. decision to back these guys was based on the U.S. not wanting to be in court." The issue was sensitive enough for Baker to seek a sign-off from the White House -- specifically, according to several sources, the Council on Environmental Quality in the office of the president. Elliot Diringer, spokesman for the council, confirms that "the vice president was kept apprised." According to Diringer, "The way things generally work is that agencies proceed and keep us advised of what they're doing, and if somebody feels a course adjustment is needed, they let it be known." So Baker proceeded with what became NOAA's strategy: the argument that, in fact, there is no conflict between the Makah's treaty right and the moratorium on whaling because the Makah are a legitimate candidate for the aboriginal subsistence exemption. At the IWC meeting in Monaco in 1997, the U.S. tried again, this time succeeding. In a "fact sheet" handed out by NOAA, the agency presented its case: "Subsistence hunting includes far more than physical survival. It is a way of life that includes historical practices and is the cultural 'glue' that holds the Tribe together." That definition surprised many who were present. "If you set a precedent that changes the standard for the meaning of aboriginal whaling so that it becomes simply a cultural need, where do you draw the line?" asks one American observer. "Somebody tells me that Japanese whaling is not cultural? Bullshit. Of course it is. This [precedent] was what the whalers wanted." Under pressure from the American delegation, the IWC accepted a secretly negotiated plan under which the Makah would be allotted a kill of up to four whales a year, out of nine attempts. When the Makah heard the news, McCarty says, the tribe erupted in celebration. "People stopped all their work, they got in their cars, honking their horns like someone got married. It was like winning the Super Bowl." This is a fight that has shattered traditional political alignments. Liberals in Washington state have been quiet about the Makah hunt, perhaps finding it uncomfortable to criticize an Indian tribe that claims to be fighting for its cultural survival. Greenpeace says it opposes the hunt but doesn't have the resources to do anything about it. A spokesman for the Sierra Club says, in the tortured language of politics, "At this point, the Sierra Club has decided to take a position of not opposing the whaling rights of the Makah tribe." But the Makah are still exposed to attacks from one of their longtime foes, Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.), who has filed suit in the District Court of Washington, D.C., to stop the hunt, challenging that NOAA's new policy violates the government's own environmental laws. Metcalf, however, is an unlikely environmentalist -- he's a supporter of the "property rights" movement and receives low ratings from green groups in Washington, D.C. And Metcalf does have a long history of opposing American Indian rights. "The United States government," Metcalf says, "[is] biased in favor of giving Indians special rights. I just disagree with that." His beliefs can be traced to his childhood. Metcalf's father was a commercial fisherman who bought land on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, east of Neah Bay, just before the Depression hit, and then had to work 18-hour days to keep it. Metcalf grew up and became a public school teacher with some ardently conservative -- some would say far-right -- beliefs (he has, for example, written a book calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve). Metcalf, 70, and his wife of 50 years, Norma, built their house on his father's land, using trees from the property. Pulling into the driveway of that home, which they have converted into a bed-and-breakfast, it's easy to pass right by the congressman. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, he is bent over, hoeing a row of corn. Lanky and white-haired, Metcalf ambles over and offers a dirty hand through the car window. Elected to Congress in 1994, he was the oldest member of the Republican freshman class of '94, and among its most conservative. In 1996 he retained his seat by a narrow margin, and this year he's running against a bona fide political celebrity: Democrat Margarethe Cammermeyer, a former officer expelled from the Army for being a lesbian whose story became a TV movie starring Glenn Close. Cammermeyer's Hollywood connections -- Close and Barbra Streisand have thrown fundraising bashes for her -- are helping her amass a campaign war chest likely to top $1 million. Metcalf's aides admit that they hope the Makah issue can peel away some Democratic voters disaffected by her noncommittal stance. According to her press secretary, J.R. Baker, Cammermeyer "really hasn't taken a position" on the hunt. "It's a hot-button issue, and we're trying to stay away from hot-button issues," Baker explains, pointing out that the Makah aren't even in Metcalf's district. Asked why he's fighting the Makah, Metcalf tells a story of how once, as a young man, while fishing with his father, they drifted among a pod of orcas. (Later, while doing a news database search, I found the same story, almost verbatim, in several other articles.) Walking along the beach, Metcalf talks about the fishing he loves when, without warning, he bends down and plunges his arms into the wet sand up to the elbows. Burrowing with his hands, he throws chunks of sand behind him, like a kid building a sand castle. Finally he reaches out, holding up a shrimp, 5 or 6 inches long, with one short pincer and one long one waving frantically. Couldn't eat them, he says, though the flesh makes good bait. He then gives the shrimp a yank with both hands and tears it in half to show its pulpy meat. Without breaking his stride, he tosses the two halves onto the beach; the top half continues to squirm on the sand as he strolls away. "The whaling would certainly relieve the boredom of a few young Makah people," Metcalf says. Even if his suit fails, he believes the Makah will face a backlash. "In the long run, the tribe will lose."

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